Hank Berlin
Created by Michael Kronewetter

One of the more substantial -- and certainly more entertaining -- takes on the small-town sleuth is First Kill (2005) by Michael Kronenwetter, who won the famous (or is that infamous?) Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press "Best Private Eye Novel" contest.

Despite the rather colorless title, First Kill is a corker, an ambitious breath of fresh air in the P.I. genre. Wisconsin private detective HANK BERLIN is no cheesehead -- heck, he doesn't even like the stuff -- but he's no super sleuth, either. Instead, he's a decent, likable businessman, a divorced "weekend father" and an aging Baby Boomer quietly plying his trade from his home office on Red Maple Street in sleepy Pinery Falls, the apparent municipal equivalent of television's Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name.

Not only is Liz Drucker, the young widow who shows up asking for help, a former teenage love of Hank's, but her husband, Jake, whose murder she wants investigated, is Hank's former best friend from high school. Adding fuel to the fire here is the fact that Jake was the star reporter for the Pinery Falls Torrent, the town's only newspaper, and the son of the paper's owner and publisher, Wesley Drucker, whose local clout is significant.

Reluctant at first to take the case (his ex-wife, a "hotshot executive," has dumped their 6-year-old son, Harry, in his lap while she's off to France on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Mueller's Cheese Company), Hank lets his old feelings and sympathies take hold, and before you can hum a few lines of Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," Hank's in the Drucker case way over his head.

By the way, that allusion to Dylan's 1975 ode to the diaspora of the 60s generation is one Hank would appreciate, for in many ways First Kill is all about the fallout from that turbulent era, its crushed ideals, its failed compromises, its lost "innocence," its guilty secrets and most especially, that "goddamn war."

From the song titles that form the names of each chapter (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles and all the other usual suspects are well represented here) to the increasing number of clues that seem to lead straight back to the past (including Hank's decision to wait out the Vietnam War in Canada, while Jake actually volunteered to go -- and came back a decorated hero), this is a book that is as much about the past as the present, and of how the weight of our yesterdays bears down increasingly on our todays -- and our tomorrows.

It's not that the author has reinvented the private-eye genre -- not by a long shot. But for a first-timer P.I. writer to reach so high, and to invest such well-rendered and recognizable characters with such familiar problems and concerns (work, family, friends and their increasing awareness of their own mortality), while simultaneously grappling with the bigger and apparently timeless issues of war, bravery, patriotism and doing the right thing ... well, the result is a novel packed with unexpected emotional resonance. Kronenwetter's First Kill is by far the strongest winner yet in a highly touted contest that has already introduced us to some very fine writers in the genre. Keep your eye on this guy.



Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A version of this appeared on January Magazine's The Rap Sheet.

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