Frank Lauria, The Priestess (Bantam, 1978)
When I started reading Frank Lauria’s The Priestess—which I did not realize until I was a few chapters in is actually the fifth book in a series—I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. Blame this on Bantam’s marketing team, those same folks who didn’t bother mentioning anywhere in the cover copy that it is, in fact, the fifth book in Lauria’s Dr. Owen Orient series (as of September 2013, there are seven Dr. Orient books, and Lauria has come out of a long period of hibernation, according to his website, and is now working on an eighth). The silly mismarketing I often get on movie distributors for is not limited to visual media. Looking at this one, you would think it “A chilling new novel of unprecedented terror and supernatural evil.” Or that’s what the copy on the front cover wants you to believe, if you overlook that “unprecedented terror” doesn’t actually make any sense. I guess it does sound better than “Robert Ludlum meets The Believers” (though granted The Believers didn’t actually exist for another nine years). That, however, is a far more accurate description, and once you get your head around what the book really is, it’s a bit of fun.
Plot: Dr. Orient, with whom you may or may not be familiar from his four previous adventures, is continuing to hone his psychic gifts when he gets a call from an old college associate, Ted Bork, who thinks a company he’s consulting for may have use for Orient’s talents. Once Orient finds out who Bork is working for, things go south quickly, and Orient follows them, fleeing to Miami and picking up an assumed name in the process. Once there, he lands a job in a mom-and-pop pharmacy, keeping his head down…until outside interests start pressuring his new boss to sell so some opportunistic developers can raze an entire block. Sam, the owner, pushes back and winds up dead under mysterious circumstances—exactly the kinds of circumstances Orient’s unique gifts make him qualified to deal with.
In a world where Twilight outsells Thomas Kenneally and everyone is trying out new genre mashups, it’s sometimes hard to remember what the world of genre fiction was like when everything was compartmentalized (and marketing teams tried to slot every book into a preconceived genre so bookstores would know what shelf it went on). If you miss those days, or if you’re young enough that you never experienced them and want to know what it was like, a quick dip into the purple prose of The Priestess will get you sorted out right quick. “Royce’s husky cries pierced the lush mists clouding Orient’s awareness, just before his being shattered into a thousand delicious fragments inside her steaming flesh and all sensation and sound dissolved into dreamless silence.” (–110) It’s not something one should necessarily make a steady diet of, but if you’re in the mood for it, The Priestess is just the thing. It’s classic genre fiction, with all the baggage that term entails; it is unafraid to descend into silliness when necessary, there are strings of coincidences that may best be termed “ridiculous” on occasion, some of the characters should avoid water for fear of tearing before they dry out. But if you’re looking for supernatural drama with the occasional action scene (whatever kind of action you might happen to be looking for) and the odd snake here and there, dig this one up; Lauria’s website promises the entire series is slated for re-release soon, as I write this (the first two books are already back in print). ** ½