Category Archives: Walter Mosley

I Like the Way You Talk*

The way we speak says a lot about us. That’s patently obvious, but it has a lot of implications for an author. Speaking patterns and interactions with others can give the reader information about a character’s age group, social class, level of education, and more. It can also reveal some interesting information about the relationship between characters. It’s little wonder, then, that the way characters speak to each other can show-not-tell what’s going on in a story. This is a crime fiction blog, so the examples I’ve thought of are all from crime novels. But it really does apply no matter what sort of fiction one reads.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing murder of the Fourth Baron Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder. And there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. Poirot has more than one conversation with Jane Wilkinson. Here’s a bit of one of them:
 

‘‘M. Poirot, I want to talk to you. I must talk to you.’
‘But certainly, Madame, will you not sit down?’
‘No, no, not here. I want to talk to you privately. We’ll go right upstairs to my suite.’’
 

Just from these few lines, it’s clear that Jane Wilkinson has a high social position, and is accustomed to getting her way. While she may not look down on Poirot, she certainly doesn’t see him as a social superior. By way of contrast, here’s a tiny bit of a conversation that Poirot has with Jane’s servant, Ellis.
 

‘‘Sit here, will you not, Mademoiselle – Ellis, I think?’
‘Yes, sir, Ellis.’’
‘To begin with, Miss Ellis, you have been with Lady Edgware how long?
‘Three years, sir.’’
 

Here, it’s clear that Ellis speaks to Poirot as a social superior. Christie fans know that Poirot has a way of making members of the ‘serving class’ comfortable, and that’s what happens here. It turns out Ellis provides very helpful information.

In Walther Mosley’s A Red Death, we are introduced to Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. In this novel, we learn that he owns three apartment buildings, including the one in which he lives. He was able to purchase them with money from an investigation he did (see Devil in a Blue Dress for the details). For several reasons, he prefers to keep his identity as the owner of the building a secret, and masquerades as the maintenance man/janitor. The one man who does know Easy’s secret is the man who manages the building, a man named Mofass. He knows which side of his bread’s buttered, so to speak, so he speaks accordingly. Here’s the way he speaks to a tenant who’s late with the rent:
 

‘‘I’ll be back on Saturday, and if you ain’t got the money, you better be gone!’’
 

A moment later, he sees Easy, with whom he made plans to have lunch:
 

‘‘Are you ready to leave, Mr. Rawlins?’’
 

On the one hand, Mofass’ speech patterns consistently reflect his background, social class, and the like. But his interactions also show his relationship to the tenants and to Rawlins. These particular interactions aren’t, admittedly, closely related to the main plot. But they show the way that dialogue and interactions show character.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano series will know that one of his friends is Nicolò Zito, a TV journalist who works at Vigatà’s Free Channel. The two help one another when the situation calls for it, and they have a comfortable relationship. This is clear from a conversation they have in The Shape of Water. In that novel, Montalbano is investigating the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. Here’s just a bit of a conversation he has with Zito, during which he chides his friend for not being more hard-hitting in the station’s covering of Luparello’s death:
 

‘‘…and you guys, instead of seizing the moment for all it’s worth, you all toe the line and cast a veil of mercy over how he died.’
‘We’re not really in the habit of taking advantage of such things.’
Montalbano started laughing.
‘Would you do me a favor, Nicolò? Would you and everyone else at the Free Channel please go f*** yourselves?’
Zito started laughing in turn.’

 

It’s easy to see the two men have a comfortable relationship, and that they’ve known each other for some time.

Interactions can also be used to show age and generation differences. We see that, for instance, in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. In that novel, twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls is having trouble in school, although he’s extremely intelligent. He has difficulty with anger management, and he’s socially awkward. What he really wants is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Here’s jus a tiny bit of one of their conversations:
 
‘‘Of course…if you can’t give me your word that you’ll act like a professional and conduct yourself like a gentleman, then maybe you’re not ready yet.’’…
‘Okay, Toots, you got yourself a deal.’…
‘Promise.’
‘Christ, Lady, you win. I promise…But let’s get one thing straight: the name’s Huge.’
She started to laugh and then covered her mouth. ‘I beg your pardon, Huge. As for our arrangement, can I trust you to carry it out in the strictest confidence?’’
 

Here, we see the generational difference between Huge and his grandmother. We also see that they have a close relationship. Huge’s grandmother is one of the few people who understand his desire to be a detective.

And then there’s Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, which introduces Cardiff Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths. Fiona has several personal and mental health issues she deals with, but she is, for the most part, functional. And she knows she has to function as part of a team if she’s going to do her job. Still, she can be prickly, and she affects a bad temper at times, mostly to keep people from getting too close. Here’s a bit of a conversation she has with a workmate, Detective Sergeant (DS) David Brydon. They’re talking about the eye-glazing task of compiling financial evidence against former police officer named Brian Penry, who’s suspected of illegal activity.
 

‘‘He’ll plead guilty’ [Brydon]
‘I know he’ll plead guilty.’
‘Got to be done, though.’
‘Ah, yes, forgot it was State the Obvious Day. Sorry.’’
 

This interaction shows both the camaraderie between the two, and the fact that Fiona prefers to keep people at a distance.

And that’s the thing about dialogue and interactions in stories. They can reveal an awful lot about characters, relationships, and more. Interactions can reveal clues, too, but that’s the topic for another post, I think…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Susie Q.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Harry Bingham, James W. Fuerst, Walter Mosley

Any Two-Bit Job That Pays*

Not every PI or attorney is well-known and sought-after by the rich and famous. In fact, some lawyers and PIs are very much ‘low rent.’ There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. Sometimes it’s because of the sorts of cases they take. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have recognition. There are other reasons, too.

These sorts of attorneys and PIs can make for interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they may have interesting backstories. For another, the sorts of cases and people they deal with are often (not always) gritty, if I can put it that way. And that can add a layer of interest to a story, to say nothing of plot points.

For instance, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to low-rent PI Harry Angel. He’s not used to dealing with ‘upper crust’ clients, but one day, he gets a call from an upmarket law firm. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a missing man. His quarry is talented jazz artist Jonathan Liebling, also known as Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he helped Liebling out at the beginning of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral.’  World War II intervened, and Liebling came back from combat physically and emotionally damaged. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, but now, he’s disappeared. Angel agrees to take the case, and starts to ask questions. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. Instead, he’s drawn into a web of murder, horror, and evil.

Fans of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will know that he used to be a New York City police detective. A tragic accidental shooting changed everything, and as the series begins, he’s a down-at-the-heels occasional PI. He doesn’t even have his license at first, and he barely maintains a home. He doesn’t have his own office, either; instead, he holds court in local bars. As the series goes on, Scudder does a little better, gets his official PI license, and so on. But he still deals with plenty of gritty characters and places.

So does Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. When he loses his wartime (World War II) job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has to find some way to make a living. So, he accepts a commission to find a missing woman in Devil in a Blue Dress. From then, he begins to get a reputation for being able to find missing people and solve other problems. Like Scudder, he doesn’t have a regular office or a fine home. And a lot of the people he helps are ‘regular people,’ rather than wealthy, well-connected people. As the series goes on, he gets an official PI license, and has some success. But he generally doesn’t mix with those who go to ‘A-list’ parties.

There’s also C.B. McKenzie’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now works as an occasional bounty hunter and low-rent private investigator. He doesn’t have an office, or post advertisements. Instead, he gets clients by word of mouth. That’s how he hears that Katherine Rocha wants him to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. The official explanation for the boy’s death is that he fell from a bridge (or possibly, committed suicide). But there’s also evidence that he might have been shot, and knocked from the bridge. If so, his grandmother wants to know who shot the boy and why. Garnet takes the case, and soon finds that some wealthy and well-connected people do not want the death investigated.

Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will know that she, too, starts out as what you might call a ‘low-rent’ PI. Certainly, she doesn’t live a wealthy life, and her clients are not always well-connected.

There’s also mystery novelist and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms’ Dinger. He’s a low-rent PI in post-World War II Las Vegas. He’s a tough, hardboiled sort of a guy, who’s not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of low-life types. Helms has published his Dinger stories in serial form. You can read Part One of one of them, Rose, right here. Once you do, you’ll want to read the other parts, too! I hope – I really do – that we’ll see more of Dinger. A-hem, Mr. Helms…

Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin is a Liverpool-based attorney. But he’s not the sort you see in high-profile, lucrative cases. He’s a low-rent attorney who makes his living defending drunks, prostitutes and thieves, among others. He’s got a small place, and works in a cheap firm. So, he sees the gritty side of the city. In All The Lonely People, where we first meet him, Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife, Liz, comes for a visit. She says she’s left her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because he’s abusive, and she’s afraid of him. She asks to stay with Devlin a few days, and he agrees. Then, she disappears, and her body is found in an alley. Devlin feels guilty because he didn’t take Liz’ concerns seriously at first, and decides to find out who murdered her. At first, he assumes that Coghlin is the killer. But the more Devlin learns, the more possibilities there are. His search for the truth takes him into several of Liverpool’s seedy places.

And then there’s Attica Locke’s Jay Porter. When we are introduced to him, in Black Water Rising, he’s a low-rent Houston-area lawyer. It’s 1981, and Porter is trying to build his law business. But so far, he’s not been very successful. Then, in one plot thread, he gets drawn into the case of a fatal shooting. The trail leads to some very high, very well-protected places, and it’s a big risk for Porter. He’s black in what is still very much a white person’s world. And he’s up against some considerable opposition.

Low-rent, two-bit, down-at-the-heel, whatever you call it, such fictional attorneys and PIs add an interesting layer to crime fiction. They often deal with the sorts of cases others might not be willing to handle. And they themselves can be interesting characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clouds’ Pocket.

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Filed under Attica Locke, C.B. McKenzie, E. Michael Helms, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, William Hjortsberg

We Pay Our Taxes Just Like They Say*

A lot of us grumble about paying taxes. I know I do, at times. But taxes fund our infrastructure, among many other things. And I’d argue that most of us like it when roads and bridges are maintained, letters and parcels delivered, fires put out, and so on.

But there’s another reason to pay one’s taxes. It’s illegal not to do so. And national taxing authorities do not take kindly to tax evasion. That’s how Al Capone was eventually brought down, as you’ll no doubt know (he was convicted of tax evasion on 17 October, 1931). Even in crime fiction, people get in a lot of trouble when they don’t pay taxes.

For example, in James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, we are introduced to a down-and-out farmer named Jack Macdonald. He’s just lost his property due to non-payment of taxes, and has to start over. He begins working for his friend, Smuts Milligan, who owns a local store. Milligan wants to expand his business into a roadhouse and dance hall, and Macdonald works with him to put his plans in motion. The business doesn’t go as planned, though, and both Milligan and Macdonald become desperate for money.  And financial desperation is, as we all know, is one of the surest ways to real trouble. In this case, it leads to brutal murder. This novel may not be for the faint of heart, but it shows clearly what can happen when a little money trouble leads to not paying taxes.

David Dodge’s Death and Taxes is the story of George MacLeod, a successful San Francisco accountant. A major part of the reason he’s successful is that he’s very good at finding tax loopholes for his clients. He is quite creative at finding ways to save them money, but at the same time not raise too many ‘red flags’ for anyone who might be auditing either his business or his clients’ tax returns. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff, who wants him to help her resolve a difficult tax situation. He’s been offered a very large fee if he helps her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, even though she hasn’t filed tax paperwork recently. It doesn’t make anything easier that Marian’s father, Harald Wolff, is a wealthy bootlegger who’s linked up with all sorts of dubious people. MacLeod’s got his work cut out for him, as the saying goes, so he asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz, and help with this client’s case. By the time Whit returns, though, it’s too late. MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit’s got to finish Marian Wolff’s tax return, and find out who killed his partner, if he’s going to stay alive himself.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins knows all too well about paying taxes. In A Red Death, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter states that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes, and will go to prison if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay that much money, and starts mentally planning for a term of imprisonment. Then, he gets a reprieve from FBI agent Daryll Craxton. It seems that the FBI has targeted a suspected communist named Chaim Weitzman (this novel takes place in the early 1950’s during the McCarthy Era in the US). Craxton tells Rawlins that if he helps bring Weitzman down, Craxton can make his tax troubles go away. Rawlins sees no other option, so he agrees to the plan. It turns out that Weitzman volunteers at a local church, so Rawlins gets involved with the church, too, in order to get close to his quarry. Then, two murders occur there, and Rawlins is framed for them. Now, he has to find out who the real killer is and clear his own name. To add to this, he’s gotten to know Weitzman, and finds that he likes the man. So, he also has to walk a fine line between keeping his new friend safe, and keeping his commitment to the FBI.

There’s also Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first of her Hilary Tamar series. Tamar is a former Oxford don who still mentors former student Timothy Shepherd, who’s become a London attorney. In this novel, one of Shepherd’s lawyer friends, Julia Larwood, is facing a great deal of trouble because she owes a lot of money in back taxes. So, in part to ease the stress of dealing with that problem, she decides to take an Art Lovers holiday and tour in Venice. It’s supposed to be a chance to relax, enjoy the time in Venice, and meet a young and willing man for a fling. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Larwood ends up being accused of the murder of Ned Watson, who was also on the trip, and whom she managed to seduce. There’s plenty of evidence against her, but she claims she’s innocent. Her friends work to clear her name, and find out who really killed Watson. In an interesting plot twist, it turns out that Watson worked for Inland Revenue (now HM Revenue and Customs). And that goes to show that life isn’t any easier for tax agency employees than it is for the rest of us taxpayers…  (I know, fans of The Sirens Sang of Murder. Taxes are a big part of that novel, too.).

And then there’s John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt. ‘Salvage Consultant’ Travis McGee discovers that an old football friend, Tush Bannon, is being pressured heavily to sell his small marina/motel business in order to pave the way for a large land development scheme. Bannon resists, but his opponents do everything possible (including a lot that’s at the very least unscrupulous) to get him to change his mind. Then, Bannon is found dead of an apparent suicide. McGee doesn’t think his former friend killed himself, and looks into the matter on behalf of Bannon’s widow, Jan, and their children. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. These are men who are thoroughly familiar with all of the ways to evade taxes and shelter their money. And they are ruthless. But McGee has his economist friend Meyer on his side. And together, they create their own financial scheme to ‘sting’ their opponents. Among other things, this novel shows just how people go about trying to duck their tax responsibilities.

But that’s never a good idea. Tax agencies are relentless, and they do not appreciate being bilked. And that tension can make for a solid story line.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from April Wine’s Money Talks.

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Filed under David Dodge, James Ross, John D. MacDonald, Sarah Caudwell, Walter Mosley

Where You Come From*

One of the interesting things about fictional PIs is the diversity in their backgrounds. The profession isn’t limited to people who have a particular academic degree or job experience. This means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to a PI’s background. And that can make for intriguing layers of character development, to say nothing of plot points and other characters.

There are some fictional PIs who decide early in life that that will be their profession. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, chose the profession quite deliberately. And, in A Study in Scarlet, he describes himself to Dr. Watson as
 

‘…a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.’’
 

He’s carefully prepared for his career, too. In fact, his focus is so much on being the finest detective that he doesn’t take a lot of interest in topics unless they’ll be helpful to him professionally.

There are many fictional PIs who are former police officers. This means that they may very well have connections within the police community. And that can either be a source of valuable information, or an obstacle, depending on how the author wants to use that relationship.

For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). He decided that life on the police force wasn’t for him, and hung out his own shingle. But he still has contacts on the force. He doesn’t spend a lot of social time with his former colleagues, and he’s much happier as a PI. But he’s established a useful and mutually beneficial relationship with the SPS.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he used to be a member of the Belgian police. That career ended, and then life changed abruptly with the advent of World War I. Poirot went to England as a refugee and started a career in private detection there. Interestingly enough, Christie doesn’t delve very much into Poirot’s early history. There are a few stories (right, fans of The Chocolate Box) that shed some light on Poirot’s life as a police detective. But he doesn’t maintain ties with his former colleagues.

Sometimes, fictional private investigators get into the business unexpectedly, or even accidentally. For instance, Dick Francis’ Sid Halley was at one time a well-known jockey. But he suffered a riding accident that severely injured his left hand and ended his riding career. At loose ends, so to speak, he got a job working for a large private detective agency, Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Private investigation wasn’t in Halley’s plan, and he’s bitter over the loss of his racing career. Still, he’s had to find some sort of job. His real career in private detection, though, begins in Odds Against, when his former father-in-law asks him to uncover a plot to take over the Seabury Racecourse for development. This case, which brings Halley back into contact with the racing world, also, as you might say, brings him back to life. He becomes a racetrack investigator; and, although he misses riding, and is still sometimes bitter, he manages to put himself back together.

Some PIs start by doing informal investigations, mostly to help friends. It’s only later that they make it an official business. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is like that. As the series begins (in Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s been laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s shortly after the end of World War II, and several former aircraft, munitions, and other war-related factories are closing or downsizing. Rawlins has to find some way to earn a living. So, when his friend, a bar owner named Joppy, introduces him to a man named DeWitt Albright, Rawlins listens to what Albright has to say. Albright is looking for a woman named Daphne Monet, who seems to have gone missing. He wants Rawlins to find her, and is willing to pay well for it. Rawlins is in serious need of money, so he agrees. But, as he soon discovers, this isn’t a simple case of finding a woman who may be in hiding. It involves theft, blackmail, and murder. Rawlins solves the case, and he does get paid, but he works informally for the first few novels in this series. Mostly, he does things for friends and their acquaintances.

That’s also the case with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. He was a New York homicide detective (another former police officer!). But a tragic accidental shooting changed everything. As the series begins (with The Sins of the Fathers), he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ job. But he does know how to find people and get answers. He works very informally. As he puts it:
 

‘‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’’
 

He doesn’t get his official PI license until later in the series.

Some PIs have very unusual backgrounds. Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch for instance, is a former stripper. She still does gigs now and again. It might seem unlikely that a stripper would make the change to a career as a PI. But for Kirsch, there’s a reason. When she got the point where it was time to quit, she tried to join the Victoria Police. That’s because she’s still grateful to the police for saving her life and her mother’s and brother’s when she was younger. But,
 

‘Either I didn’t have the moral credentials to be a girl in blue, or the Victoria Police had enough scandal without dropping a stripper into the mix.
 

She’s not accepted into police training, so she decides that the PI course is the next best thing. And she’s good at it, too. It helps that she stays in close contact with several people in ‘the business.’ They’re often good sources if information.

Fictional PIs (real ones, too) sometimes have some fascinating backgrounds, or at least unusual ones. That can add to a story, and make for solid character development and contexts.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Lawrence Block, Leigh Redhead, Walter Mosley

‘Cause I’m Unpredictable*

Some of the more interesting characters in crime fiction are appealing because one can never be sure exactly what they’re going to do. In order to make such a character credible, the author has to make sure there’s some stability (i.e. ‘Yes, that’s the sort of thing X might do’). But at the same time, these characters are just unpredictable enough that anything might happen. It’s a delicate balance, but when an author achieves it, that sort of character can be memorable.

For instance, James Lee Burke’s sleuth is New Iberia, Louisiana, police detective Dave Robicheaux. His best friend, and former police partner, is Cletus ‘Clete’ Purcell, who’s an interesting character in his own right. He drinks more than he should, and doesn’t always steer clear of trouble. In that way, he’s a little unpredictable. But he is loyal to Robicheaux, and he’s not afraid to get into a fight and knock heads together if needs be. And Robicheaux knows that Purcell won’t desert him when things get dangerous. Purcell’s character adds a dimension to Robicheaux’s personality, and has allowed Burke flexibility about plot lines, suspenseful scenes, and tension building.

We could say similar things about Walter Mosley’s Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. He’s an old friend of Mosley’s protagonist, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. The two grew up together in Louisiana, and have remained friends ever since. On the one hand, Mouse can be what’s sometimes called a ‘loose cannon.’ He has a hair-trigger temper and very few boundaries. He’s not the sort of person you want to upset. And he’s caused more than his share of trouble, in his way, for Rawlins. But he is loyal to his friend. And he’s completely unafraid. He’s saved Rawlins’ life, and survived an awful lot, including being shot in the back. Mouse isn’t what you’d call a nice person. But Rawlins knows that when it comes down to it, Mouse will be there, if I can put it that way.

Robert Crais’ Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole isn’t the biggest, or strongest, of people. He’s smart and quick-thinking, but that’s not always enough to keep him out of trouble. Fortunately, his PI partner is Joe Pike. A former member of the military, Pike is quick and skilled with weapons, of which he has plenty. He’s not a man of many words, but he can be very intimidating. And he’s not afraid to ‘mix it up’ if that’s necessary. You couldn’t really call him uncontrollable, but he’s certainly not one to stand by, if I can put it that way. And yet, Pike is highly disciplined in his way. And he’s loyal to Cole. When situations get dangerous, as they sometimes do, Cole knows that he can depend on Pike, and the two have a successful partnership. Even Cole’s feral cat approves of Pike; in fact, he’s the only human that the cat trusts.

Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch is a Melbourne-based former stripper (she does an occasional gig) who’s trying to make a success of her PI business. Because of her background, she knows several people in the adult entertainment business. One of them is her best friend, Chloe Wozniak. When we first meet Chloe, in Peepshow, she’s a stripper at a peepshow place called Shaft Cinema. As the series goes on, Chloe opens her own business, Chloe’s Elite Strippers. Although Simone is the main character in this series (it’s told from her point of view, too), Chloe is hardly a ‘shrinking violet.’ She’s not intimidated by clients, strip club owners and managers, or, really, anyone else. In fact, in Peepshow, she’s taken hostage by an underworld ‘tough guy,’ and isn’t intimidated by him either. I don’t think it’s not spoiling the story to say that she doesn’t sit quivering in a corner. Chloe may not be utterly reckless, but she’s not always predictable, either.

And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves, in which we are introduced to James Beck. He and some of his friends own a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Very few people know that he bought the bar with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after he spent eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His co-owners are all people he met in prison, and who are now ‘going straight.’ One of those people is Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, who used to be a gang leader. He’s not in that life any more, but he hasn’t lost his toughness. He can be unstable, too, although he’s not mindlessly rash. Beck knows that Guzman is perfectly capable of following through on any threat he might make, and he’s not afraid to do so. That’s why he’s so concerned when he learns that Guzman has said he’s going to kill someone. Then, he finds out the reason. Guzman’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, has asked for his help. She says that she was fired from her job at an upmarket investment firm, and ‘blacklisted’ so that she won’t be able to find a job elsewhere. All of this has happened because she was going to ‘blow the whistle’ on some very questionable transactions. She’s filed a lawsuit against one of her colleagues, Alan Crane, who she says threatened her, breaking two of her fingers. Crane says that she attacked him, and that he was defending himself. When Guzman hears what his cousin has to say, he’s ready to take care of Crane in his own way. But Beck convinces him to wait, and at least talk to both parties first. Guzman reluctantly agrees. This case turns out to be much more complicated than a dispute between two ex-colleagues. And before they know it, Beck and his friends (including Guzman) are mixed up in a case involving Russian gangsters, US arms dealers, and more than one dangerous thug. Through it all, Guzman remains on ‘hair trigger’ alert, and that adds to the tension in the story. At the same time, he is loyal to Beck, and he understands the consequences if he lets rash decisions get in the way of helping his cousin.

And that’s the thing about such characters. They may be unpredictable, and sometimes even a little reckless. But they’re smart, and they’re loyal. And they can add much to a crime novel. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Robertson and Skye Sweetnam’s Unpredictable.

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Filed under James Lee Burke, John Clarkson, Leigh Redhead, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley