Carter & Lovecraft, a new book by Jonathan Howard, is hard to classify. It’s not exactly a mystery, though there are several mysterious deaths in it, and the main character, Dan Carter, was formerly a police officer and is now a private investigator (a fairly common trope for mystery novels). It’s not exactly a speculative fiction book, either, though there are enough strange things going on which do not follow the ordinary laws of physics as we know them. However you characterize it, though, Carter & Lovecraft is a blast, a book that draws you in and won’t let you go until you’ve reached the bizarre but fitting ending that ties everything together.
Dan Carter used to be a police officer, but his last case changed his life. He and his partner had tracked down a truly strange and warped serial killer who performed amateur brain surgery on young boys (see what I mean about strange and warped?). They’d cornered the killer in his house, where he had inexplicably led them, and Carter’s partner, acting completely out of character, shot the man in the gut and stood over him to watch him die. Carter walked out of the room for a moment to find the latest victim of the killer, and he returned just in time to see his partner kill himself, also out of the blue and very much out of character.
Carter, freaked out by his partner’s behavior and also by what the police department finds out about the serial killer, leaves the police department and hangs up his shingle as a private investigator, but almost as soon as he does, he’s visited by a man purporting to be an attorney for the estate of a Mr. Hill, whom Carter has never even heard of but who, according to the lawyer, has left Carter his entire estate, consisting of a building in Providence, Rhode Island. When Carter goes to take a look at his inheritance, he discovers it’s a bookstore specializing in antique and hard to find books, and the woman running the bookstore, one Emily Lovecraft, has no idea her store was going to be deeded over to a complete stranger. She’s a bit mollified when Carter agrees to give her half the bookstore, but neither one of them can understand why they’ve been thrown together this way.
And then more bizarre things start happening, and Carter is unwillingly drawn into their vortex: a professor drowns in his car in the middle of a parking lot, but there’s no water anywhere in the car or in the vicinity. A young man goes to a casino and breaks the bank against all odds, and after he’s escorted out of the place, the head of the casino dies in an utterly inexplicable fashion. There’s a bizarre section of Providence occupied by a seemingly inbred group of people who have lived there for centuries, who are starting to take an interest in Carter. As Carter starts investigating, he is himself attacked in a most horrifying way by the person he’s trailing.
This is the kind of book where, even if you think you know where it’s going, you’re always surprised. You don’t have to know about H.P. Lovecraft and his work to enjoy this book, though of course if you’re familiar with his stories you will find added sneaky delights as you encounter twenty first century riffs on some of his characters (and I will not say more lest I give away some of the pleasures of the plot). Even Dan’s last name evokes the famous Randolph Carter, a character in some of Lovecraft’s more warped stories, and there’s a reason for that, as well as a reason why these two seemingly disparate characters should have been brought together in this place at this time.
Carter & Lovecraft isn’t for everyone, certainly. There are some pretty gruesome things alluded to, though the author wisely suggests the horrors rather than dwelling on them (your own imagination will do the rest), and the climax of the book, which ties everything together in a satisfying (if still strange) way, is mind-bending in a way that not everybody will appreciate. But if you have a taste for H. P. Lovecraft, or if you just enjoy a book that’s different and enthralling and warped, give it a try. You won’t regret it (though you may never go to Providence, Rhode Island, again).