- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

THE DOCTOR DINES IN PRAGUE

By Robin Hathaway

Thomas Dunne Books, $22.95, 198 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

The doctor referred to in the title is Dr. Fenimore, the novel’s protagonist who is that familiar fictional type, a physician who is also an amateur detective. This is the fourth in the series of Robin Hathaway’s Dr. Fenimore “mystective” novels, and in it, the doctor’s medical practice is casually sacrificed to his crime-solving hobby, very much as the genre requires.

Fenimore lives in Philadelphia, but his mother was Czech, and after several failed attempts to phone his cousin in Prague, he decides to fly there and find out why she doesn’t answer his calls. This is the beginning of the mystery, for when he arrives, there is no trace of his cousin and her husband; instead, he finds Marie, their nine-year-old daughter, hiding in their apartment’s huge ceramic stove.

He doesn’t know much Czech and Marie doesn’t know English, so communication is a serious problem. But by various interesting means (including drawing cartoon-like pictures, reproduced in the text), the doctor eventually discovers from her that his cousin and her husband have been kidnapped, while Marie managed to escape by hiding in the stove.

A nice problem, indeed, finding oneself alone in a strange land, with little grasp of the language and few clues. Fenimore’s first decision is to send poor frightened Marie back to the United States, where his secretary and girlfriend can take care of her. Then he goes to the university where her parents taught, and it is there that the mystery of their disappearance begins gradually to work its way toward a solution.

Ilsa, one of his university contacts, advises him to act like the typical American tourist, which advice gives the author a plausible excuse for various travelogues, describing some of the colorful features of this ancient and fascinating city. One of these excursions takes Fenimore to a puppet show (we’re told that they are popular adult entertainments in Prague), and this passage provides one of the most charming interludes in a book that has considerable charm in its descriptive passages of a place that remains somewhat exotic for most Americans.

Indeed, we’re told that Mozart called Prague “the Queen of Music”; and the author’s descriptions of the people, the narrow old streets, the Charles Bridge (its eponym, the Emperor Charles IV, was not only an important figure in Czech history — his presence will be felt in this novel), and various old buildings “pitted and tarnished with age — like old silver” are pleasing.

The book’s title is interestingly ironic because Fenimore arrives in Prague, looking forward to dining on some of the Czech cuisine his mother had often described so lovingly; but as it turns out, virtually all he has time to cram down in the old city is fast food, American style — eaten in brutish haste, without the least opportunity for civilized appreciation.

It’s an interesting plot, although its resolution depends a bit too much upon “madness” — almost inevitably something of a copout for a writer — to be compellingly real; and while Fenimore and his secretary and “girlfriend” are likeable, they are not very convincing.

Indeed, the reader’s overall satisfaction is limited by several weaknesses. For example, there’s far too much gratuitous and self-indulgent cuteness. One message that Fenimore receives from his secretary in the States contains multiple postscripts, one of which conveys the “meow” of his cat, Sal (even a dedicated cat-lover might find that nauseating).

Then there’s a problem with the doctor, himself, who is supposed to be a cardiologist: His innocence is enough to strain the credulity of even the most sympathetic reader. A physician has to be possessed of some degree of worldliness simply to survive and function in a profession that requires it; but Dr. Fenimore is as innocent as the stereotype of a Victorian maid, actually blushing when his girlfriend refers to Don Giovanni’s womanizing.

But there are still other problems with credibility, one of the most hilarious occurring when one of Fenimore’s assistants (a knuckle-popping teenager, whose duties are never made entirely clear) knocks out a vicious thug with a yo-yo. Come on — a yo-yo? Do they make them bigger and meaner than they used to? This is not usually what is meant by “hard-core realism.”

Nevertheless, with the old city of Prague as a central character, “The Doctor Dines in Prague” has enough in it to provide considerable pleasure. With the exception of procedurals, we seldom expect mystective novels to be realistic, and if one of them possesses fantasy elements along with its entertainment, then for a lot of readers, the trip will be worth the price of its ticket.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.


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