Created by James M. Reasoner & Livia J. Washburn
At a shade over six feet, and a tad under 150 pounds, CASSANDRA “SKEETER” BARLOW‘s a cowgirl who knows how to take care of herself. By night, she bounces rowdy cowboys and keeps the peace at the Horsehead Bar and Grill in Fort Worth, Texas, and by day, she’s a private investigator for The Hallam Agency.
In Skeeter’s one and only appearance to date, Tie a Black Ribbon (2000), her two jobs overlap, the first of many, many coincidences. Things kick off when, according the hokey back cover copy:
“… she’s hired to locate a missing dog. What should have been an easy investigation turns into mayhem, and Skeeter has to dance pretty fast to stay ahead of dog fighters, crooked cops, mobsters, and a few other bad ol’ boys in this fast-paced tale of bad guys and the gals who hunt them down.”
The book was co-written by married P.I. writers James Reasoner and Livia J. Washburn, whom the editor of this site assured me are “pretty decent” writers. Reasoner’s Texas Wind (1980), featuring Dallas/Fort worth P.I. Cody is often considered some kind of P.I. classic, and both of them have supposedly written some “damn good” P.I. short stories. Washburn’s series featuring Lucas Hallam (the Hallam Agency seems to be a nod to this series), a cowboy turned silent movie stunt man and part-time P.I., is particularly enjoyable, Kevin assures me. And between the two of them, they wrote or co-wrote a ton of Mike Shayne stories under the pseudonym of “Brett Halliday” for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.
So I had pretty high hopes for this one.
But it was one of the most dreadful things I’ve read in a long time. Where do I begin? As you can see from the blurb I quoted, this book promises a little of everything (dog fighters, crooked cops, mobsters, etc). About the only thing it lacked was a lurid headline across the front of the book screaming, “A licensed P.I. by day – a bar bouncer by night!”
Maybe it was just me, but it was all a bit much. It almost seemed as if the authors had decided to include a representative of every type of criminal element they could think of. I don’t know how they missed drug dealers.
And even the blurb was wrong. In spite of what the cover says, Skeeter’s not hired to “find a missing dog.” She’s hired to confirm its whereabouts (a far more interesting premise, if you ask me). The client’s nephew was bitten by a vicious pit bull. The dog’s owner got a high-powered lawyer who was able to prevent the dog’s being put down for it, but as part of the deal, he had to move the dog out of the county. The woman wants to make sure that the owner, an untrustworthy sort, hasn’t moved the dog back into the county.
Skeeter finds that, in spite of the fears of her client, the dog mentioned is actually still where it belongs. She does this by representing herself as a pit bull breeder to the dog’s owner (Frank). Coincidentally, she bumps into him again when he comes into the bar where she works as a bouncer. He is depressed because his dog has been killed. He invites her to meet him in a couple of days at what turns out to be a dogfight. And, oh, gee, did I forget to mention the undercover cops that had terrorized Skeeter by chasing her in their car the night after she’d spotted them in the bar? Well, they’re at the dogfight, too. And – surprise! – as Skeeter leaves the dogfight, one of them tells Frank who she really is, and then – surprise again! – the agency office is trashed, the client file (the woman who hired Skeeter) is missing, and – surprise yet a third time! – the client is suddenly receiving threatening calls from Frank, accusing her of killing his dog. And Skeeter’s house is trashed. Then, that evening, Frank shows up at the bar and tries to kill her. Oh, gosh, I think I’ve forgotten to mention the gambler that Frank is into for big bucks. Anyway, later that night, when Skeeter goes by her trashed house to pick up a few things she will need, guess what? Frank’s pickup is in front of her house – with a dead Frank inside. Like, where else would he be, right? And naturally, the crooked vice cops turn up at the police station to cause trouble. The upshot of it all – -and I’m sure you couldn’t see this one coming — is that Skeeter must find out who killed Frank (and get the goods on the crooked cops) to (everyone sing along) “clear her name.”
Of course, this being Texas, everyone seems to be packing, but in spite of the fact that several people are shot during the big climactic scene — some of them at point-blank range with rifles — no one dies. They must be using that “kinder, gentler” ammo we’ve all heard so much about.
Are you starting to understand why I wasn’t fond of this book?
But what bothered me most about the book (yes, there was something even worse than the plot), was the writing. I can’t really think of how to describe it other than juvenile. In fact, at one point I wondered if it was possible that the book had been written for junior high kids, but I don’t think it was. It’s not that I mind juvenile writing — hell, because of my job, I still read a lot of kids’ books myself — but I do NOT expect to find it in a book aimed at adults.
I feel kind of mean (and a little guilty) for saying bad stuff like this about someone’s book. It’s not like I could do any better were I inclined to write. But, damn, it gets me so annoyed that something like this can get published…
- “James Reasoner is a pro’s pro.”
— Mystery Scene
- “Livia Washburn’s Hallam mysteries are among the best thrillers of the 90’s.”
— Mystery News
- Tie a Black Ribbon (2000) | Buy this book
- Rough Edges
James Reasoner’s blog.Essential for pulp fans.
- Texas Winds
The Private Eye Tales of James M. Reasoner