Characters


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JOE GORES – 32 Cadillacs. DKA File #4. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993.

   It’s been fourteen years since the last DKA from Gores, so long that I’d despaired of another, but here it is, and it’s up for (though in my opinioni doesn’t merit) an Edgar.

   Daniel Kearney Associates is a private detective agency operating out of San Francisco. DKA doesn’t do murders as their main source of revenue (though there have been some in previous books), they repossess cars, and do collections and skip traces. In 32 Cadillacs they have the repo case of a lifetime, as no less than 31 new Cadillacs have been purchased by fraudulent means and absconded with, all financed by the same bank. The 32nd is a finny pink ’58.

   The scam is being run by Gypsies, who are involved in a plan dealing with the Imminent death of their King (who lies in a hospital in Steubenville, Iowa) and the potential selection of his successor. The story details DKA’s frantic efforts to find the cars, and the machinations of the opposing Gypsy factions as well.

   All the old gang is here: Dan Kearney, Giselle Marc, Bart Heslip, and Ballard and O’Bannion. Gores writes bare-bones prose, and manages to keep the story moving forward in a straight line — no mean feat with the viewpoints shifting rapidly among the DKA bunch and various members of the Gypsy gang of miscreants. There is enough characterization that the players seem real, though they will be more so to past readers of the series. Gores did a lot of research into the Gypsy way of life, and the plot is entertaining.

   I didn’t like this as much as earlier tales in the series. It lacked their hard edge, and in fact was more of a caper novel, even including a cameo by Westlake’s Dortmunder. The DKA stories are pretty much sui generis, but this wasn’t the best one. Lesser Gores is still worth reading, though.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993


      The DKA File series —

1. Dead Skip (1972)
2. Final Notice (1973)
3. Gone, No Forwarding (1978)

4. 32 Cadillacs (1992)
5. Contract Null and Void (1996)
6. Stakeout on Page Street (2000)

7. Cons, Scams, and Grifts (2001)

BRIDGET McKENNA – Caught Dead. PI Caley Burke #3. Berkley, paperback original; 1st printing, February 1995.

   The ending of book two in this series must have been fairly spectacular. At the beginning of this one, private eye Caley Burke’s boss won’t let her come back to work for a second week until she agrees to go in for counseling to see why she can’t sleep at nights. Not too many people ever shoot and kill someone, even in self defense.

   She agrees, but she decides to take a case on her own as her own form of self-help therapy. The son of her favorite waitress at her usual breakfast spot hires her to find out who his father is. His mother won’t tell him. Not only this is a situation in which you should be careful what you ask for, but it’s one which goes far beyond that. The very next day his mother is arrested for the brutal slaying of her sister.

   We are in Sue Grafton territory here. Caley lives in s medium-sized town in central California, lives alone and likes it that way, and when she gets her teeth into a case, she doesn’t let go. She pries and she pries, and bit by bit, the secrets begin to loosen and come flying off.

   Caley doesn’t have the flair of Kinsey Millhone, though. She’s effective but is a lot more workmanlike in her pursuit for the truth. There are a lot of suspects in the case, all the more so as the dead woman was intensely disliked by everyone in town, including her family. This means, of course, that Caley has to ask a lot of questions. Surprisingly, she gets a lot of people to answer.

   Overall, better than average, with decent clueing, more than two-dimensional characters, and an ending that just may catch you by surprise. (It’s intended to.) I’d read the next one, but after three books, there never was a fourth. I’ll have to go back and see what I missed in the first two.

      The Caley Burke series —

Murder Beach (1993)

Dead Ahead (1994)  Nominated for a Shamus award.
Caught Dead (1995)

FRANK PARRISH – Sting of the Honeybee. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1979. Perennial Library, US, paperback, 1983. First pubished in the UK by Constable, hardcover, 1978.

   Dan Mallet is a poacher by choice, not by necessity. He’s also a part-time burglar, but at this he’s still very much an amateur. A pony he pilfers and some stolen clocks eventually prove to be his undoing — major contributing factors in the huge predicament he soon finds he’s gotten himself into, in this, his second book-length adventure.

   There is no detection involved. A gangster who comes down to the West Country from London reveals his true colors very early on. To regain his boyhood farm from the two little and quarrelsome old ladies who now own it, the man is willing to go to any lengths, and only Dan knows the trouble they’re in.

   In truth he’s in no position to do much about it, but the suspense story that follows as he tries is an exciting one, retaining a great deal of the deep, raw flavor of the untamed English countryside. As always, it’s tremendously satisfying to read a mystery that’s both well-written and well-contrived.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 2, March-April 1980 (slightly revised).

      The Dan Mallet series —

Fire in the Barley, 1977.
Sting of the Honeybee, 1978.
Snare in the Dark, 1982.
Bait on the Hook, 1983.
Face at the Window, 1984.
Fly in the Cobweb, 1986.
Caught in the Birdlime, 1987.
Voices from the Dark, 1993.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BENJAMIN SCHUTZ – A Fistful of Empty. Leo Haggerty #5. Viking, hardcover, 1991. No paperback edition.

   I missed this when it came out, and I think it must have gone out of print in two weeks. I’ve been hunting a copy for over a year, and finally found one.

   Leo Haggerty chooses to honor an obligation to help his bounty-hunter buddy, Arnie Kendall, bring in a particularly repellent skinhead felon, instead of meeting his love as she asks him to do, even though she says it’s important. When he finally gets home, he finds her raped and brutally beaten, and the home and office trashed. He calls Arnie for help, only to find that he has been murdered.

   His quest to find out who, and why, and to exact revenge, make up the story. I’s also about Haggerty learning who he is, and who he can and cannot be. Hard lessons, tough exam.

   This is heavy, grim stuff. The Haggerty books have been among the more violent of the current PI crop, and this is no exception. Schutz is a good writer, and tells a fast-moving and gripping story. If you like ’em dark and mean, you could do much worse than this. If you don’t, pass.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993


      The Leo Haggerty series —

Embrace the Wolf (1985)

All the Old Bargains (1985)
A Tax in Blood (1987)
The Things We Do For Love (1989)

A Fistful of Empty (1991)
Mexico Is Forever (1994)
Mary, Mary, Shut the Door (2005). (Collection: includes three Haggerty stories, a “Sean and Matt Ellis” story, plus a Philip Marlowe pastiche, “The Black-Eyed Blonde.”)

KEN KUHLKEN – The Loud Adios. St. Martin’s, hardcover, August 1991. Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 2006.

   This was the winner of the 1990 PWA/St.Martin’s “Best First Private Eye Contest,” and let me tell you right away that at the price they’re asking [$16.95], it’s a bargain.

   Not many authors these days write hard, tough Black Mask fiction anymore — short, terse sentences that never pull a punch, and characters who never give an inch — and it’s always a pleasure to find one who does. This is it, guys, the real stuff.

   PI Tom Hickey is doing double duty for the Army as an MP watching the border between San Diego and Tijuana. The year is 1943, the war is on, and refugees and politics are on everyone’s minds. Then Hickey takes on a job for a solider about to ship overseas — to rescue a girl doing nude shows in a rundown bar south of the border. The guy claims she is his sister; to Hickey she looks like an angel on earth.

   What neither Hickey nor his client knows is that the stakes are much higher than this — there may or may not be a plot by Germans in Mexico to take over all of Baja California, there may or may not be a fortune in gold available for the taking.

   Unfortunately, the girl, Wendy Rose, is either all or in part mentally retarded, or she has been so badly traumatized that she does not know reality from fantasy, either of which makes a tougher job even worse.

   The title sounds like Chandler, on the back jacket is the inevitable quote from someone comparing Kuhlken to Chandler, and as usual, the Santa Ana winds are prominently mentioned, but to my mind, most of the book reminded me more of Dashiell Hammett, with a bit of Paul Cain thrown in. (Kuhlken, by the way, has written one other book, Midheaven, which according to the flap on the back of dust jacket, was nominated for a Hemingway Prize. He’s obviously got the right technique.)

   Unfortunately, there is a down side to all of this. I wouldn’t call the plot line as straight as a string, but in many ways it’s like a one-note samba, one that simply goes on too long. Until Wendy Rose is finally rescued, Hickey and her brother simply make one sortie across the border after the other, each time getting a bit more daring, bringing along additional reinforcements with each trip, and continuing on until the job is done.

   This takes over half the book. The remainder consists of gathering weaponry, forces and (most importantly) nerve, and then (but not till then) finally going back to finish the job — either making themselves rich, or saving America from a growing evil to the south. Or both, or neither — and that is something I simply shouldn’t tell you.

   This is more than mere quibbles, but even without my seeing the rest of the entries in the contest, I think the judges made the right choice. Even though he hasn’t made much of bis life so far, Tom Hickey is no loser in my book.

— This review first appeared in Deadly Pleasures, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993 .


      The Tom Hickey series —

1. The Loud Adios (1991)
2. The Venus Deal (1993)

3. The Angel Gang (1994)
4. The Do-Re-Mi (2006)

5. The Vagabond Virgins (2008)
6. The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (2010)
7. The Good Know Nothing (2014)

EDWARD MATHIS – From a High Place. Dan Roman #1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1985. Ballantine, paperback; 1st printing, July 1987.

   Edward Mathis died at the relatively young age of 61 in 1988. He started late, but once he got going, he must have been a very fast writer, because four of the eight recorded cases of Texas PI Dan Roman must have gotten backed up at Scribner’s at the time of his death and were never published until two or three more years had gone by.

   From a High Place is the first of the series and the first I’ve read. In large part it’s a personal affair, since the man whose death he’s asked to investigate lived in Roman’s home town of Butler Wells. His widow was Roman’s high school teacher. The death has been written off as an accident, but since her husband had a severe case of acrophobia, she wonders what he was doing at the top of cliff he fell from.

   Revisiting his home town in many years also brings back many memories, almost all of them centered on the glory days of high school — good buddies, football, and the girl who introduced him to the delights of sex — one never-to-be-forgotten night only.

   Roman’s life has not been a happy since then. Both his wife and son have died, leaving him a loner, for example, and who could blame him for the moodiness that sometimes seems to swallow him up? Life in a small Texas town can also be a lot more complicated than an outsider could ever imagine, and this is depicted well.

   I think, though, that 278 pages (in the paperback edition) is a little too long for a case that should take a lot less time than that to tell. A little leaner story might have helped, in my opinion, but given how it all comes out, Mathis knew what he had in mind all along. As I say, it’s a moody, nostalgic kind of tale, and if that’s right up your alley, this is exactly the book for you.

      The Dan Roman series —

From a High Place (1985).

Dark Streaks and Empty Places (1986).
Natural Prey (1987).
Another Path, Another Dragon (1988).

The Burned Woman (1989).
Out of the Shadows (1990).

September Song (1991).
The Fifth Level (1992)

HUGH PENTECOST – The Girl with Six Fingers. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1969. Zebra, paperback, John Jericho series #5; 1st printing, June 1974.

   John Jericho is a massive bulk of a man, six feet six inches tall, and two hundred and forty pounds of solid bone and muscle. With a beard of flaming red, he looks like a Viking warrior. In reality he is an artist of some renown, based in Manhattan and fiercely dedicated to the cause of justice. All conservative causes beware!

   His stories are told by a much less impressive gent named Arthur Hallam, a writer with several novels to his credit but little acclaim. But the two are friends and had six book-length adventures together, plus a large number of novelettes and stories, all appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1964 and 1987.

   It should also be pointed out that both Jericho and Hallam had a previous incarnation as long-standing members of The Park Avenue Hunt Club, with many recorded adventures appearing in the pulp magazine Detective Fiction Weekly in the 1930 and early 40s. Jericho was then a big game hunter, Hallam a bespectacled intellectual type, with the third member being actor Geoffrey Saville. They were on occasion assisted by their Oriental servant, Wu.

   While the title of this later adventure is intriguing — and so is the cover! — it has an easy, more or less mundane explanation. The girl is on an LSD trip and is only imagining the extra finger. The other girl, the one shown on the cover in multi-colored paint, is otherwise nude and is/was the star attraction to a Happening on an exclusive estate somewhere in the wilds of rural Connecticut.

   What brings the outraged Jericho and Hallam into the story is that the event was raided by a non-approving self-organized right-wing militia, and the girl dancing has disappeared. Pentecost pulls out none of the stops in the tale that follows, not really a detective story at all, but a wild and woolly pulp story updated to the Swinging Sixties.

   Unfortunately, and I cannot tell you why, but I think detective stories dealing with hippies, drugs and love-in’s have dated even more than tales written in the 1930s taking place in manor houses and rich people’s estates. It may also be that Pentecost (pen name of Judson Philips, 1903-1989) really wasn’t writing on the basis of personal experience, but perhaps second- or even third-hand knowledge only.

   Nevertheless, the story, previous caveat aside, kept me well occupied for the first leg of a cross-country flight from CA to CT earlier this week.

      The John Jericho series —

Sniper (1965)

Hide Her From Every Eye (1966)
The Creeping Hours (1966)
Dead Woman of the Year (1967)

The Girl With Six Fingers (1969)
A Plague of Violence (1970)

J. M. T. MILLER – Weatherby. Ballantine, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1987.

   Artie Weatherby, to be precise. This one’s the first of three recorded adventures, but it’s not quite clear where it takes place. Somewhere in the Southwest is the best I can say. Somewhere in a fairly large city (but with streets I’ve never heard of), but somewhere such that not far out of the city you can find yourself in a desolate “sun-baked, sun-bleached, sun-drenched” misery of a town called Desolado.

   Artie is hired by a young woman to find out where her brother is, and where he is is in Desolado, riding a Harley with a big-bosomed bimbo named Bunny hanging onto him from behind. A local storekeeper suggests that he’s riding with a gang of bikers called the Satan’s Sadists, who may also be heavily involved with heavy drugs across the border activity.

   Not hardly good news. Other characters in this story are the siblings’ father, who is rich, maintains a zoo in his back yard, and who thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. The girl’s fiancé is a well-known plastic surgeon who has been in trouble with various medical boards.

   Not your usual functional family, but nothing seems to faze Weatherby all that much. Not that there’s much to the story. I had it all figured out by page 144, then I skipped to the end of the book to find out if I was correct. I was. I hate it when that happens.

   About Weatherby himself, I seem not to have much to say. Totally generic, in other words, in a semi-macho sort of way. But in passing, I did learn not to trust the judgment of James Ellroy when it comes to touting PI fiction to unwary readers. The blurb on the front cover makes me think he was reading another book altogether.

       The Artie Weatherby series —

Weatherby. Ballantine, 1987.
On a Dead Man’s Chest. Ballantine, 1989.
The Big Lie. Nelson, 1994.

   The author, Janice Marie Tubbs Miller, wrote one other crime novel under these initials and two as Janice Miller.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BARBARA D’AMATO – Hard Women. Cat Marsala #4. Charles Scribner’s, hardcover, 1993. Worldwide Mystery, paperback, 1994.

   This is the fourth of D’Amato’s novels about Chicago freelance journalist Cat Marsala. In previous books she has dealt with the lifestyle of the rich, the world of drugs, and organized lotteries; here she delves into the world of prostitution. As usual, she finds more than she likes or is safe for her.

   Cat has her first television assignment, a short piece on prostitution. A group of Chicago’s city fathers known as the Sinless Seven are making a push to rid the city of streetwalkers, and a local tv station thinks that this is a good time to feature a story on such. Though apprehensive, Cat is glad of the chance, and hits the courtrooms and streets in search of material. A young call girl whom she has interviewed shows up at her apartment, battered, and Cat takes her in for a few days. Then, the girl is found dead on the street in front, murdered.

   D’Amato is a good writer. She manages to pack a wealth of information about prostitutes and their sad, murky world into the story without slowing t down. But then, the story is as much about that world as is a murder mystery. The finding of the killer isn’t exactly an afterthought, but to me it clearly wasn’t as important to D’Amato as what she had to say about prostitution.

   I don’t care much for Cat Marsala as a person. Her attitudes are simply too different from mine for much empathy. It speaks well for D’Amato’s skill at characterization that she came enough alive for me to say that, but it’s hard for me to fully enjoy a book when I can’t like the lead character. Try it, though — if you can like Cat, you’ve got a winner.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993.

      The Cat Marsala series —

1. Hardball (1989)
2. Hard Tack (1991)
3. Hard Luck (1992)
4. Hard Women (1993)
5. Hard Case (1994)
6. Hard Christmas (1995)
7. Hard Bargain (1997)
8. Hard Evidence (1997)
9. Hard Road (2001)

JOHN SHANNON – The Concrete River. John Brown Books, hardcover, 1996. Berkley, paperback, February 1998.

   What this book is, or rather what it is not, is your grandfather’s traditional PI novel. One blurb on the back cover makes a comparison to Raymond Chandler. The setting is Los Angeles, true enough, and the comparison is not badly made, but the setting has been updated to modern-day LA (as of twenty years ago, that is), and it is Raymond Chandler as filtered more through Robert Altman’s version than any slavishly imitated copy of Mr. Chandler himself.

   The PI in question, for which this is his first recorded case, is Jack Liffey, a Viet Nam veteran and currently an out of work technical writer, a father of one, but now divorced and far behind on his alimony payments. To supplement his income he has discovered a knack for finding missing children.

   In this case, however, the woman he is asked to find is the Mexican-American mother of a boy he found several months before. He’s asked on the job too late, however. Her body is found washed up in Long Beach; suspicion is that she was dumped into the Los Angeles River somewhere a lot closer to home, and the river did the rest.

   The fact that she was working on behalf a community activist group fighting the conversion of an abandoned rubber plant into an opera house — an amenity for the rich, not the people who live in the area — is the only lead Liffey has to go on. But still. Murder on behalf of an opera house? No. There is more to the story than that, as Liffey soon painfully discovers.

   Shannon’s view of L.A. is near apocalyptic. The city is running on fumes, with rotten infrastructure and bizarre traffic incidents consistently occurring as Liffey makes his way around town in hunt of a wider truth, a search for morality, if you will. His budding romance with an ex-nun also takes up a good portion of the book, which naturally will slow things down for the reader who expects only a pulp fiction mentality on just another PI tale.

   Which, to repeat myself, most definitely The Concrete River is not. One quote may may be enough to tell you whether or not this is a series meant for you:

   Not for the first time, he thought of his marriage as a hat that had blown off while he was looking out over a canyon. He’d made a grab for it at the time, but then it was just gone, dwindling out of sight, leaving a bit of hat feel around his forehead but even that fading fast. It was the kind of thing that could still make you feel guilty about being broke, though.

   In case you were wondering, though, and you’re looking for more, there is a scene later on that shows that when he needs to be, Jack Liffey is also as hard-boiled as they come. Guaranteed.

      The Jack Liffey series —

1. The Concrete River (1996)
2. The Cracked Earth (1999)

3. The Poison Sky (2000)
4. The Orange Curtain (2001)
5. Streets on Fire (2002)
6. City of Strangers (2003)

7. Terminal Island (2004)
8. Dangerous Games (2005)
9. The Dark Streets (2006)
10. The Devils of Bakersfield (2008)

11. Palos Verdes Blue (2009)
12. On The Nickel (2010)
13. A Little Too Much (2010)
14. Chinese Beverly Hills (2014)

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