JONATHAN VALIN – Dead Letter. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1981. Avon, paperback, 1982. Dell paperback, 1994.

   The focus in this, the third adventure of Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner, is academia, and the scurrilous sort of in-fighting and backstabbing that it is rumored goes on in such circles. As one of the characters puts it on page 197, “They don’t make very good human beings, scholars. They don’t have it in them to care for anything but themselves and their work.”

   I could argue the point, I think, but hardly with 100 per-cent conviction. The fact remains that this case of Harry Stoner’s is at once his most confusing and his most involving. Neither his client, a professor who believes his Marxist-environmentalist daughter has stolen a secret government document from him, nor the daughter herself are quite what Stoner takes them at first to be.

   Professor Daryl Lovingwell loves his daughter Sarah, or so he says. After his death, Stoner discovers an immense hatred between the two, and yet, although he had liked his client, with Kate gone (the library cop Stoner had become so involved with in Final Notice), the inevitable begins to happen between Sarah and himself.

   In a number of ways, this case is a tough one for Stoner to fathom, and even more so for the reader. Characterizations are deliberately murky, sketched from a multitude of conflicting viewpoints. The entire affair is filled with a moral ambiguity almost unnatural for a detective story.

   And so this is unlikely to be everyone’s favorite Harry Stoner novel — there is not much here to brighten the overall gloom. If it should come to it, however, a second reading will reveal how tightly structured this tale actually is. While it may not have been totally visible the first time, above all what it will demonstrate is that as an author, Jonathan Valin knows exactly what it is that he’s up to.

Rating: A minus.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982 (very slightly revised)