Book Review: The Black Jersey by Jorge Zepeda Patterson
The Black Jersey by Jorge Zepeda Patterson is a fast-paced mystery where Murder on the Orient Express meets the Tour de France—someone’s killing off cyclists one by one.
There’s a Shakespearean quality to this tale of high drama, passion, and betrayal set in a Tour de France plagued by horrible incidents, culminating in the murder of one of its contestants. As the sport of bicycling’s greatest annual event, the Tour attracts not only the best cyclists but also the most devoted, the ones seemingly willing to risk their lives to win the coveted yellow jersey as they cycle for twenty-three days and two thousand miles through punishing terrain. But could someone with so little regard for his own existence also look through ruthless eyes at his opponents, and engineer harm or worse to ensure his own victory?
Mr. Zepeda Patterson embedded himself in professional cycling teams for over a year, learning not only the facts and the lingo but also familiarizing himself with the personalities of those who people the circuit.
That’s the question at the heart of Jorge Zepeda Patterson’s extraordinary novel, The Black Jersey. In preparation for the writing of it, Mr. Zepeda Patterson embedded himself in professional cycling teams for over a year, learning not only the facts and the lingo but also familiarizing himself with the personalities of those who people the circuit. Nearly everyone knows about the stars of cycling—for all of Lance Armstrong’s faults, his story and celebrity did increase the Tour’s name recognition worldwide—but more obscure are the team members who make the victories of their stars possible. Foremost among these are the domestiques, the cadre of bicyclists who protect their star on the course, taking it in turns to provide, among other things, bodily shelter from the elements, slipstreams to tow their man-up inclines, and necessities like water and their own bikes, should the situation warrant.
One of these domestiques is our protagonist and narrator, the French-Colombian Marc Moreau. He discovered cycling as a child and began to compete seriously in order to impress a beloved teacher. After his father enlisted him in the army, he found a mentor in the cycling-obsessed Colonel Lombard, who placed him in the ranks of the military police and thus under Lombard’s own command to compete more and soldier less. Lombard encouraged Moreau to go pro once his army stint was over. Fatefully, this would introduce Moreau to Steve Panata, the wealthy American cyclist who would become like a brother to him.
As the years pass and the two men’s professional and personal lives grow ever more linked, Steve will win four Tours as the star of Team Fonar, with Moreau at his side as faithful domestique. Their complicated relationship drives the emotional heart of the narrative, as Moreau struggles to reconcile his own ambitions with his friend’s overweening ego. Steve himself is a fascinating creation. Despite his glamorous image, his privilege and glitz do little to humanize him for cycling fans until one fateful day in this latest competition:
I reflected that though Steve had lost the yellow jersey that day, he’d conquered something perhaps more important, something heretofore missing from his career. His victorious image, something à la Cristiano Ronaldo, was frequently confused for arrogance; his impressive physique and elegant style on the bike, that perfect round pedaling, and Fonar’s overwhelming superiority contributed to the idea that there was nothing epic or heroic in his achievements. The jet-set celebrities that surrounded him didn’t help either. All that made both the media and the public apt to ignore the discipline and effort behind his victories. Today, limp and haggard, he’d shown the world what he was made of, and the world had liked what it had seen.
Now hoping to get Steve his fifth win, Moreau is perturbed by a series of seemingly unrelated incidents forcing rivals to drop out of the race. But he’s only really thrown off-balance when a police commissioner approaches him asking for insider help. Commissioner Favre is convinced that one of the cyclists or their support staff is orchestrating a series of attacks on the participants. He believes that Moreau’s unique position and skill set will help the police, as well as the Tour organizers, nab the culprit with a minimum of scandal.
Moreau agrees to pass on whatever information he can, but as the Tour progresses, he finds that the main beneficiary of the incidents seems to be Steve himself. To add more pressure to his situation, Lombard is making noises about how Moreau could easily bypass Steve to take home the trophy for his own:
“Lower your voice,” I said, looking around to make sure no one had heard us. A conversation like that between a domestique and his mentor was even more of a sacrilege than two cardinals speculating about how they’d look dressed in white and offering mass in St. Peter’s Square.
“We already ran the races on the model, and only seven or eight cyclists can better your time trials. And it will help a lot that there are two hills on today’s course,” he insisted, whispering in my ear this time. Even though I couldn’t see his mouth, I could swear he was salivating.
I worried that we looked like two conspirators exchanging secrets–the cardinals discussing poison this time.
The build-up of paranoia is exquisite as Moreau must wrestle with his conflicting feelings in light of the evidence he uncovers, even as he strives to fulfill the competing burdens of trust placed upon him by the people he loves and/or respects. Add to this the high-pressure stakes of the Tour de France, and you have a brilliant suspense novel that will please both mystery and cycling enthusiasts alike.
I consider myself both, but even casual fans will be impressed with the way the author draws the reader into the world of competitive cycling. I knew it was a life of ascetic athleticism and dedication, but Mr. Zepeda Patterson shines a light too on the sacrifices, ambitions, and chivalry of the people you rarely read featured in the sports pages. His knowledge of cycling blends so well with his skill at writing a murder mystery that this feels like a book you shouldn’t miss if you have any interest at all in sports or in crime fiction.