"The Detective & the Chinese High-Fin"

by Michael Craven

"What You Break"

by Reed Farrel Coleman

A Two-Fisted Double Review by Ron DeSourdis

There are two new private eyes in town (okay, two towns), and both recently appeared in their second novels.

Michael Craven's ping-pong playing, cheap beer drinking John Darvelle, who made his debut in The Detective & the Pipe Girl (2014) returns in The Detective & the Chinese High-Fin. Darvelle works out of Los Angeles. And, just like the classic L. A. private detective, Philip Marlowe (and, as the saying goes, "many, many more..."), his books are written in the first person. But the wording is more conversational than Chandler's, as when he eases a suspect's doubts about his intentions with the phrase "Scout's Honour":

I'd never been a Boy Scout. I just said that for some strange reason. You ever do that? Just say a saying that you never really say, or maybe have never said even once? It just basically emerges out of freaking nowhere and it feels weird coming out of your mouth and sounds even weirder? Have you ever done that? You've done that. What is that?

Or here, where he meets a murder victim's father:

He was a big man, brown hair going gray, a sweater over his shoulders, big tortoiseshell glasses. And working a comb-over just a bit. And I thought, Shit, maybe, maybe they'll come back in a kind of seventies-dad kind of way. You know what I'm saying? You know that dad? Out by the pool grilling burgers for the kids, nice Jack on ice in his left hand, slightly ill-fitting Lacoste shirt over his slightly out-of-shape body. Might mow the lawn later, with a fairly hefty buzz on, then head over to the country club that night for a little dinner and some more cocktails. You know that dad? You know that dad. I like that dad.

Personally, I find this stuff a bit precious, as I do the occasional asides where the narrator goes on about how much he hates people who drink craft beers, or people who think they can play Ping-Pong but can't ñ to me, all the author accomplishes is to make his hero sound both smug and whiny at the same time. Still, it gives the stories an identity, and may be fun for those who do not share my prejudices.

As for the actual story in his second installment, Darvelle is hired by the parents of one Keaton Fuller, who was shot dead outside his suburban home. Although the police had found no shortage of suspects (the deceased was almost universally despised), all had apparently airtight alibis, and the case has gone cold. Going over ground covered by the official investigation, Darvelle learns that Fuller had dabbled with some shady (and dangerous) business partners.

I found this book an improvement over the first. Although in that one I had guessed whodunit well before it was revealed, I thought the reason for the killing an uncomfortable stretch, and the shootout resolution artificial and unlikely. This time out, I was kept wondering for a more respectable portion of the novel. And the gunfight sequence here seemed more appropriate. Also, the protagonist finds himself in a fairly interesting moral quandary at the end.

In spite of my reservations about Craven's approach in the John Darvelle series, both entries moved along briskly enough to keep me engaged. If there is a third Darvelle book in the offing, I expect I'll read it. Maybe it's like being able to enjoy Noel Coward but still laugh at Henny Youngman.

You know what I mean?

You know what I mean.

Now he's got me doing it.

* * * * *

A writer whose style is much more to my liking is Reed Farrel Coleman, a favorite of mine since I read the first Moe Prager novel. What You Break is also the second in a new series, this one featuring Gus Murphy. Like Moe, Gus is a retired police officer who despite the chops never made detective, although in Gus's case it was apparently due to a lack of ambition. He was satisfied with his position in a uniform, and with his life in general, until the sudden unexpected death of his 20-year-old son shattered his marriage, his daughter's stability, and his entire outlook.

While Prager could be possessed of a rather glum mindset, Gus's perspective, especially in his 2016 introduction, Where It Hurts, is so bleak as to make Moe look cheerful by comparison. In his current post as shuttle driver and part-time house dick for a rundown hotel, all he wants to do is to get through the days (and nights) with as little introspection as possible.

However, by the end of that first book he is making tentative steps towards a new life with a new love. The object of his affections is a woman who has also been bruised by life, but is still hanging on to hopes if not dreams. Magdalena ("Maggie") is an actress-of-a-certain-age who makes ends meet as a bartender.

Gus has also formed a rather odd friendship with another hotel employee, the mysterious Slava Podolak. Slava has made it clear that his background is off limits, with only occasional vague mentions of an unholy shame that he must carry for the remainder of his days.

The title What You Break refers to that shame, which has come back from the past and looks to curtail whatever future is left for Slava, and, through Gus's connection, threatens Maggie as well. Gus, already as fearful of losing his new relationships as he is grateful to have them, must delve into Slava's history in order to understand how best to protect both of them.

There is a separate plot going on in which may also prove deadly. Again, Gus Murphy parallels Moe Prager (and, for that matter, Lawrence Block's early Matt Scudder, as well as probably numerous others whose acquaintance I've yet to make) in that he is not a licensed P. I., but merely a skilled investigator doing "favors for friends." The "friend" in this case is hardly that, as Micah Spears is one of the most unsavory clients in the history of literary sleuths. As Murphy (another first person narrator) sizes him up on their first meeting, Spears

...looked like he was wearing sins in the pores of his skin, the deeply etched lines on his face, and in the pockets of his fancy green tweed and tan suede blazer. I didn't believe in God, but I believed in sin. Sin was real because there was wrong in the hearts of men and women, but it wasn't put there by a seductive serpent or because of apple eating out of turn. Sin was born the first time a human being wanted more than he had or deserved. And I didn't need to know anything about Spears to know he was nipple deep in hell.

Spears wants Murphy to look into the brutal murder of his granddaughter, but not to discovers who killed the young woman. Neither Spears, the police nor anyone else has the slightest doubt that she was slain by unrepentant (and incommunicative) gangbanger Rondo Salazar. What Spears wants to know is why, and it is this intriguing question as much as anything else that persuades Gus to look for the answers.

As usual, Coleman explores many aspects of the human condition, from romance and religion to war and fragile family relations, in the course of a solid crime novel. And as usual he makes us think about the gray areas rather than reaching any facile conclusions.

Of course, this is in addition to verbal and physical encounters with opponents including an arrogant and volatile police detective, home grown street gangs and an intriguing international assassin (not to mention a car chase and all-out gun battle).

As with The Detective & the Chinese High-Fin -- and despite a twinge of concern that we might be headed into James Bond territory -- I can say with little doubt that I will read the next Gus Murphy. The difference is that I'm already eager to get my hands on it!

* * * * *

The John Darvelle Novels by Michael Craven

The Gus Murphy Novels by Reed Farrell Coleman

Respectfully submitted by Ron DeSourdis, March 2017.

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