JONATHAN VALIN – The Lime Pit. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1980. Avon, paperback, 1981. Dell, paperback, 1994.

   Somehow Sherlock Holmes is seldom if ever thought of as a private detective. He seems instead to be intellectually above all that, while of course in reality he was never averse to receiving a fee for his services. And so the fact remains that investigators-for-hire have been around for nearly as long as there’s been mystery fiction. It wasn’t until Dashiell Hammett came along, however, with his Sam Spade, the Continental Op and other detectives, that the private eye story was brought down to street level where it belongs, so to speak.

   In degrees of depravity and perversity, here is a book tougher and rougher than any of Hammett’s, by far, but of course you do have to realize that this is several generations of consciousness-raising later. Some of the scenes that occur in the course of Harry Stoner’s search for a missing girl would undoubtedly make a Marquis de Sade at least momentarily queasy.


   Nor is Valin the new Raymond Chandler — the first chapter in particular seems desperately overwritten — but as a more than capable wordsmith he learns quickly. Once begun it’s easy to find yourself vicariously trapped in the grimier depths of Cincinnati’s dingier sections, uncovering with private eye Stoner a hidden underground world of predatory sex and bloodseeking violence.

   Stoner is hired by a dirty old man whose 16-year-old living companion has run away. He has pictures of her, of the kind not sold under counters, but in back rooms only. Harry fears the worst.


   As a rescuer, Stoner is deliberately not cast in the Travis McGee philosophy/fantasy mold. The job is hopeless, and he knows it, yet he’s idealist enough to continue hunting for those responsible for whatever’s happened to Cindy Ann. His romantic liaison with a waitress named Jo is enjoyable, but it is not likely to continue with the success that Robert Parker’s Spenser has found with Susan Silverman.

   The key intended here instead is realism. The activities taking place in The Lime Pit may not always be wholly appetizing, but they are morbidly fascinating. And while Harry Stoner may be the consummate iconoclast in many regards, he’s still a superb example of the closest thing we have today to a knight in shining armor.

Rating:  A minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1980 (slightly revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

Editorial Comment:   My review of Final Notice, which you can find here on this blog, includes more discussion of the author and a complete list of the Harry Stoner books, of which The Lime Pit was the first.