REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:
VINCE KOHLER – Rising Dog. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1992. No paperback edition.
Unlike most of today’s comedy mystery writers, Vince Kohler (1948-2002) understood the key to quality comedic mystery fiction is a good mystery with comedic elements, not how funny the jokes are. The few of us who have read his work still miss his talent for writing solid mysteries with eccentric characters, black humor, and a sense of the rainy coast of Oregon so real you’ll need a raincoat.
Vince Kohler wrote four books, Rainy North Woods (1990), Rising Dog (1992), Banjo Boy (1994), and Raven’s Widow (1997). All four featured journalist Eldon Larkin who worked as reporter/photographer for the South Coast Sun, the local newspaper for small town Port Jerome, Oregon. Educated, he reads French classic literature in the original language, but proving how useful his education is, Eldon is a loser when it comes to the important things in life — women, cars, and career. He left Berkeley California and an ex-wife behind, and now dreams of the big story that will get him a job with a big city newspaper.
The books can be read in any order and all of equal high quality. So I grabbed one off my shelf and was pleased to see Rising Dog.
Rising Dog features a complex mystery centered on the murder of radical environmentalist John Henspeter, who is trying to stop a land developer from cutting down some trees to put up a condo. But while the mystery will hold your interest, it is the fast pace action, humor, and non-stop weirdness that will keep you entertained from beginning to end.
Eldon responds to a phone call from Jasper, former drunken tugboat captain turned preacher, who claims to have raised his dog from the dead. Eldon meets with Jasper, the resurrected doggie and the members of Jasper’s church.
On the way to where the miracle occurred, the group comes across some construction workers dealing with protester Henspeter. Things escalate, and as Eldon takes pictures, the church members and construction workers break out into a fight. It all stops with the arrival of a beautiful, topless mystery woman in her thirties on horseback (we will learn later her name is Enola Gay). All fall silent in awe. As quickly as she appears, she disappears back into the woods. Peace has been restored, until the dog arrives with a human foot. Its page 15 of 274 and the fun has barely begun.
Kohler had a gift for ratcheting up the tension then easing off with a slight touch of the absurd. Near the end of the book, Eldon and Enola Gay finds themselves caught between gunfire from two sides:
There were three shots from the trench. (Killer) was popping away with the Mauser. Eldon and Enola Gay flattened themselves as (killer) and the AK-47 gunner traded shots. Pop-blap, went the AK-47. The Mauser snapped in reply. Pop-blap. Pop-blap. Snap, snap. They’re both terrible marksmen, Eldon thought.
Anyone who features odd characters is usually compared to Elmore Leonard, but Kohler’s books are better. Kohler’s pace and his ability to balance mystery, action, and humor avoids the dull sections I find in many of Leonard’s books.
Kohler’s descriptions of locations are among the best in all fiction. He avoids the faults of the popular Weird Florida comedic mystery authors such as Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Moore, Tim Dorsey, etc. While too often the Florida locations out-weird the characters and events, Kohler’s locations play the straight man in his story, something real to anchor the story so the humor never cost the mystery its believability.
Sadly, all four of his books are out of print and have yet to be rescued by e-books. There is little information on the Internet about Kohler besides his books for sale and two columns by his friend Bob Hicks.
From Rising Dog, “Vince Kohler is a staff writer for the Oregonian in Portland. Kohler has traveled widely and in the course of his career, has filed stories from South America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. He is married, has three cats, and considers himself a permanent resident of the Pacific Northwest…”
My favorite form of fiction is mystery lite, stories the opposite of film noir. Where film noir is soaked in self-pity and doom, mystery lite finds life too absurd to be taken seriously. Writers such as Norbert Davis, Ross Thomas, Gregory Mcdonald, Nat and Ivan Lyons, and Donald Westlake fill their books with the dark tragedies of life then make fun of them. Vince Kohler was one of the best at it. I miss him.
NOTE: For a list of all of this week’s other “Forgotten Friday” books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog here.