Gumshoes In The Heartland

Fictional detectives have found a place in the Midwest ◆ by Ray Zdonek

Philip Marlowe hung out amid the glitz and grunge of LA, Mike Hammer around the mugs and dames of the Big Apple, and Sam Spade in a fog-shrouded San Francisco. It was the name of the game — glamorous places full of mystery, sex, greed, and frequent violence — the action was on the “coasts”, left and right. The Big Time, you know? Maybe it’s the Cyber Age democratizing the landscape or maybe it’s a sort of literary tourism, where a simple paperback takes you on adventures in places you hadn’t imagined you would go. But the mighty Midwest is finally making its mark on the private eye archetype, setting the action and characters into heartland communities, great and small.

The road, however, has been a bumpy one. Jonathan Valin, whose private detective Harry Stoner visited the dark back alleys of Cincinnati in books like The Lime Pit, a world populated by bikers and sprinkled with meth labs, was an early casualty. Though it was great stuff, Valin finally gave up writing altogether and is currently immersed in a high-fidelity sound equipment business in the Southwest. Harry was a tenacious investigator with a soft spot for lost causes, an essential aspect of the private eye brand, and the proximity of Covington across the Ohio River carried over the Southern grit of Cincinnati’s Kentucky neighbor, in a relationship like New Orleans and Algiers, or Los Angeles and Long Beach. But as fate would have it, even a TV movie couldn’t save the Harry Stoner series.

Another Midwestern series that has gone out with more of a whimper than a bang is Michael Z. Lewin’s notable mystery novels featuring Indianapolis detective Albert Sampson, whose business is so threadbare that he has to operate out of a spare room behind his mother’s business. Quirky and erratic in quality, the Sampson series of books is petering out slowly, and no one should miss them much. Lewin became an expatriate and has lived in England for some years, and it appears his once-vibrant character is withering now that the author has left his Indy roots, seemingly for good.

Of course, the elephant in the room has to be the ultra-successful V.I. Warshawski bestsellers by Chicago writer Sara Paretsky. The tables began to turn when her female detective made the scene. Rivaled only by the likes of Robert B. Parker and Jonathan Kellerman, Paretsky struck a well-timed blow for feminism in a genre that much needed to think outside the box. Vic is feisty to the extreme, and will toss caution easily to the wind if an issue of bigotry or a failure of justice looms. Caring and loyal, Paretsky’s prime character is relentless in the hunt, and surrounded by a cast of returning characters like Mr. Contreras and Dr. Lotty Herschel, who add richness and color to the novels, and make you look forward to the next installment. In books like Burn Marks, Total Recall, and Hardball, Paretsky over the years has not been afraid to deal with the hard edge of life in the Windy City, from homelessness, to Holocaust survivors, to the blacklists of the 1950’s, to the not-yet-won battle against racism against African-Americans in Chi-town. V.I. is beautiful and hard-nosed — a perfect combination.

Sometimes, though, a strength can morph into a weakness, and while the matters at hand are new each time, the character development is practically at a standstill. Vic’s young cousin Petra has been added to the mix, but not much else. Oh, Vic’s had a classical musician boyfriend for a few books now — he lives in her building—big deal. I have to think of the Sharon McCone mysteries by San Francisco author Marcia Muller. Shar has lived through more than twice the number of novels as her Chicago counterpart, as well as finding out she’s a full-blooded Native American who’s been adopted by her white parents, being shot in the head and virtually paralyzed for a book or two, and getting married to an ex-mercenary security specialist and pilot to boot. Still, mystery lovers swell with pride when V.I. Warshawski steps into the literary room every time.

We lucky folks in Bloomington, of course, have our own resident private eye novelist, at least for part of the year. That would be Michael Koryta, the youngish ex-crime writer for the Herald-Times, who broke through with the intriguing debut novel Tonight I Said Goodbye, and the worthwhile follow-up mysteries Sorrow’s Anthem and A Welcome Grave, introducing readers to the Cleveland-based PI Lincoln Perry. Tonight I Said Goodbye won the Best First Novel award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and was nominated for an Edgar in 2004, the year Koryta turned twenty-one. A Welcome Grave was nominated for a Shamus award as best PI novel in 2007 by the Private Eye Writers group.

Michael Koryta’s Latest

Going somewhat in the direction taken by Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, and others, Koryta has turned to standalone novels mainly in recent years. Whether he wants salability to Hollywood or bestseller status for his books, his standalones have received generally good reviews from critics. The Lincoln Perry series stands currently at four entries, and its future remains in question. In some ways, Lincoln Perry is a throwback to earlier fictional private eyes, and something about him seems strangely out-of-date. He doesn’t embody the technical savvy and modern stance of V.I. Warshawski, and his personality lacks real depth. Particularly, his relationship with his journalist girlfriend comes across as wooden and unconvincing. I found the most recent Lincoln Perry novel, The Silent Hour, the weakest of the series. Let’s hope Mr. Koryta injects some vitality and relevance into his private eye and returns with a Lincoln Perry novel that really grabs us by the throat. A feel for suspense and an ability to generate tension are Koryta’s strong points; characterization, not so much, at least not yet.

Last, but certainly not least, is the case of mystery writer Steve Hamilton, a novelist originally from Michigan, now living in New York. Reluctant part-time private eye Alex McKnight is Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan creation, a Detroit ex-cop with a bullet lodged near his heart who has “retired” to rural northwestern Michigan, where he owns and manages a bunch of vacation cabins his handy-with-tools father left him. Atmospheric and moody, the McKnight novels have engaging supporting characters and dazzling action. What’s scary is: he’s getting better. His last novel in the series, Misery Bay, was nothing less than riveting, certainly one of his best. When he’s on his game, he captures some of the passion and drama of James Lee Burke, which is a considerable achievement in the world of mystery and crime novels today. The heart-wrenching death of Alex’s Mountie fiancé Natalie Reynaud at the end of Ice Run gets lodged in the reader’s memory in much the same way as Dave Robichaux’s wife Annie’s graphic killing in Heaven’s Prisoners. Hamilton’s current release, Die a Stranger, is not quite as powerful as Misery Bay, but still provides page-turning action and further fleshes out the McKnight character, as well as his Ojibwa best friend.

Michael Koryta’s latest standalone novel, The Prophet, finds our Bloomington author painting the sad and dark landscape of Chambers, Ohio, a Rust Belt community where the only going enterprises are prisons, bail bonding, and the local high school football team. And a serial killer is trolling for victims there. Think Stephen King meets Elmore Leonard. The main characters are brothers, Adam and Kent Austin—one a bail bondsman, whiskey-laced and tortured by guilt over the decades-before murder of his sister by a killer who has since died in prison; the other a God-fearing football coach who has successfully buried the loss along with his failed previous gridiron seasons. It is indeed a sad thing that pop culture has been dominated by a serial killer fixation since Anthony Hopkins first brought Hannibal Lector to the big screen in Silence of the Lambs, as sequels, imitations, and outright rip-offs have seemed endless in subsequent years. More than that, spinoff genres populated by FBI profilers and police CSI technicians have provided pulp fiction writers and TV hacks with a steady income, making it largely impossible to write a crime blockbuster without plenty of forensic trivia and thank-you’s to their technical consultants. Fortunately, Koryta does not fall for these DNA diversions, and instead gives us an in-depth look into the hearts of the brothers Austin. The football analogies are carried to the extreme, but then all the time the author spent with the Bloomington High School North football squad couldn’t have been for naught, now could it?

While The Prophet is testosterone-soaked and sometimes dreary, especially in the beginning, the action picks up in plenty of time. More importantly, we care about the characters, which is a vital element in any kind of suspense novel in which danger confronts the protagonists. Adam’s girlfriend Chelsea Salinas, to Koryta’s credit, comes across as a fully-realized human female, which is an accomplishment, considering some of his previous attempts, and this bodes well for his future writing career, since American women purchase a vastly higher percentage of fiction novels than do men. Witness the extraordinary popularity of Stieg Larsson and his cyberpunk detective, Lisbeth Salander. There are plenty of twists and turns in The Prophet; some can be anticipated by the reader, but others come unannounced. All in all, Koryta shows a maturity in this standalone novel that I have not seen before, so maybe the standalone field does bring him a freedom that the private eye novel never did. Real people in extraordinary situations—that formula can certainly stir fear into the mix when it’s done well, as it is here. Maybe I’ll go back and pick up another of Koryta’s standalones, which I have bypassed until this one. Stephen King, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Dean Koontz have all gushed about his work. Guys like that can’t be wrong, can they? Still, I wonder about no females being on that list.

The Ryder, March 2013