To Play the Fool is the second book in the Kate Martinelli mystery series, following up a couple of cases after the first major case in her pedigree A Grave Talent. Like that first novel, Laurie R. King focuses on a particular subset of the population: A Grave Talent was set in a rural, intentionally isolated community, and To Play the Fool centers on the homeless community and the Fools Movement. There’s education within King’s story about a rather simple murder without an apparent motive, and though To Play the Fool is a much shorter story than her first, she proves that highlighting an obscure community yet again makes for strong reading.
A homeless man without identity is murdered in the park, a similar act of violence after a dog was also killed; the homeless, as much a part of their own culture as they are isolated from the rest of the world, assimilate in Golden Gate Park to cremate the man. They’re led by Brother Erasmus, a man who only speaks in fragmented quotations from Shakespeare and the Bible; he’s as much a part of the homeless as he is a Fool, a religious-esque figure that performs on street corners with moralistic plays.
Kate Martinelli is pulled into the case despite the near impossibility of its resolution. There is little evidence and only one witness, and that is Brother Erasmus himself, seemingly incapable of speaking except for riddles. But Martinelli aggressively pursues any clues she can find, including attempting to decipher the Fool’s speech and uncovering why Brother Erasmus became the way he is.
King peppers her novel with a load of information about the Holy Fools movement, sitting very comfortably between academic and layman’s terms. It’s a lot of education to take in, especially for those who have never heard of the movement, but it provides a solid background for the rest of To Play the Fool – not only does it make Brother Erasmus’ mission a bit less ambiguous, it also adds an extra amount of pathos to his character.
That’s important, because as the case goes on, Erasmus becomes a frustrating person. Despite his best intentions, his reticence to actually speak about the murder becomes the reason why the killer has been able to avoid the police. In fact, it’s the reason another person is murdered. But King allows the truth about Erasmus (nee David Sawyer) to seep out late in the novel: his child was killed by a man in a fit of rage after David revealed to him that his excursions in academia were fruitless.
There’s an emotional impact here; it no longer feels that Erasmus bites his tongue because of some devotion to a cause that no one understands. His inability to speak is his own punishment, cast upon him because of his regrets and sorrow. And his life as a homeless man is another penance that he puts upon himself, a choice to live with others much needier than him so that he can do some good in the community. The tendency to look down on Erasmus is there, but King’s use of meaningful backstory circumvents that.
It also engages the viewer in an otherwise underwhelming murder story. There’s little mystery to how the murder occurred; instead, the sole motivation within To Play the Fool is to finger the murderer, to figure out why it happened. At the end, it’s a simple reveal, and indeed King’s very abrupt recap of the arrest of the individual indicates that the conclusion of the case isn’t really the point. It’s the exploration of the homeless community, the strong characters within that world, that make the novel important.
Less time is spent in this outing with Al Hawkin, Martinelli’s partner, and that feels like a disappointment. But her lover Lee is yet again a huge impact on Martinelli’s investigations, this time suffering from her injuries sustained in the first novel. With the characters returning again, one can’t help but feel right at home in this universe. And this time, To Play the Fool adds another memorable character thanks to Brother Erasmus; you’d be a fool not to read it.