Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Left-Handed Dollar

I'm a no-frills sort of reader.  I tend to favor novels that are written "cleanly."  No muss, no fuss, no frippery frou-frou.  I tend to dislike writers who throw in $50 words just to show-off, when honestly the $1 words work just as well and keep my brains from bleeding out of my ears.  About three-quarters of the time "lush" is totally lost on me.  However a girl does need to flex her grey matter every now and then, which is a niche that Loren Estleman fills for me.  His Amos Walker crime novels sound like the author still writes on a typewriter (which he does), and it always takes me a couple of chapters to capture the way he writes dialogue.  It's the stuff of 1940s noir.  They'd have to reanimate Bogart if Estleman ever sold the film rights.

The Left-Handed Dollar is the 20th book to feature Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, and this time out he's hired by local lawyer Lucille Lettermore (known as "Lefty Lucy" for her choice in clients), to help spring aging mobster Joey "Ballistic" Ballista.  Lucy's plan is to clear Joey's record of an earlier conviction, thereby trotting him into court as a "first time offender."  Amos is all set to turn down the job, until he meets with Joey.  Damn if he doesn't believe the man when he says he didn't do it.  What was Joey convicted of doing?  Packing a reporter's car full of dynamite.  The reporter in question didn't die, identified Joey in a police line-up, and oh yeah - happens to be Amos' only real friend in the world.  Sticky, sticky.

Detroit has quite a bit in common with California - the truth tends to be stranger than fiction.  Which is why I think it's one of the all-time great settings for crime novels.  The more things are effed-up in Detroit, the more they stay the same.  Amos Walker works in this milieu, and it gives these books a wonderful, gritty, and dirty sense of place.  It's also the perfect setting for the type of dialogue that Estleman tends to favor in these books.  I'll be honest, nobody talks like this in real life (well, at least nobody I know), but you don't really care as the reader because it makes you think, gets your grey matter firing on cylinders, and is a throw-back to an era when dialogue in movies wasn't inane chatter.  It's not for everybody, but if you like the craft of how words can be strung together to sing, it's good stuff.

I classify this series as "crime novels" because while they're decent mysteries, they're not real puzzlers from the Agatha Christie school.  It's basically all about Amos running around, wise-crackin', and trying to shift through the lies that suspects inevitably tell.  This book is no different.  Ultimately Amos has to take all those lies, spin them around, put them back together, and come up with the truth.  Which he does here, with an inspired ending that really worked for me.

I'm not sure how much longer Estleman can keep writing about Amos, but for now I'm content to hold out hope for at least a few more entries.  There's a reason Sue Grafton hasn't let Kinsey Millhone escape the 1980s - it saves her from aging her heroine.  Estleman has aged Amos.  He's a Vietnam veteran, which means even if he was 18 at the tail end of the war, he'd be in his late 50s in 2011. I've read six books in this series so far, and by my count Amos has suffered from about 25 concussions.  I'm not sure how much longer he can go on - but it's kind of fun to see his character enter the 21st century.  He still doesn't have a computer (!), but at least he's got a cell phone now.  Time is marching on, even if he's still the same guy he's always been.

This is a good, solid entry in a series that allows me to break-up all the "girl" books I read.  I liked Amos.  If I ever needed the services of a private investigator, he'd be my guy.  Not the smoothest operator around, but tenacious, smart, and amusing enough to allow you to overlook any foibles he has.  It's one of the oldest gags in fiction - the tough guy who always gets his man...or woman...or whatever.  But just because it's old, doesn't mean it still doesn't work.

Final Grade = B


Tara Marie said...

I'm kind of off romance right now and this sounds good.

nath said...

Sometimes, I really wonder if the authors keep track or realize how much their characters have gone through ^_^;

Stephanie said...

This sounds like an awesome series and right up my alley when I'm in the mood for something a little darker than romance!

Wendy said...

Tara: I've got a thing for tough guys, femme fatales, and general corruption. This series typically gives me my fix for all three.

Nath: Amos took less of a beating in this book than in some of the earlier ones. LOL - that's probably the author's way of showing the character is getting "older." Less beatings!

Stephanie: Definitely darker, but also with some humor. Estleman keeps it from being too bleak with all the wise-crackin'.