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Truth or Darrow

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Shrinking the Truth
By Marc Darrow
Otter B Books; 218 pages; $9.95 paper



Santa Cruz mystery writer Marc Darrow weaves a tale of murder and spiritual rebirth

By Traci Hukill

THERE'S NO TELLING what will happen when word gets out about Marc Darrow's Shrinking the Truth. It could be the book that makes mystery fans out of the decidedly mystery-indifferent. Perhaps it will generate a new wave of enthusiasm for Santa Cruz, causing that swollen little burg to pop another asphalt seam.

Then again, it could engender a revolution in consciousness whereby all people accept the sweeping power of possibility, embrace their own divinity (and that of an aesthetically pleasing partner) and start leading fuller, more satisfied lives. Take your pick--all these possibilities reside in the convoluted and humorous follow-up to Darrow's The Santa Cruz Guru Murders.

Starring Tom Dalziel, a bumbling psychotherapist who is blessed with burn scars, a bad leg and a sweet tooth, the action tracks the unfolding of a serial-murder mystery. At the same time, the story traces the ideological deconstruction of Dalziel and his subsequent spiritual transformation.

As a psychotherapist (read: skeptical, analytical, indoctrinated-within-inches-of-his-soul Westerner), Dalziel finds himself mildly discontent with his life at the novel's outset. But he is comfortable inside that life--a compromised state of being that he realizes he shares with his clients. "Most people work at least as hard on maintaining the status quo as they do on changing, regardless of whose office they've dragged themselves into," he muses. "[A]s miserable as I often was, it was what I knew."

Enter George Arundel, a big, balding guy with multiple personality disorder and the first client who has piqued Dalziel's interest in some time. A host of other characters wander into the story in George's wake: an environmental activist who can see auras (Dalziel's is purple with gold at the heart), a Lotus-driving guru, a gorgeous artist obsessed with a vision she once had of an angel, a smiling border collie. With each new character comes a new knot in a dense configuration of romance, deception, petty crime and murder.

The ins and outs of the plot are fascinating in their own right, but Darrow's real area of expertise is the human psyche. With an unerring instinct for how the average well-intentioned but insecure Joe behaves under stress, Darrow crafts a ragged, rugged road of psychological disorientation for Dalziel to traverse.

The gateway to that route is a simple suggestion, followed by a bizarre chain of coincidences, that wreaks havoc with his philosophical matrix--in other words, it rocks his world. So closely does Darrow follow the struggling Dalziel's psychological process that it's impossible not to understand why he's so confused.

UNABLE to explain away the timing and order of events that occur first at the periphery, then in the center, of his life, Dalziel soon finds himself mired in a philosophical dilemma that quickly escalates to a full-blown crisis in his entire belief system. If the very foundation of his world view is flawed, how does he trust anything he thinks? If science and logic aren't the fuel that keeps the world's pistons firing, what is? If anything is possible, then where is there to hide? Big questions for a genre usually more interested in whodunit than why they did it.

In the time-honored tradition of the spiritual acolyte, Dalziel clings to his old way of thinking until it leads toward its inevitable end--destruction. After Dalziel has finally made the necessary leap of faith, an ironic twist calls into question whether the jump was indeed necessary. But Darrow is kinder than he could be to his creation, and by book's end, we revel in Dalziel's newfound freedom, regardless of how he got there.

Dense, archetypal stuff, all this business of resistance and acceptance, death and rebirth. But Darrow has the gift of making it light. The psychospiritual subplot is merely woven into the fabric of a captivating mystery, flecked with a genuinely funny variety of self-mockery and studded with philosophical gems.

The most mundane mysteryphile could munch the story down like a big fat tart and not be too annoyed by the ripe chunks of spiritual truth. On the other hand, the average quasi-New-Age Californian can focus on Darrow's Zenlike pronouncements and happily accept whatever plot twists come along. And the typical Santa Cruzan can indulge in a self-congratulatory game of Oh-I-Know-Where-That-Is.

Darrow takes us to Seabright, the wharf, Beach Hill and Cedar Street. We pop into Cafe Beatrice (a thinly veiled Jahva House), a bookstore near the downtown library that can only be The Literary Guillotine, and a Cafe Neo that's more than likely the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. It's a cheap thrill bound to make the reading a little more fun for Santa Cruz natives and frequent visitors alike.

Not that Shrinking the Truth needs much help in the fun department. It's a smart, funny book with a plot that pulls a reader onto a roller coaster ride, and it has something worthwhile to say besides. What more could it need?

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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