Hard-boiled detective fiction has always claimed to be superior to other sub-genres, based on its realism. Since Raymond Chandler, hard-boiled authors have claimed that their work deals with real social issues, life as it is truly lived in the underbelly of society. As thinking readers should know, this is rubbish. Hard-boiled crime fiction is often just as much a fantasy as the work of any Golden Age writer. Sure, the settings may be lower-rent, the crimes more realistically brutal, but the only difference is that wrongs are righted by a foul-mouthed, gun-toting, rough-and-ready guy in a battered raincoat rather than an exquisitely-mannered aristocrat in evening dress.
Maybe that's why Michael Z. Lewin is so under-rated. Lewin, an American transplanted to Somerset, England, has produced a series of novels set in Indianapolis, most of them featuring his low-rent gumshoe, ALBERT SAMSON. Each time one gets published, they're seized by the initiated with cries of joy, yet still there are plenty of crime fans who've heard about them.
Nobody would fantasize about being Albert. He's perpetually short of cash, drives a beat-up van because it's all he can afford, rather than to blend in on surveillance duty, and has never blown a dirtbag away in
Samson doesn't see himself as a crusader against evil. Most often his cases start with the most prosaic of issues. A woman wants to find her birth mother. The wife of an injured worker wants to stop his employers weaselling out of their liabilities. Sometimes there's not even a murder, or it happened a long time ago and was forgotten. Yet Albert, against all odds, usually manages to put a crook or two away. However, that's not what gives him satisfaction. Albert sees himself, though he never puts it into words, in much the same way as Simenon's Maigret. He wants to repair peoples' lives, to put shattered destinies back together, to make people happy. Maybe that's why, like Maigret, he often seems to feel a certain disappointment at the end of a case.
Albert Samson isn't the only detective in Lewin's Indianapolis. In a way that's unusual among crime writers, Lewin creates a whole community of characters wandering into and out of each other's stories. As well as Samson, there's cynical, eccentric cop Leroy Powder, who gets three books of his own. Albert's girlfriend, social worker Adele Buffington, gets a case to herself, with minimal help from Albert. Lewin's most recent book features a completely new character, dwarf down-and-out Jan Moro.
Albert isn't Superman. He's not one of those characters who stride invulnerably through the world, never truly feeling anything except the dirty little thrill of triumph as they blow some guy's brains through the back of his head. Yet he's got more heroism in his little finger than Spenser, Mike Hammer, or Nick Sharman combined. That's why it's so painful when he ends up going to jail to shield a gang of brain-dead posturing would-be Robin Hoods. It's a sad fate for such a good man. But, Lewin's latest book features Powder going undercover. Working with him is a guy called Al. Could it be? I hope it is.
Lewin has also written radio dramas for the BBC, and another series, starting with Family Business (1995), that's set in Bath and features The Lunghi Detective Agency, run by three-generations of an Anglo-Italian family.
Kicked into the pot by Philip Eagle, May 2000. Thanks, Phil.
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