Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta

Review by James R. Winter

Okay, I'm jealous. This guy, this Michael Koryta from Bloomington, Indiana, was only twenty years old when he wrote last year's winner of the SMP?PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. Twenty, dammit! And he's not even from Cleveland, where Tonight, I Said Goodbye unfolds. Yet I can see clearly every corner of my hometown as he describes it in the narrative, right down to the bone-chilling cold of the wind off Lake Erie in the winter.

In recent years, the SMP/PWA winners have tried to give the private eye tale new spins: Bob Truluck went full-on noir in Street Legal, JL Abramo opted for a literary theme built around a classic novel in Catching Water in a Net, and Mike Siverling tips his hat to Nero Wolfe in The Sterling Inheritance. Koryta, however, tries a really unusual tack: getting back to the basics.

And for Koryta, those basics go all the way back to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Tonight I Said Goodbye is about two private investigators working out of an old bank building on Cleveland's Westside. Lincoln Perry, the narrator, is a thirty-something former Cleveland cop whose career nose dived over... well, it's one of the more original finales to a police career. Joe Pritchard, Perry's retired former partner, offered Perry a lifeline. Imagine if Spade and Archer actually liked each other.

Yet while Perry and Pritchard aren't antagonists, they are opposites. Pritchard is still as by-the-book as he ever was on the force. Observant to a fault, he sometimes will get distracted if something familiar has changed subtly, his mind searching for the altered detail. Perry has a lingering problem of shooting off at the mouth first, and asking questions later. He seems to resent the cops these days, even if they're somewhat indifferent to him.

We meet Perry and Pritchard as they're hired by John Weston, a WWII vet living in suburban North Olmsted. Weston's son, Wayne, also a private investigator, is dead, and Wayne's wife and daughter have gone missing. The media call it a murder-suicide, even though the bodies of the wife and daughter were never found. Wayne insists his son was murdered and Wayne's wife and daughter are still alive, hiding from Wayne's killers. Pritchard doesn't want the case, and neither does Perry, but they agree to look into it before opting out.

That's when things turn sour. Perry has his reporter friend Amy check around. Perry and Pritchard also talk to Wayne Weston's former partner, Aaron Kinkaid, who acts clueless about the matter. Their collective inquiries lead the pair to one of Cleveland's biggest real estate moguls and three angry Russian gangsters, who smash up Amy's car while she's still in it.

They decide to take the case, and while going through Wayne Weston's house, Perry stumbles on the titular clue, one that'll break your heart.

Joe poked his head in the door. "The bedroom was a waste. You got anything worth looking at?"

I didn't turn around. "They're alive, Joe."

"Excuse me?"

"Betsy Weston wrote this in her diary the night she disappeared," I said.

Joe crossed the room and knelt beside me, then read the diary entry, written in a child's scrawl with a green crayon: Tonite I said goodby.

With that, the whole case changes. Pritchard and Perry go after the Russians and real estate mogul Jeremiah Hubbard (whom I'm convinced is loosely based on former Cleveland Indians owner Dick Jacobs.) The Russians give Perry a close call when he's caught unarmed on their porch. Perry tap-dances his way out of it in a real Rockford Files moment that would make James Garner proud:

I remained on the porch, a smile fixed on my face, but I didn't speak. They approached slowly, then walked up the steps and stood in front of me, spaced so they blocked the steps completely.

"Children are dying," I said.

They exchanged a glance. Confused. The shorter one said, "What do you talk about?" His accent was thick.

"AIDS," I said casually. "Children are dying, now, gentlemen. Not just adults. Think about that. Then think about what you've done to help the problem..."

Not only does Perry get away unscathed, but he's twenty dollars richer for the effort.

They soon turn their attention to Julie and Betsy Weston's whereabouts, uncovering a web of shady real estate deals and trouble brewing with the local Russian outfit along the way. Perry and Pritchard's efforts bring back Kinkaid, pleading adulterous feelings for Julie. He invokes Sam Spade's line about a partner's death to explain his sudden change of heart. It's a cheesy line that rings hollow to them, but they reluctantly accept Kinkaid's help.

At 304 pages, Tonight I Said Goodbye moves briskly between Cleveland and, eventually, Myrtle Beach (a merciful change if you've ever been to northern Ohio in February). Koryta is a master at chapter management, always ending with a question hanging in the air. His pacing is easy but never slow. Despite his youth, he's already mastered balancing backstory with the plot at hand. He is especially deft at teasing out Perry's history.

There are a few points where his descriptions are a tad obvious. In one scene, where Pritchard realizes Perry moved a piece of furniture, Koryta describes how obsessively observant the older detective is. Simply having Pritchard look around, trying to figure out what changed would have sufficed.

One other sour note is Cody, the FBI agent who comes telling tales of John Gotti's downfall in his quest to nab the Russians. The shady Fed is showing up a little too often in many P.I. stories of late. Maybe it's a new spin on the rogue or corrupt cop, as Koryta seems aim for here. Still, it's one of those odd clichés that rub me the wrong way. Naturally, the Feds and the cops are going to play their cards close to the vest, but the Cody character sometimes seems a bit forced. Fortunately, he's not a major player in the story.

Overall, Koryta's prose is crisp and his plotting solid. Tonight I Said Goodbye is the best SMP/PWA contest winner since Cold Day in Paradise back in 1997. With fellow homeboy Milan Jacovich too long missing in action, Lincoln Perry and Joe Pritchard are an overdue break in the dryspell.

Tonight I Said Goodbye
By Michael Koryta
Thomas Dunne Books, 2004
304 pages
Buy this book

Review submitted by James R. Winter, November 2004.
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