“The Graceland Conspiracy”
Author: Philip Shirley
Publisher: Mindbridge Press
Price: $17.99 (Paper)
Philip Shirley has been working at the writer’s trade now through six books, including “Sweet Spot,” a nonfiction work on baseball, a collection of short stories, “Oh Don’t You Cry for Me,” and “The White Lie,” a thriller set in Mississippi. “The Graceland Conspiracy” is also a full-length thriller, but with a much larger geographical scope, complete with secret government agencies, clues to follow, riddles to solve and as much movement as anyone could easily stand.
The novel opens in 1999 in a poolroom in Texas, east of San Antonio. The hero, Matt Boykin, outnumbered, is about to be beaten up when a stranger in a dark suit appears to help him. Men in dark suits appear often in this novel.
The mysterious stranger, who turns out to be his father’s buddy, tells Matt to call home and he does, learning that his father has been grievously injured in a car wreck.
Matt had left Birmingham some seven years earlier, fed up with his father, Marshall Boykin, who, after a long career as a harmless bookkeeper in a government agency, had suddenly become an intolerable drunk. Matt, by the way, is no piker himself when it comes to heavy drinking.
More men in dark suits, his father’s colleagues, come to the funeral. Shortly afterwards, Matt’s mother commits suicide, or so it seems.
On his hospital deathbed, Boykin senior had told Matt to “look behind the refrigerator.”
He does, and the action commences.
He finds a lot of money, with a long note assuring him it is legal, several fake passports and other papers, and a spool of film. His father reveals that his job at the National Security Enforcement Office in Unit C4 was not as mundane as Matt thought, and he had become disillusioned with his work. Unit C4 we are told, did jobs the FBI was reluctant to undertake.
Now Matt has some mysteries to solve: his father’s death, his mother’s, and the implications of an odd piece of film which seems to show a celebrity being taken against his will from his bedroom.
As the title suggests, the celebrity is Elvis, who perhaps did not die as reported, in his toilet.
Several years ago in an interview I was told by Steve Berry, author of “The Amber Room” and “The Romanov Prophesy,” that he couldn’t get his work published until Dan Brown and “The Da Vinci Code.” After that, publishers wanted all his manuscripts.
“The Da Vinci Code” set the pattern for what would be called the airport thriller, as Professor Langdon and Sophie Neveu moved in Paris from The Louvre to a private bank, to the French countryside, to the airport, to London, to the British countryside, at each step following clues, interpreting ancient rhymed texts, solving the mystery—which itself is a centuries-old conspiracy involving whether Jesus was married, Opus Dei, the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, and so on.
To this day, that formula has, for better or worse, fantastic staying power.
Although she is at first reluctant, Matt reunites with his old girlfriend Kristine. In danger, able to trust no one, they move around Birmingham then flee, arbitrarily, to Texas, then Mexico, then Brussels, Munich, and finally Venice. Unlike the peregrinations of Professor Langdon and Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code, their destinations are arbitrary. They are not seeking or following up on clues; they are simply running from the men in dark suits.
In Venice, Matt and Kristine are aided, extensively, and it seemed to me for no really good reason, by a Professor Strozzi, an old Italian aristocrat with seemingly unlimited resources, several villas here and there, and a small private army. Matt and the professor met when Strozzi, a Ruskin expert, saw Matt reading John Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice.”
Even though Matt and Kristine are staying in the hotel Ruskin favored, it seemed me extremely unlikely that he would be reading this difficult Victorian tome.
In Venice, through books and by computer, they research the life and death of Elvis. Much is learned, including the bizarre but true story of how Elvis, who collected badges, believe it or not, was “deputized” by President Nixon as a drug enforcement agent, and how Elvis may have sent in reports naming drug users, which seems improbable.
Was Elvis alive in 1998, living in Michigan? Had he been a federal agent? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? If reading about conspiracy theories and frantic, perpetual movement is pleasing, “The Graceland Conspiracy” may be for you.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.