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Nightwing

Novel by Martin Cruz Smith (USA) 1977.

Youngman Duran is a deputy on an American Indian reservation. He is also about the only friend to the ancient priest Abner Tasupi. When Abner tells him that he is going to end the world, Youngman is naturally unbelieving. But Abner dies that night, and other people and animals start dying as well. Soon Youngman realises that it is the start of an epidemic of pneumonic plague, and the reservation has to go into quarantine. The big problem is working out what is spreading the plague. Only one man seems to know, a fanatic bat killer, who has followed a flock of vampire bats from Mexico where they killed his father.

This is an interesting novel, and a good one to boot, but Smith's only horror novel (he is well known for thrillers like Gorky Park, as well as writing more obscure mystical detective stories like Canto for a Gypsy and Gypsy in Amber) is not much of a horror novel: the horror here takes a supporting role. In Bats Out of Hell, Guy N Smith also dealt with deadly bats causing mass death, but he wrote the book as a gore novel, with plenty of gratuitous horror and death. Here Martin Cruz Smith has essentially written a novel about an Indian man's quest for himself, finding his destiny in a way he never thought possible. This inward search is played on all through the book, and is embodied in the Hopi Questions: listed before the novel starts, and repeated almost at the end of the book in the words of a song.

Maybe the book is partly autobiographical, as Smith is himself half Pueblo Indian. Because of this, it isn't too surprising that he has an excellent insight into the Indian life, including its history, religion and culture. He writes about Indians with such clarity that, though he doesn't use stereotypes, the reader can begin to understand where stereotypes came from. Set in an Indian reservation and featuring Indians as many of the principal characters, Smith has gone against the trend, as those horror novels which do feature Indians tend to cast them as antagonists or villains: even though the horror of the story could all stem from Abner, the Hopi priest, he doesn't seem to be portrayed as the bad guy; more than anything he's more of an Indian than the rest. Smith also has a good turn of phrase and his descriptions tend to be lucid, for example, "Air moved like a dancer with a dragging foot over the sandy ground, rattling dry seed pods." And he marries the mystical with the scientific beautifully: there's an interesting theory about the interdependence of mankind, vampire bats and the plague bacillus. All in all, well worth reading, but don't expect too much in the way of graphic gore.


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