Charles de Lint,
(Ace, 1985; Orb, 2003)

It starts with a fire, a rescued fiddle and a grisly murder.

Mulengro, a long out-of-print novel by Charles de Lint, has been reissued -- and it's about time. The story focuses on the Rom, modern gypsies living in Canada, who -- despite some modern adaptations, such as big, gas-guzzling cars instead of caravan wagons -- continue to live outside the mainstream: secretive, mysterious and distrustful of strangers.

But, insular or not, de Lint has written about the Rom society like a native, delving deeply into customs, traditions and psyches -- and mysticism, an exotic belief system very different from the Celtic and Native American mythologies more frequently tapped in de Lint's work.

The novel features a varied cast, starting with Janfri la Yayal, a Boshengro (Rom fiddler) posing as John Owczarek as he negotiates the mainstream music industry, and Ola, a seer who lives outside of Rom society because of her gifts. Ola has telekinetic mastery of familiar objects and her boon companion, Boboko, is a talking cat. Both gypsy outsiders are touched when a dark man -- dubbed Mulengro by a gypsy wisewoman for his mastery of mule, or ghosts -- begins killing gypsies deemed marhime, or unclean in Rom society.

Characters range far and wide, both Rom and Gaje (non-Rom), such as Big George, the informal leader of gypsies in the Ottawa region, and Yojo, Janfri's soul brother. Briggs and Sandler are the city detectives tracking the killer -- who are not prepared to deal with the supernatural elements of the case. Jeff Owen is Ola's writing collaborator, drawn into the drama when he tries to protect her from a pair of brutish thugs; the Gourlay brothers provide an extra layer of danger. Dr. Rainbow, a Sixties throwback, provides some comic relief in his initial appearances, but he too is changed by the darkness of events that surround and overwhelm him.

Through it all, Janfri and Ola separately bridge the gap between the disparate cultures.

The novel unfolds as the killer stalks Rom and Gaje alike; the murders grow increasingly horrific and bloody, and a solution to the threat he presents seems increasingly elusive. The climax is a whirlwind of violence -- readers may be shocked by some plot developments along the way -- but the ultimate closure comes abruptly. The final twist is startling and is not the ending I expected -- but de Lint knows what he's doing, and the desperation of the concluding pages feels appropriate to the circumstance.

The author once told me that, had Samuel M. Key existed as a pseudonym in 1985, when Mulengro was first published, the novel would have been released in that psychological horror line. It is certainly a much darker novel than de Lint fans may be accustomed to unless they've read the Key books -- From a Whisper to a Scream, I'll Be Watching You and Angel of Darkness -- but it exhibits his usual mastery of characterization and rich story development.

Mulengro will keep readers turning pages from the edge of their seats. Too long out of print, it's good to see this one back on the shelves where it belongs.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 November 2003

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