Created by Jonathan Valin
“As the morning wore on, I felt more and more as if I was doing the right thing. It gave me a short-lived feeling of decency.”
— Harry sums up his worldview (Missing)
In his mid-forties, too educted for his own good and no stranger to brooding and self-doubt, Cincinnati’s HARRY STONER is a more intense, more muscular, bigger-shouldered version of Ross Macdonald‘s Lew Archer, rougher around the edges, more prone to violence. And he’s very much a product of his times — the 1980’s and 90’s, and was, in fact, one of the great series of that era. Harry’s world is an even more confusing and overwhelming place than Macdonald’s world-weary gumshoe probably ever dreamed of, where evil is more than ever a palpable thing. But unlike Saint Archer, Stoner isn’t above temptations of the flesh, although his choice of bedmates is at times less than ideal.
Harry runs a one-man agency out of the Riorley Building and his trusty steed is a rusting, beat-up Pinto that, like Harry, has seen better days. I mean, how eighties can you get? A Pinto?
But it is the sense of almost palpable horror that marks the Stoner books as something more than just reheated, pumped-up Macdonald. The books are powerful stuff, indeed, full of nasty, shocking images that can dig in and stay with you for a long, long time. Evil is a recurring character in this series, and the consequences of violence aren’t blithely passed over. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in the later books, Stoner begins to question his attraction to, and repulsion of violence.
He’s also trying to come to grips with his lost idealism, and like his contemporary to whom he’s often compared to (see below), Stephen Greenleaf’s John Marshall Tanner, he’s starting to wonder whatever happened to the sixties.
All in all, an excellent series, a stand-out in an era that had more than its fair share of great series, and well worth checking out. The one that sticks with me is 1986’s Life’s Work, a foray into the world of professional football that reads like a bruising, head-on collision between Macdonald’s The Blue Hammer and North Dallas Forty.
But all the Stoner novels are worth your time, one of the great lost P.I. series, an impressive, critically acclaimed, award-winning body of work that for whatever reason never got the audience they deserved. An attempt was even made to bring Harry to the small screen by Jay Bernstein, the man responsible for Mike Hammer‘s TV renaissance in the 1980’s. Although actor Gil Gerard supposedly did quite well in the role of Harry, and the made-for-TV flick was based on Valin’s own Final Notice, the result was disappointingly so-so. Particularly galling to Cincinatti locals was that most of the film was shot in Toronto.
Valin was born in 1947 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and received his M.A. from the University of Chicago and did Ph.D work at Washington University. His wife, Katherine, is a well-respected artist and critic.
- “I dug my Gold Cup out of the safe, where I’d left it for the last five years in an oiled rag. Field-stripped it. Cleaned and reoiled it. Found a clip, loaded eight rounds of hollow-point. Chambered a round. Stuck the thing in the desk drawe and waited.”
THAT STONER/TANNER THING
Valin’s books about Stoner and Stephen Greenleaf’s books about John Marshall Tanner were often being mentioned in the same breath by both critics and readers by the time I started this site back in 1998, with both cited as stand-out series from the eighties that had abruptly–or at least prematurely–concluded. A 2006 poll on The Rap Sheet that asked their readers which long-missing crime novelists they would most like to see return ended with Valin and Greenleaf nailing the top two spots. Both series featured middle-aged, solitary private investigators who spent too much time brooding (and drinking), and both were plagued with a sense of regret, duty and loss that gave their adventures a sense of melancholy, leavened with enough gripping P.I. action and wry observations to make them seem like real contenders. So naturally neither achieved the commercial success they deserved, and both series wrapped up with books that deliberately tied long-running threads together.
Missing (1995) ended with Valin intentionally leaving his beleaguered detective “with a decent shot at happiness. I had toyed with killing him, but instead I found him a woman and had him thinking about marriage. Then I went on to something else.” Coincidentally, the last name of the victim whose murder he was hired to solve was… Greenleaf.
Greenleaf manage to keep his series going for another fifteen years, but the final entry, Ellipsis (2000), also came off as valedictory, with the gloomy lawyer-turned-sleuth at the novel’s conclusion celebrating a birthday with booze and a bag of Oreos, his loved ones gathered round. It’s about as sentimental and schmaltzy a finale as they come, bust somehow also rather satisfying. The author also confessed, though, that the series’ conclusion “was more forced than elected. When no publisher was willing to bring Strawberry Sunday (1999) out in softcover, even though it had been nominated for an Edgar, I knew Tanner’s day was done. Luckily I was able to write Ellipsis as the last chapter in the saga, and allow its subtext to suggest the reason my series had come to an end. I don’t see any need (or much demand) for the Tanner series to continue.”
- “(Valin) is the best thing to emerge from Cincinnati since Johnny Bench.”
— George V. Higgins
- “Jonathan Valin’s The Lime Pit… is powerful and brilliantly filled with difficult-to-forget characters, including the protagonist, private eye Harry Stoner. There is a client so haunting that I have channeled her near-clone in one of my novels. Valin wrote fewer that a half dozen Stoner novels set in and around Cincinnati. All are gems. They never caught on, never got an audience, while far lesser talents became best sellers. It would be great if some enterprising publisher picked up the Stoner novels. I would read them all again and recommend them to all lovers of hard-boiled mysteries.
— Stuart M. Kaminsky, as part of The Rap Sheet’s One Book Project
- “Stoner calls Cincinnati home, which probably explains the death wish that got him into the gumshoe racket. Three books by writer Jonathan Valin–The Lime Pit, Final Notice and Dead Letter–feature Stoner, a soft touch and a bad judge of character, risking life and limb to smash a kiddie prostitution ring, hunt down a library vandal-psycho killer, and figure out who bumped off a college prof trading in government secrets.”
— Steven X. Rea, The Catalogue of Cool
- “(Valin) is 100 percent dependable. He can plot a story and give it an ironic twist at the end, his characters have a kink or two, and he always tosses in a moral issue to give one pause. The voice of his narrator, a Cincinnati gumshoe named Harry Stoner, can be stern, but never mean or nasty.”
— Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review, on Missing
- The Lime Pit (1980) | Buy this book
- Final Notice (1980) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dead Letter (1981) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Day of Wrath (1982) | Buy this book
- Natural Causes (1983) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Life’s Work (1986) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Fire Lake (1987) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Extenuating Circumstances (1989) | Buy this book
- Second Chance (1991) | Buy this book
- The Music Lovers (1993) | Buy this book
- Missing (1995) | Buy this book
- “Loser Takes All” (Fall 1991, Vol. 4, No. 4, The Armchair Detective)
- FINAL NOTICE | Buy this video
(1989, USA Network)
Made for television movie
Based on the novel by Jonathan Valin
Teleplay by John Gay
Directed by Steven Hilliard Stern
Produced by Jay Bernstein
Starring Gil Gerard as HARRY STONER
Also starring Steve Landsberg, Melody Anderson, Jackie Burroughs, Kevin Hicks, Louise Fletcher, David Ogden Stiers
- The Please-Come-Back Kids
The Rap Sheet’s List of Authors Who Left Them Wanting More (October 2006)