Set in the 1950’s, this film noir style detective drama by Jay Strongman lightens up the literary scene with a clever who-done-it. Ritual of the Savage stars former Marine and Iwo Jima survivor Johnny Davis, a womanizing private eye attempting to acclimate to Los Angeles thirteen years after World War II. As you comb through this novel, you stumble upon a collection of lies stitched together to illuminate a mystery. Davis’ ex-wife, Vicki Bradley, urgently reaches out about her brother Eddie. Eddie is an employee of Star Crest pharmaceuticals, a giant corporation based in Palm Springs. When Davis arrives to the Bradley’s Palm Springs residence, he discovers a dead body, and the drama ensues from there. Strongmen’s dated vernacular (Davis only refers to coffee as “java”) and detailed descriptors help set the scene of Los Angeles in the late 50s, bringing to mind gangsters and starlets and the eventual social evolution towards the radical change the 60’s brought to Americans. His complex cast of characters are foreign enough to qualify as a period piece, but also possess characteristics that are relatable enough to close the gap of the decades.
The title is based on a record by Les Baxter, known to be on the face of the American “exotica” movement – tribal music of indigenous peoples – that became popular in the years following WWII. When Davis arrives at Eddie’s apartment, the formula to the drug Eddie has created that supposedly opens the “doors to perception” is hidden in the sleeve of his Ritual of the Savage album cover. This ties in nicely to the Tiki theme that lurks around every corner, as well as Davis’ trip to Hawaii in the second half of the book. Strongman has created a world where drugs, women, family, islands and alcohol all play prominent roles, and yet there is an earnestness to Johnny Davis that makes him a lovable protagonist. Even when he’s being a complete ass, you want to root for him. You want him to get it together so you can see what happens next.
Despite the incredulity of this narrative, there is something captivating about a man coming to grips with his own humanity amidst helping another person get a handle on theirs. Davis confronts his alcoholism, his infidelity, and his struggles with assimilating into society after the war, and Strongman does it in a way that exhibits Davis doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s one of the best aspects of this book, and makes me curious about what other shenanigans Johnny Davis, private eye, will get into next.
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