As he did with his love letter to hardboiled fiction, “Hollywood Noir,” Jeff Mariotte lets his passion for bloodless British mysteries show in “Solitary Man” (December 2003) – but in a different way. He invents Mildred Finster, a woman in the mold of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or “Murder, She Wrote’s” Jessica Fletcher – at least, that’s how she sees herself. As the story begins, Mildred finishes reading the last of the 79 Christie books, then tells her cat that she’s going to become a detective herself.
Part of the fun of Buffyverse spinoff fiction is the paths not taken. I can totally see a septuagenarian woman behind a desk about midway through “Angel’s” TV run, at a time when Angel Investigations has become successful and can afford more help. As daring and diversity-minded as the Buffyverse is in some ways, though, having an old lady in the cast is not something WB shows did back then. And indeed, the end point of “Solitary Man” is what it has to be: Mildred has seen so much horror following an AI mystery that she decides she’s better off solving mysteries in the safety of her armchair at home.
Another intriguing path not taken is the Scholars of the Infinite. This is the second group in Buffyverse spinoff fiction – following Christopher Golden’s Order of Sages in “Buffy: The Wisdom of War” – that branched off from the Watcher’s Council long ago over philosophical differences. The Sages believe in working toward peaceful coexistence with demons, but the Scholars are at the other end of the spectrum. They believe in wiping out threats to humanity by any means necessary; they have no problem whatsoever with collateral damage, and will kill innocents just for learning about the Scholars’ existence.
The villain is the solitary man of the title: Obregon. Buffyverse books are trending away from massive backstories for their villains as the line moves forward, but “Solitary Man” includes a nice horror-movie style passage where a Scholar recounts coming upon Obregon, locked up in a cell deep within a mountain. This magic-using human’s situation is similar to that of The Judge from “Buffy” Season 2, except that rather than he himself needing to be reassembled, Obregon needs to assemble two artifacts to regain his power. It makes for a good mystery, and it ties in with a park ranger who is arguably the second solitary man: He’s been in a coma for 30 years, ever since pursuing the Obregon mystery.
The cover features Wesley, and — since “Angel” books always feature cast photos and never characters invented for the book — he is the best case for being a third solitary man. In Season 4, he has split off from the group, as Angel can’t forgive him for stealing Connor, and Wesley is hurt that Angel can’t forgive him.
While the supporting cast is perhaps the most interesting part of “Solitary Man,” Mariotte does his usual strong writing for the AI gang. Fred and Gunn are on the outs, Cordy is staying over at Connor’s (Connor haters will be happy to know his role in this book is minimal), and Angel is hurt by that because he loves Cordy. This is the first “Angel” book set in Season 4, when the TV show is heavily serialized and deep into the weeds of shaky relationship statuses. The author does a nice job of reminding us of where everyone is at in their lives at this point, yet he keeps the focus on his original story and inventions.