Created by Michael Z. Lewin
Hard-boiled detective fiction has always claimed to be superior to other sub-genres, based on its realism. Since Raymond Chandler, hard-boiled authors have claimed that their work deals with real social issues, life as it is truly lived in the underbelly of society. As thinking readers should know, this is rubbish. Hard-boiled crime fiction is often just as much a fantasy as the work of any Golden Age writer. Sure, the settings may be lower-rent, the crimes more realistically brutal, but the only difference is that wrongs are righted by a foul-mouthed, gun-toting, rough-and-ready guy in a battered raincoat rather than an exquisitely-mannered aristocrat in evening dress.
Maybe that’s why Michael Z. Lewin is so under-rated. Lewin, an American transplanted to Somerset, England since 1971, has produced a series of quirky, off-beat novels set in Indianapolis, most of them featuring his low-key, low-rent gumshoe, ALBERT SAMSON. Each time one of his novels gets published, they’re seized by the initiated with cries of joy, yet still there are plenty of crime fans who’ve never heard about them.
They’re all narrated in the snappy first-person you’d expect, but Albert isn’t your typical dick, and nobody would spend much time fantasizing about being Albert. He’s a man who’s more Clark Kent than Superman. He doesn’t own a gun, is perpetually short of cash, drives a beat-up van because it’s all he can afford, rather than to blend in on surveillance duty, and has never blown a dirtbag away in his life. When he tries to intimidate anyone he usually ends up humiliated. He lives over his mother’s greasy spoon, and has been dating the same woman as long as we’ve known him, although he never names her, only referring to her as “my woman”. At one point he even loses his investigator’s license.
Samson doesn’t see himself as a crusader against evil. Most often his cases start with the most prosaic of issues. A woman wants to find her birth mother. The wife of an injured worker wants to stop his employers weaselling out of their liabilities. Sometimes there’s not even a murder, or it happened a long time ago and was forgotten. Yet Albert, against all odds, usually manages to put a crook or two away. However, that’s not what gives him satisfaction. Albert sees himself, though he never puts it into words, in much the same way as Simenon’s Maigret. He wants to repair peoples’ lives, to put shattered destinies back together, to make people happy. Maybe that’s why, like Maigret, he often seems to feel a certain disappointment at the end of a case.
Albert Samson isn’t the only detective in Lewin’s Indianapolis. In a way that’s unusual among crime writers, Lewin has created a whole community of characters wandering into and out of each other’s stories. As well as Samson, there’s cynical, irascible cop Leroy Powder, who gets three books of his own. Albert’s up-until-then nameless girlfriend, social worker Adele Buffington, gets a case to herself (1988’s And Baby Will Fall) with minimal help from Albert. More recently, Lewin added a completely new character, small-time hustler and ex-con Jan Moro, who’s homeless, to the mix.
Albert isn’t Superman. He’s not one of those characters who stride invulnerably through the world, never truly feeling anything except the dirty little thrill of triumph as they blow some guy’s brains through the back of his head. Yet he’s got more heroism in his little finger than Spenser, Mike Hammer, or Nick Sharman combined. That’s why it’s so painful when he ends up going to jail to shield a gang of brain-dead posturing would-be Robin Hoods. It’s a sad fate for such a good man. But, Lewin’s latest book features Powder going undercover. Working with him is a guy called Al. Could it be? I hope it is.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An ex-pat American who’s lived in England since 1971, Michael Z. Lewin is the award-winning author of numerous mystery novels, short stories, and radio plays for the BBC, best known for his series set in and around his hometown of Indianapolis, featuring private eye Albert Samson. He’s also written a few books featuring Samson’s pal, Leroy Powder, and one featuring his sometime-girlfriend, social worker Adele Buffinton. He’s also gave us a great little book-within-a-book book, Outside In, featuring private eye writer Willie Werth. In the late eighties, started another series, set in Bath and featuring The Lunghi Detective Agency, run by three generations of a boisterous Anglo-Italian family. Lewin currently lives in Bath, where his apartment overlooks the front doors of the Lunghi Family Detective Agency.
In 2021, Lewin was awarded The Eye, the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievent Award. Upon being informed, he dashed off this:
To be acknowledged by my peers and fellow practitioners is particularly pleasing and I am extremely grateful to the PWA (and its founder, Robert Randisi) for this honor. I began what became my first PI novel in the dying days of 1969. At that point I’d read Chandler, Hammett, some John D. MacDonald and, most importantly, Ross Macdonald, who I eventually met in the late ’70s. My most recent PI stories came out together in 2018 and with them my biggest help came from Liza Cody -herself an innovator in the PI genre. Between times I’ve enjoyed the vivacity, wit and intelligent company of countless other PI writers. One, however, is particularly in my mind – the late Parnell Hall. The manner of his passing was particularly cruel and, perhaps, his loss symbolizes the isolation we’re all experiencing. Keep safe everyone. Maybe see you sometime.
NOTE: As described above, Lewin has created several investigators. Albert, however, features in pretty much all the books, if sometimes only as a walk-on. Albert is the primary investigator in each book, unless otherwise noted. Dates are for the British publication–American publication dates may differ.
- Ask the Right Question (1972) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Way We Die Now (1973) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Enemies Within (1974) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Night Cover (1976; Leroy Powder) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Silent Salesman (1978) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Missing Woman (1981) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Hard Line (1982; Leroy Powder) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Out of Time (1984; aka “Out of Season”) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Late Payments (1986; Leroy Powder) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- And Baby Will Fall (1990; Adele Buffington; aka “Child Proof”) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Called by a Panther (1992) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Underdog (1995; Jan Moro) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Eye Opener (2004) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- “The Wilt of Love” (February 2009, EQMM)
- “Who I Am” (December 2011, EQMM)
- “Good Intentions” (November 2012, EQMM)
- “Extra Fries” (May 2013, EQMM)
- “A Question of Fathers” (May 2014, EQMM)
- Alien Quartet (2018) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
Four long, linked stories, all first published in EQMM.
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- July 31, 2021
THE BOTTOM LINE: Off-beat Indianapolis eye, in a string of quirky but endearing capers.