MICHAEL Z. LEWIN – Night Cover

Detective Book Club; reprint hardcover, three-in-one edition. First edition hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Paperback reprints: Berkley, January 1980; Perennial Library, 1984; Foul Play Press, September 1995.

Called by a Panther

   For those who are interested, there is a slew of information about Michael Z. Lewin on his website, located at www.michaelzlewin.com. The first of his novels that I remember reading was one of the first three cases tackled by his private eye character, Albert Samson. I enjoyed them, and maybe I read all three, but the particulars? Right now, I couldn’t tell you.

      Ask the Right Question. Putnam, 1971.
      The Way We Die Now. Putnam, 1973.   [Note: My review appears in the preceding post.]
      The Enemies Within. Knopf, 1974

   A gap of few years was filled in by the book I just read (1976), followed by five other Samson novels, with a hiatus of 13 years between the last two:

Out of Season

      The Silent Salesman. Knopf, 1978.
      Missing Woman. Knopf, 1981.
      Out of Season. Morrow, 1984.
      Called by a Panther. Mysterious Press, 1991.
      Eye Opener. Five Star, 2004.

   As for the aforementioned book in hand, it’s the first title in Lewin’s Lt. Roy (Leroy) Powder series:

      Night Cover. Knopf, 1976.
      Hard Line. Morrow, 1982.
      Late Payments. Morrow, 1986.

   In addition to his own series, however, Samson also makes a small but significant appearance in Night Cover. Al Hubin, in Crime Fiction IV, does not mention Samson as having any role in the other two books, so with no first-hand knowledge of my own, it may be safe to assume that he does not.

   But on the other hand, maybe not. Not only does (Mrs.) Adele Buffington, a probation officer, appear in Night Cover, but she has a solo adventure of her own:

And Baby Will Fall

      And Baby Will Fall. Morrow, 1988.

      And not only that, a description I found of this book suggests that in it Adele is Samson’s girl friend, which puts a totally different light on something I was going to mention when I got to the review itself. Now that I think about it, I will anyway, but in any case, some further investigation is going to be needed. What I would like to know is simple. Which series characters are in which books?    [See the UPDATE below.]

   All three are in Night Cover, that much I do know, but there is no doubt that this is Powder’s book. He’s the lieutenant in charge of the Indianapolis police squad’s night squad (Homicide and Robbery), and I confess that I had him pegged wrong from the start. Powder is loud and obnoxious, his private life is a mess (married but not divorced), bullies his subordinates with exactitude, and only occasionally does he allow a hint of solicitude to creep in. Tough love? Maybe. As for civilians, watch out. They’re on their own when they deal with him.

   I also pictured him as somewhat obese, with a sagging belly, caused by too many doughnuts from being out on the streets on too many cases on too many nights.

Night Cover

   And yet. He’s fit enough to be attracted to the aforementioned Adele Buffington, the probation officer for the missing teen-aged girl that Powder is (in desultory fashion) looking for. And (more importantly) she to him.

   You can credit author Michael Z. Lewin for this. Looking back over the first couple of chapters, I can find no reference to Powder’s outward appearance. We learn about him only through what he says and what he does. Which is plenty. Up close and personal – but no physical description.

   In this book he meets private eye Albert Samson for the first time, and they definitely do not get along. If – and this is a big if – if Adele is Samson’s girl friend at the time – it is not so revealed, so I could easily be way out on a limb here, even in bringing it up – it puts a completely different slant on their later interactions, Samson, Powder and Adele. A twist in the plot that only those in the know would know about, if indeed there is anything to know.

   But surely I digress. When a Mao-quoting teen-aged boy comes in with a complaint about his teacher and his (questionable) grading policies, Powder indulges him (surprisingly) for a while. When the boy mentions a girl he knows who seems to have disappeared, Powder asks around and shunts him off to Samson.

   As a police procedural, which is what Night Cover is, there are a small multitude of other cases to be investigated and solved. Powder’s intuition on cases far exceeds those who work under him, to his great disappointment and frustration. Besides the missing girl, a sequence of murders suggests a copy-cat killer at work, requiring a vigorous search through back records to uncover patterns before the culprit(s) is/are nabbed.

   There are parts of this tale which are amusing, if not at times laugh-out-loud funny. Lewin has a knack for understated humor, a wry look at the world that you should experience for yourself. But there’s a serious side of the story as well. As Powder’s life story becomes more and more clear, he finds himself looking at himself and his career with a greater intensity than he ever has before.

   Being able to keep track of series characters in their daily life as they go from book to book is rather common in mystery fiction published today. Watching one change before one’s eyes from the beginning of one book to the end is not so common, neither now nor thirty years ago, when this book was first written.

— September 2005

[UPDATE] November 2005.    I forwarded the review to Mr. Lewin, and received the following replies, interrupted by a question from me:

    “Thanks for letting me know about the review you did of Night Cover, and for paying attention to such a venerable volume.

    “As for your questions, Powder was not in the first three Samson books, but he has appeared in the five later Samson books including the current one, Eye Opener (Five Star, 2004).

Eye Opener

    “Adele appeared in Samson’s first seven novels as his woman friend – so she was in her relationship with Samson during Night Cover. I doubt I mentioned it. That was her issue and the book was Powder’s.

    “In the new book Adele appears, but she is no longer Samson’s amour. She also had her own book, And Baby Will Fall (Child Proof in the UK). I think Samson was in that; Powder may have been mentioned.

    “The subsequent Powder novels have included Samson but not, as far as I recall, Adele. Powder has also appeared in another Indianapolis novel, Underdog (Mysterious Press, 1993), and two short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – “Night Shift” and “911.” The latter was earlier this year.

    “Mind you, I haven’t exactly read the books lately, so if I’ve gotten details wrong here and there, I won’t faint.”

    Steve: Not identifying Adele Buffington as being involved with Samson at the same time she had her brief affair with Powder is what you call “her issue” and what I considered considerable constraint on your part. Other authors may have made quite a to-do about it, intensifying the relationship between the three of them immensely, but in very usual ways.

    “As I said earlier, Adele was Samson’s woman friend from the beginning and through the first seven novels. Your concern is that she got close to Powder briefly. Well, Samson might have been upset, at least for a while, if he’d ever known about it, but she would never have told him, and neither would Powder. Adele’s subsequent relationship with and affection for Samson was unchanged; how she handled it or justified it was her business.

    “I might have gone into that more if I’d ever written more books about her but, for various reasons, that didn’t happen and is unlikely to happen now. Depending, of course, on the size of the check you’re offering me to write them. I think it would have to be pretty large…”