The resort in question is Telluride, but it’s not a Telluride that anyone who lives here or has visited will quickly recognize. Rubadeau is a satirist who draws on what are clearly recognizable tropes to invent a resort more akin to, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s universe in The Great Gatsby: full of spoiled heiresses, thwarted dreamers, gilded excess, and greed.
Not that the real Telluride lacks for any of the above, making Rubadeau’s allusion apt.
There is a lot going on in this novel, a product not only of a fertile, if somewhat perverse imagination, but also a local writer’s movement largely spearheaded by Rubadeau himself. Locally written, edited, published and marketed; drawing on local settings, scenery, and – very loosely – local characters, the book is self-described as “a Telluride murder mystery.” As if this were a genre unto itself, which it just might be.
The corpses not only pile up in Gatsby’s Last Resort, but do so without much alarming the local populace, an early clue that realism is not of much concern to the author. (You may, in fact, lose track of the victims, as in Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, also set in a remote mountain town, which may be precisely the point.) This is a Telluride where the Valley Floor is an object not of sacred but of the most profane imaginable veneration, coveted by the Church of Compassionate Caring, based in nearby Sodoma, Arizona, whose purpose is frankly to enable gay orgies and exploit tax loopholes. And yes, that’s Sodoma with an “m.” Is Rubadeau possibly suggesting something about thinly veiled sanctimoniousness right here in Telluride? And with nothing less than the Valley Floor as the object of desire?
The author does demonstrate a wicked lack of sensitivity about certain local values, for which this reader was appreciative. There are no sacred cows on Bob Rubadeau’s Valley Floor!
Rubadeau’s hero, Wilfred I. Thorpe, a.k.a. Wit – the I stands for idiot and wit is the characteristic he most conspicuously lacks – is a Ute who has made a living as a Telluride private eye after losing his job for the ski area, owing to a bad temper. He is the prototypical detective as dupe, always the last to understand how he is being used by virtually everyone in town, each for his or her own nefarious purpose, easily set up as the hapless fall guy. Wit is as unreliable a narrator as might be conceived, not only slow on the uptake but hopelessly lost in quasi-pornographic fantasies that he tries in vain to convert into literature. Indeed, Wit’s literary aspirations may be the most futile of his many hopeless endeavors.
The story is propelled not so much by its narrative, which is purposefully both intricate and far-fetched, as it is by set pieces – a rappel out of a gondola car to escape a tail, a Grand Jury proceeding in Judge Annie’s county court, car chases, not-so-veiled threats of bodily injury, and failed seductions – featuring the large cast of characters and their ever-ready wisecracks. There is Wit’s fifth grade daughter, Cody, who can boast of all the brains Wit lacks, is a far better detective and is dating an older woman, a brazen seventh grader named Denver; the billionaire dowager whose ex-husbands are both the murder victims and the captains of the Church of Compassionate Caring (did she drive them all to it? or kill them herself?); Wit’s sidekick, a failed attorney turned barber, with whom Wit shares a fatalistic philosophy; and bunch of denizens of the New Sheridan bar ranging from Rasta Joey to the one-eyed bartender Digger to the town’s most successful real estate broker, a fabulous blonde named Patsy Susie Blaze.
Just who might have been the inspiration for this sexy and lovable villain?
There is also a redheaded femme fatale, who may or may not be entirely real. Or if the character is real – since she is the daughter of one murder victim, the wife of another and the half sister to a third, she seems as real as any other character in the book – her behaviors are ambiguous at best. Is she or is she not deliberately toying with Wit’s lurid fantasies, which are not only sexual but attitudinal, since he fancies himself a successor to Philip Marlow, et al? And if she is working him, then to what end? Poor Wit hasn’t got a clue, and so we can’t tell either.
It’s not always easy to keep it all straight, as the characters are more interconnected than even a native Tellurider might imagine could be humanly possible. What we locals, and what any reader, can easily grasp is the level of greed inspired by the landscape, most specifically symbolized by the Valley Floor. Could the War of the Floor, in reality, have led to a series of bizarre murders? Given the passions it aroused, no doubt it could have, and this has been Rubadeau’s central premise, in a narrative sense.
For a reader, the pleasures are in the riffs, the off-handed observations, the simulacrums to the real Telluride some of us are lucky enough to inhabit; and a plot that pays off when fantasy and reality, such as it is in these pages, collide, and the satire reaches a dizzying level of laugh-out-loud nuttiness.
At novel’s end, somehow it doesn’t seem all that satiric at all, but rather an original take on what Telluride might indeed be at its core: home to a bunch of wily eccentrics, idealistic yet corrupted by a staggering level of avarice and lust, careening from disaster to disaster. Or, to put it more simply: just-plain-insane.