DOUG J. SWANSON – Dreamboat

Harper, paperback reprint; first printing, January 1996. Hardcover: HarperCollins, February, 1995.

   The mystery shelves of used bookstores are filled with any number of series of detective fiction that appeared out of nowhere, flamed brightly for a short while, then just as suddenly disappeared. If there were still used bookstores, that is. They are, alas, an endangered species, are they not?

   I’m not going to digress off in that direction, though. Not this time. I’m going to stay focused and on track, even if I have to force myself. Private eye novels, which this one is, or cozies, which this one isn’t, it makes no difference. If they don’t catch on, in spite of critical acclaim, they gone, they’re history, and how many of the Jack Flippo PI novels can you name? Do you know what major city he worked out of? Had you heard of Jack Flippo before you began reading this review?

   One of the reasons I began this review the way that I did is that on the front cover Doug J. Swanson is described as an “Edgar Award Nominee.” Given all of the questions I just asked you, this is a fact I did not know myself – but it’s why my mind went poetic on me, re the fire “that flamed briefly brightly” and all, and I hope you’ll forgive me.

    Here’s the list of all of Swanson’s mystery fiction. The detective in each of them is Jack Flippo.

       Big Town. Harpercollins, hc, February 1994.
         Harper, pb, February 1995
      Dreamboat. Harpercollins, hc, February 1995
         Harper, pb, January 1996.
      96 Tears. Harpercollins, November 1996.
         No paperback edition.
      Umbrella Man. Putnam, hc, July 1999.
         Berkley, pb, May 2000.
      House of Corrections. Putnam, hc, August 2000.
         Berkley, pb, May 2001.

   That’s it. That’s all there were, and viewing it from the outside, it looks very much as though Flippo’s career was all but over after the first three. The Edgar nomination came in 1995 for Big Town in the category of Best First Novel of the Year. (It did not win. The award went to The Caveman’s Valentine by George Dawes Green, as I am sure you will recall.)

   Swanson himself was a long-time reporter for the Dallas Morning News, or so I’ve discovered, and at the age of only 53, there’s a good chance he still is. Luckily he’s had a day job to fall back upon. But what this also means is that he knows the Dallas area, and the people that live there, all kinds of them: the small-town hicks, the semi-slimy big-city entrepreneurs, the ladies of the evening, high and low, good folk and bad. He also has a sense of humor about his approach to mystery fiction (and probably life as well) that tickles my funny bone, and who knows, maybe yours as well.

Dreamboat

   Jack Flippo used to be an Assistant D.A. in Dallas. At the beginning of this book, he’s a non-practicing lawyer, a newly licensed investigator, and he’s in jail for simple assault. The victim: his ex-wife’s boyfriend. (This turns out to be important.)

   The case he’s asked to work on, by the insurance exec who bails him out, is to look into the death by drowning of a gent with a half-million dollar policy on him Off he goes, therefore, to a small town called Baggett, somewhere in East Texas, where he meets a small town justice of the peace and an even smaller (five foot six) hick sheriff by the name of Loyce Slapp. You can bet that Flippo doesn’t get anywhere, and fast, even if he suspects foul play, and you would win.

   He also meets a girl named Sally, good-looking, of course, and who works for the dead man’s partner in an exotic-type night club in Dallas. This is important, too, since a friend of hers named Bobby has gone missing, and she’s starting to get worried. Apparently he is (or was) in on whatever business went on in Baggett, and is in hiding (or worse). Thieves do fall out, and in Texas everything does grow taller, including tales like this one.

   While Jack is quick with the quip and talks with a basket full of confidence, I have to say (reluctantly) that it would be nice if he had a small modicum of competence to go with the confidence. Things do not always go smoothly for Mr. Flippo, in other words. Spenser he is not, not to mention that he does not have a Hawk for a back-up. Nor even back-up plans for every contingency, for that matter either. On the other hand, not all of his various problems and ill-times mini-disasters are entirely his fault, exactly.

   So a somewhat warped sense of humor (like mine) is what you need as a reader, and if that is what you have, you will have a rattling good time. On the other hand, and you may be certain that there is one, the story also goes off into some dark and dangerous directions now and then as well. It isn’t all funny-named characters who are in over their head in matters criminous. Some of the bad guys are rather competent, as a matter of fact. The ending – if I may now at this juncture skip over some of the story lines which you are better off reading yourself anyway – is better than average, even in comparison with PI novels which take themselves a lot more seriously.

    I would imagine that the five Jack Flippo novels are all there are going to be. If you were ever to spot one in a used bookshop shelf someday, may I suggest that you don’t pass it by. If the description of this one hasn’t sent you running in the other direction already, which of course I realize that it very well may, do yourself a favor and give it a new home. You’ll thank me, I’m sure, and maybe as early as the very same evening.

— September 2006