Cover image for Quit monks or die!
Quit monks or die!
Kumin, Maxine, 1925-2014.
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Publication Information:
Ashland, OR : Story Line Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
183 pages ; 23 cm
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Set in a small town that houses little more than a research lab and an engineering school, the body of the lab's director is found in a pit used for maternal deprivation experiments with monkeys. A few days later, a graduate student is found murdered as well. Are these deaths connected? And who's responsible for these murders? Written by one of America's greatest poets, this mystery is a scathing social commentary with a criminal twist. Maxine Kumin is the author of poetry, novels, short stories, essays and a number of children's books. She has received several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Poets' Prize, the Levinson Prize, and most recently, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She lives in Warner, New Hampshire.

Author Notes

Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She received a BA and a MA from Radcliffe College. In the 1950s, she enrolled in a poetry writing course at the Boston Center for Adult Education. The course led to the publication of poems in Harper's and The New Yorker. Her first collection of poems, Halfway, was published in 1961. Her other poetry collections include Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, Still to Mow, and And Short the Season. She received several awards including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, and the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country: Poems of New England. She also wrote four novels, short stories, a memoir entitled Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery, essay collections, and children's books. She died of natural causes on February 6, 2014 at the age of 88.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Poet and essayist Kumin has dispensed with lyricism in her first murder mystery, but her love of animals, which permeates her poetic works, is present in full force as the impetus for this neatly plotted tale. The setting is a small California desert town dependent on the Grayson Research Laboratory for its economic well-being. A prestigious behavioral sciences facility, Grayson is known for its work with children, but its arrogant director, Hal, is also conducting cruel and clandestine experiments with monkeys. Word has gotten out, however, and all kinds of folks are riled, including Hal's children, the twins Rachel and Reuben, and his own twin brother, Vance, his opposite in temperament and values. As monkeys disappear, affairs are revealed, and corpses are discovered, Kumin nimbly switches points of view among a circle of likable characters, including Diego "Digger" Martinez, the town's overweight, forthright, and patient chief of police. Kumin's big challenge here was to avoid didacticism while voicing her outrage over animal testing, and, fine storyteller that she is, she succeeds. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Here's a genuine sleeper: a small book from a nonprofit literary press ostensibly about the subject of animal rights, which turns out to be one of the best mysteries of the year. Of course, it helps that Kumin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Up Country, 1973), as well as a novelist, essayist and writer of memorable children's books. This short novel bristles with richly developed characters. There's the Baranoff family: Dr. Hal, the brilliant but widely disliked director of a psychological research institute in a small town on the edge of Southern California's desert; his fraternal twin brother, Vance, a once promising novelist now living on his brother's reluctant charity while consoling Hal's wife, Susie; Hal's own teenage fraternal twins, Rachel and Reuben, both disturbed by their father's experiments involving the effects of separating monkey mothers and babies. Around them circle a resourceful old police chief, a dying cowboy and a determined graduate student who is both Hal's kinky mistress and the person who handles the details of his cruel experiments. "Actually, she found acting out her daytime part more degrading than being a dominatrix," Kumin writes. "Sadomasochistic sex play was only a game. Behavioral psych was the gateway to a career." The plot is a masterpiece of construction: two kidnappings (one simian, one human) lead to two deaths (only one of which is obviously a murder). And while Kumin never actually misdirects, she doles out her essential pieces in such a fiendishly clever manner that not until the last few pages will even the sharpest readers be able to put the whole puzzle together. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Emphasis on characterization helps this short mystery into a higher literary class, as author Kumin delves into the controversial world of animal-rights activism. The uniqueness of this subject as a mystery milieu adds an exotic flavor to the otherwise academic setting. In a small town in the Southwest, Dr. Harold Baranoff, director of the Graysmith Research Laboratory, is found dead in a monkeys' pit used for maternal deprivation experiments. A few days later, the director's young female graduate student is found murdered. Complicating matters are the activities of the Mercy Bandits, a group of animal-rights terrorists. Kumin, winner of numerous literary prizes, including a Pulitzer, presents the reader with a small town's gamut of characters, contrasting the natives with the behaviorists who have taken up residence. Ultimately, no character seems emotionally compelling; the big-eyed monkeys reap the sympathyÄand maybe that's the point. For large mystery collections.ÄMargaret A. Smith, Grace A. Dow Memorial Lib., Midland, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One DREW DEVERAUX was in his mid-forties. Wiry, bandy-legged and ferret-faced, he moved even now with the macho grace of a cowboy, a man who has met and overcome rampaging cattle, invading coyotes and blown down fences. He woke on Easter Sunday morning in his apartment on Quincy Street, a scythe-shaped sweep of three rooms over a bodega and a flower shop on one of Napara's quieter downtown corners. No bars, no furtive sales of controlled substances taking place under the sodium lights.     St. Vincent's Hospital stood cattycorner to the bodega. The wails of ambulances coming in at all hours punctuated Drew's nights. Since he slept only fitfully, he found the throbbing notes oddly comforting. Others were in equal or worse pain. Others, too, were looking death in the teeth.     He got up slowly, rubbing at the bone aches along his spine, where new tumors were doubtless erupting like baby teeth. Three years ago the surgeons had lifted a fat loop encrusted with tumors out of his intestine and sewn the pieces back together. Three months of chemo, of puking and lassitude, had thrust him back into the misery of his childhood, a long, lonely road.     Always, though, he put up a good front. "Just keep that fucking priest out of my room," he'd said to Joanna during the first hospitalization.     Joanna Hammerling, a highly regarded sculptor in metal, who was, come to think of it, his best friend, unwrapped a stick of Juicyfruit gum with her big knobby fingers. Drew bit down on it gratefully. Gum and quartered lemons; they were as much as he could tolerate.     "He gives me the creeps tiptoeing around in here. Preparing me to meet my maker. If I'm gonna die, I want to do it my way."     "What's your way?"     "I don't know yet, do!? But no mumbo jumbo."     "Kicking and screaming, you mean." She had marched into the nurses' station, he could hear her command growling all the way down the hall. "Mr. Deveraux does not wish to be absolved, confessed, forgiven, or saved. No clergy to be admitted, is that understood?"     Once the treatments were over he gradually came back to himself. He could taste food again, appreciate the sweat on the outside of a good cold beer. The surgeons had done a clever job of resectioning. Thank God he didn't have to wear a bag.     He was back to work and in the clear for almost two years before the crab bit into his liver. They took half of it out. Livers were amazing; they could regenerate. The blood tests every six weeks for invasive cells were negative. Life, even without another swallow of beer, now forbidden, began to seem possible again. He'd left Graysmith and gone to work at Joanna's, helping with the welding now that most of the animals were gone and he was off stable duty. He fussed around the studio, kept the grounds tidy, but she could see that everything was an effort. He wasn't sorry when she decided to hire a kid to help out.     Before he'd taken the custodial job at Joanna Hammerling's ranch, Drew had been head maintenance man at the Graysmith Lab. He'd wetmopped miles of tile floors, scrubbed urinals and toilets, scoured graffiti off stall doors and performed a dozen minor repairs to stuck windows and broken chair legs. When the top floor was converted to animal research, blood began to appear in Drew's stools. And when he went on sick leave after the surgery, his boss found an excuse to replace him with this spic Manuel something, a greaser he could put on the payroll for two bucks less an hour than Drew had been pulling down. Man-well; even the name was a reproach. Not that he gave a rat's ass that the guy was Mexican and spoke with an accent. He himself was Cajun, though the only French he had retained was merde and foutoir . But it was lousy this poor slob was getting screwed just so the rich Jew director could put more gas in his new BMW.     That rich Jew director, though, had been better to his mother than he had been. Every time he came home to make a fresh start with Lottie she ended up hitting the bottle again. She knew it was poison, she said so whenever she was sober and sometimes she was sober for long stretches. But she couldn't keep it up. Hadn't he beaten her up a couple of times when she was crazy drunk out of her mind? And wasn't Lottie drunk a circus act gone to hell?     For that matter, when he got a couple of beers in him, didn't he go a little crazy himself? Only spics use knives , he'd said once to some faceless guys in a bar; he had no respect for that kind of brawling, preferred his fists in a fair fight. Well, that was long ago and far away, when he'd been a real working stiff, not this broken down herring-gutted fool.     Even before the kid she'd hired was in place afternoons and weekends, Drew moved out of Joanna Hammerling's bunkhouse to the apartment in Napara. He told Joanna he needed to be close to St. Vincent's since he planned to die there. But he promised her that he would come by often, that he was on call whenever she had something for him to do.     In the beginning he would have said she was the kind of rich-bitch eccentric he despised. Rich enough to buy her way into the best breeding stock, rich enough to summon the priciest vets, pay top dollar for the fanciest frozen semen. But there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for her animals, and, as time went on, for him. She was the salt of the earth. If he could have said the word adore , he would have said it about her. The only time that word got used in his experience was in church, where you adored the Almighty. If you went to church. He'd given it up years ago.     Now, though, he was pissing blood. He'd been pissing blood all week, unwilling to face further tests. The doctors had told him the most likely site for a reappearance of the cancer was in his testicles. He was goddamned if he'd let them cut off his balls; he'd die first. Now, watching the toilet bowl turn gently pink again, he gave a short sardonic bark. He would die first. He was going to die.     By habit, he looked out the bathroom window to the alleyway. Was his truck still there? The rate cars got stolen these days, he was wary. He did a lot of cruising around lately, driving with the bench seat pushed back as far as it would go to ease the nagging pain in his gut; he had to stretch to reach the pedals. There wasn't an east-west, north-south cowpath within a forty-mile radius that Drew hadn't investigated. He knew the inhabitants of every paddock: every donkey, quarter horse, Texas longhorn steer, ostrich or emu -- these monster birds were getting popular with ranchers desperate for a quick killing -- he noted the condition of stockades and barbed wire fences, the presence of antennae and dish satellites, the peelings of paint from otherwise sound houses, the presence or absence of hay stored in pavilions.     When nothing else came right for him, he got behind the wheel and drove. With the worsening discomfort in his midsection he cruised around a lot at night, just to pass the time. Into Montandino, up and down the ever-so-discreetly tended tree-lined streets that seemed to him to ooze contentment through pores in the blacktop. Up into the foot-hills of the canyons in the blackest nights, across and through the desert, skimming it like a great bird of prey. He wore a goddamn map of the area inside his skull.     He leaned a little ways out the bathroom window. The old black pickup was in its slot. Not that it was worth diddley squat, but it ran, it got him where he had to go.     Which today was to Joanna's, a forty-five minute drive to the desert. They'd have Easter dinner together, former employer and former employee, two solitaries who'd been through several griefs together. The mystery virus that wiped out her llama herd. The wrangle over old Hammerling's estate, which was mercifully settled in her favor. His own mother's final alcoholic decline on the streets of L.A., the sad final trip to identify her body in the morgue.     Drew knew he looked like shit. The mirror gave back a jaundiced face, a deep haggard look about the eyes. But he could count on Joanna not to pry. She knew he was hanging on by his fingernails. Meanwhile, there would be baked ham with pineapple. There would be Louisiana yams caramelized the way Lottie used to make them in the good old days. There would be sweet New Orleans jazz piping through the artfully concealed speakers as two old friends partook of a meal together. Chapter Two EASTER WAS DYED EGGS and chocolate rabbits for the kids after Mass and a heavy Sunday dinner Anglo style, only roast lamb instead of goat. It was all part of una vida mejor , the life his parents had crossed the border for twenty years ago and gone to work in the strawberry fields. Manuel Agosta had been ten years old and terrified that night, scrambling up the slope beyond the river and through the fence, though now they were all legal, with green cards since the amnesty. He was head of a household, he had social security and health insurance, which was why he stayed in this dead-end job. He prayed to Jesus that he hadn't gotten Maria pregnant again last night. He had tried to interrupt, the way he always tried, but feared that he hadn't succeeded.     Promptly at seven Monday morning he unlocked the front door of the Graysmith Behavioral Sciences Lab building, walked dreamily up two flights of shallow concrete steps and inserted his key in the door that opened onto an array of steel cages housing Dr. Baranoff's monkeys. From the moment they heard his footsteps they set up their usual melodic hooting and chirping. They were hungry and thirsty, they were restless and unhappy. Some of them were rightfully fearful; these were the ones that had been prisoners in the hole. "The pit of despair," he had heard it called. He couldn't imagine how the lab assistant assigned to the case could calmly sit there taking notes as the poor creature struggled to climb up the metal sides of the pit. Eventually of course they always stopped, out of exhaustion and despair, and the elapsed time was noted on their chart. As was how many more hours or days went by before they ceased responding to the human hand that slid the top grating open every eight hours and offered food. Eventually the monkey just curled up on the dirt bottom; this was called entering a catatonic state. Once they got this far they were removed, but it was usually hopeless. Most of them came away crazy from the experience.     Manuel always tried to spend a little time with each one, for wasn't he too in a cage of sorts, trapped in a minimum-wage job, with a wife who worked for wages as a domestic, with three kids being looked after by his wife's mother with her ignorant peasant ways, her superstitions and prejudices? He hung up his key ring -- thanks to God he'd been able to replace the lost key before Dr. B. discovered it missing -- and started down the aisle.     His eye took in the empty cage before his brain understood its import. The cuddly little squirrel monkey and her baby that had only arrived a week ago were not there; he rejoiced to think that they had somehow escaped. The lab was switching from rhesus macaques to squirrel monkeys because they were cheaper and smaller, easier to handle. Manuel loved the looks of the new import with her button nose and intelligent brown eyes. The baby appeared to be so frail; he feared it would never survive the impending separation.     How could they be gone? And then the incident of the key connected with the cage door ajar on its hinges and the beautiful young daughter of the Director swam back into his head. He knew what had happened. But what to do about it?     Why couldn't this have happened while his predecessor was still on the job, that bantamweight fighter with the foul mouth and the good heart? Mary, mother of Jesus, everyone who knew this Drew person could see he was dying. But why hadn't this happened while he was still custodian? He would have known what to do.     He worried all the way down the line, methodically cleaning one cage after the other, chirping to the tenants, handling the tame ones, trying to reassure the terrorized ones. Only after he had scrubbed out the floors, refilled the water pans, distributed the monkey chow, only then did he go to the phone.     Of course he knew Diego, they were of the same race, if you could call it that. They attended the same church, they were partial to the same foods, but Manuel round him a forbidding personage. It was the uniform, the power, the handcuffs clipped to his belt, the gun holstered on his hip. Never had he dialed this number before. The taste of fear was sour in his mouth. Copyright © 1999 Maxine Kumin. All rights reserved.