Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead Folks’ Blues by Steve Womack

Dead Folks’ Blues (Fawcett, 1992) is the first book in the Harry James Denton private investigator series by Steve Womack, published between 1992 and 2000. All six titles in the series were shortlisted for at least one major award and twice won it. This first book won an Edgar for Best Paperback in 1993. The fifth won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback in 1999, as well as being shortlisted for both an Anthony and an Edgar in the same year. That level of consistency in a series is rare.

Harry James Denton is an ex-reporter. ‘Ex’ because he engaged in a battle with his newspaper employer and, as is generally the case, lost. He decided to become a private investigator, figuring his researching skills were easily transferable. While he waits for PI work to materialize, he helps his friend repo vehicles. Not coincidentally, his friend also has great access to financial databases that are usually closely held, databases that turn out to be really useful to Denton.

His first paying customer is Rachel Fletcher, his old college flame, who asks him to help her surgeon husband find his way out of the morass of gambling debts that are rapidly sinking him. She officially knows nothing about them but has intercepted some threats meant for her husband. Denton asks around and learns Dr. Fletcher not only is deep in debt to his neighborhood bookie but he also has few fans and fewer friends. When he turns up dead in his own hospital, most of his students are quietly delighted. Many of them attend his funeral just to be sure he is in fact gone.

The police do not welcome the “help” of a private investigator, much less an inexperienced one like Denton. He persists in his inquiries, however, not making noticeable headway but realizes he has rattled a cage or two when there’s another murder. Fortunately, he has a cast-iron alibi for this one because the police would love to arrest him just to get him out of the way.

Denton as a character does not especially stand out from dozens of other fictional PIs in his first outing. I assume that he becomes more fully realized as the series progresses. However, the secondary characters are wonderful. The country songwriting team with an office down the hall from Denton, the gambling kingpin who owns the action in that part of town, and Marsha, the medical examiner, all are fresh and well drawn. And the description of Nashville is spot on. Anyone who knows Nashville will understand the references to the traffic, the smog, and the tourists with heartfelt sympathy.

Recommended for devotees of private investigator mysteries and for those who try to read all of the nominees for important awards. I look at those chosen titles as a reading list, although I’ve never managed to keep up with all of them. A good read!

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller released her 35th book about Sharon McCone in 2018. Sharon is one of the earliest contemporary female private investigators I could find. Of course there was Miss Silver who first appeared in the late 1920s and Honey West, who was a caricature of a PI in the 1960s. But as far as modern realistic attempts to portray a woman earning a living as a private detective, the first seems to have been Cordelia Gray, introduced by P.D. James in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1972. Then came Sharon’s appearance five years later in 1977, followed by Delilah West in 1980 and Maggie Elliot in 1981. The iconic V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone both saw the light of day in 1982. Shortly afterwards the floodgates opened and readers had any number of women PIs to choose from, including taxi-driving Carlotta Carlyle and bartending Kat Colorado. Sadly enough, of the early arrivals only V.I. and Sharon are still around.

Sharon’s first case was Edwin of the Iron Shoes (David McKay, 1977). We learn right away that Sharon is the investigator for All Souls Cooperative, a legal plan for lower incomes in San Francisco, and her boss has called her to come to a small commercial strip that had been consulting with the cooperative over a series of vandalism events. This time one of the shop owners has been murdered. The police detective in charge does not want Sharon getting in his way so she uses the firm’s need to inventory the store for the owner’s estate as a reason for her to be on-site and to ask questions.

There are a number of things that don’t add up, such as how this particular shop appeared to be prosperous when the other stores on the street are barely getting by. A couple of break-ins while Sharon is in the store alone at night are frightening and tell her that there’s something valuable still there. Sharon doesn’t know enough about antiques to be able to tell what it is and she doesn’t trust the other dealers in the neighborhood enough to consult with them.

A story that is very much of its time and place. The partners in All Souls are the protestors of the 1960s grown up but still determined to make the world a better place. Computers had yet to commandeer the world. Apple meant the fruit in a lunch box and windows were holes in walls. Telephones stayed in one place, tethered by a cord. In many ways this book is historical fiction. Technology aside, the mystery is solidly plotted and solved. Along the way, key characters in this long-running series are introduced and their personalities begin to take shape, foreshadowing later stories. A good reminder of how this enduring series started. 

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Blood Type by Stephen Greenleaf

Stephen Greenleaf published 14 private investigator mysteries between 1979 and 2000. Each book focuses on a social issue: Southern Cross talked about the Civil Rights movement and Strawberry Sunday is engrossed with migrant farm labor. His protagonist John Marshall Tanner, who lived and mostly worked in San Francisco, is thoughtful and literate, with the usual inability to commit to a long-term relationship. The series was critically well regarded but never achieved significant financial success, and Greenleaf wrapped it up with book 14. Ed Lynskey wrote an excellent essay that summarized each of the 14 books and included an interview he’d conducted with Greenleaf by email. See it on Mystery,

In Blood Type (William & Morrow, 1992), #8 in the series, Tanner drops into his favorite watering hole, an unobtrusive bar that allows some of the regulars to congregate in a back room. His friend Tom Crandall is often there, reading, but this particular night Tom has something on his mind. The two generally do not share the details of their personal lives but Tom confides in Tanner that a well-known business man is in the process of stealing Tom’s wife. He wants Tanner’s advice on what his legal options are; Tanner is sorry to tell him that there really aren’t any. A week after this upsetting discussion Tanner finds Tom’s obituary in the newspaper.

The police aren’t sure how Tom died and want to write the death off as suicide so Tanner sets out to learn more. He interviews Tom’s widow, his mother, his work partner, and others, acquiring much more insight into Tom’s life, as well as more about the medical clinics and plasma banks in the low-rent areas of San Francisco where Tom found himself much of the time. This section of the book provides a worrying view of the way blood banks collected their product then. Subsequently, fortunately, practices have been upgraded.

Much of the story describes the steps of the investigation and Tanner’s thought processes, it is not fast-moving, no car chases or shootouts to speak of, although Tanner finds himself in danger more than once. Some readers will find it too leisurely in its pace. I consistently find his introspectiveness and social conscience appealing. I highly recommend these books to readers of private investigator series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

More than 45 years ago a mononymous private investigator strolled onto the printed page and into the public consciousness, where he has remained, making him one of the most durable characters of contemporary fiction. He features in 40 novels written by his creator Robert B. Parker and lives on in the series credibly continued by Ace Atkins. Over the course of the series Parker gave this Boston private eye named Spenser, with an S like the poet, a love interest in Susan Silverman, a relationship that lapsed far too often into melodrama for my taste. And Spenser had an unlikely BFF in Hawk, variously described as a gun for hire by anyone with enough money or an enforcer or a body guard. Members of the local underworld as well as members of the area law enforcement agencies appeared in the background of the books frequently.

The plots were solid enough and the characters engaging enough to be optioned for screen adaptation. The casting for the subsequent television series and movies was questionable — as much as I liked Robert Ulrich, he did not have enough edge to fit my idea of Spenser. Joe Mantegna was closer but still not quite right. The selection of Avery Brooks for Hawk, though, was nothing short of inspired. Brooks captured the essence of the urbane thug perfectly, and he is always who I think of when I envision Hawk.

But all of that lay in the future. The Godwulf Manuscript (Houghton Mifflin, 1973) was Spenser’s first case. Reviewing outlets such as Kirkus and the New York Times found it to be nothing out of the ordinary, and perhaps it is not. It seems so to me because of the introduction of its leading character and the establishment of the framework for stories to come. Spenser is retained by a Boston university to locate a stolen illuminated manuscript that is being held for ransom that the university cannot pay. Right away he shows himself to be someone who dislikes authority in almost any form, smart-mouthing the university president and the campus security manager and the police later on. In his search for a lead on the location of the manuscript he meets members of a campus radical group. Shortly thereafter one of them is killed and the other one is charged with his murder. Spenser decides that the police are simply looking for a fast and easy way to close the case and goes full out to find the manuscript and the real killer.

Just how much of Spenser was Parker is a perennial question to serious readers of the books. It’s clear there is some overlap. They were both ex-boxers and they both served in Korea. Someone went to considerable effort to establish a biography of Spenser derived from the books and posted it to Wikipedia here: Parker was not concerned with biographical continuity in the books, as this article indicates. For instance, sometimes his mother died when he was born and sometimes she died when he was a child. The Wikipedia analysis makes fascinating reading.

Reading The Godwulf Manuscript and then reading a later Spenser title immediately thereafter is especially informative. Recommended to anyone who hasn’t re-read the early books in the series for awhile and particularly to readers who have come late to the Spenser canon.