Created by Gaylord Dold
Brooding MITCH ROBERTS is the hero of one of the best–and most criminally overlooked–private eye series of the 1980’s. The first six books in the series were all paperback originals, the first put out by Avon, the next five by Ivy Books, that seemed to have vanished with barely a trace.
Hopes (on my part, at least) that once the series was (finally) picked up for hardcover publication it would (finally) receive the attention it deserved from critics and the broader reading public turned out to be wistful thinking.
Mitch works the Wichita, Kansas area in the late fifties. He’s a solitary kinda guy, a lonely man with simple tastes: baseball, chess, fishing, reading. He has an office next to the local barber shop and lives across from the local ballpark. He enjoys a good game of poker with the boys or a doubleheader on a warm summer evening now and then.
Simple pleasures, then, but not a simple guy. In Mitch’s case, still waters run deep. Alone at home, he reads heavy-handed philosophical texts by Heidegger et al, and he’s haunted by his World War II experiences and the violence that still seems to surround him. A finely detailed if bittersweet rendering of a time and a place; an era that we usually take for granted as being quieter and calmer, somehow more innocent than the present. But these books are about a man living a life of (mostly) quiet desperation, trying to come to grips with the underlying chaos and corruption and sorrow that turns our glib nostalgia into a cheap lie; trying to rise above it all, but failing more often than not.
These are wonderfully written books, occasionally overwritten, perhaps, but other times the metaphors, the similes and the poetic flourishes are just stunning, with Dold rendering potent scenes of such fragile pastoral beauty and small town tranquility that you wish you could be sitting in the bleachers with Mitch, watching the local team, smelling the freshly mown grass, and sipping a cold beer out of a paper cup. But those scenes of beauty and peace are just a part of it–there are also scenes of pure, brutal evil so vivid you can begin to doubt any other world ever existed.
Perhaps author Gaylord Dold was growing doubtful and frustrated himself, because by the time of the last paperback original, 1990’s Disheveled City, he had more-or-less brought the series to a close.
Mitch had found peace (or at least a reasonable facsimile), packing it all in for a small place in Colorado, where he raises a few horses, works irrigation and “tries to keep busy,” occasionally taking a P.I. job in town to make ends meet. And that seemed to be it.
And so, unexpectedly, three years later, somebody (St. Martin’s Press) finally gave Dold a hardcover contract, and it was back into the breech.
Only problem? Mitch had been more or less put out to pasture. So, what to do?
Enter Mitch Robert Version 2.0.
What I like to call “The World Beat.” Even the cover artwork changed.
In the first hardcover, A Penny for the Old Guy (1991), Mitch travels to England to visit the widow of an old Army busddy, and ends up investigating the murder of her son (and Mitch’s godchild). And he travels even further in latter books, to Jamaica in Rude Boys (1992) and to Zaire in The World Beat (1993). Even in the series finale, Samedi’s Knapsack (2001), with Roberts finally on his way home, after living for several years in London, to his beloved Colorado ranch, he’s waylaid and ends up in Haiti.
The bleak, claustrophobic small town bitterness of the earlier books, narrated in tough, pulpy but often poetic first person, was replaced by a glibber, dryer, globetrotting sense of world-weary sorrow–related in a cynical–but still poetic–third person. But they’ll still break your heart.
Somehow, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gaylord Dold was a practising criminal defense lawyer in Wichata, Kansas, who gave up practicing law to write novels (and later, travel guides). He was born in Lawrence, and spent his preschool years in Wichita before moving with his parents to southern California, although his family moved back to Wichita in the 1960s, where he graduated from high school. He received his bachelor’s degree in German from the University of Kansas in 1969, his master’s in philosophy from KU in 1971, his law degree in 1973 from the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and a degree in international law from the London School of Economics. Best known in these here parts for his Mitch Roberts series, he also written several non-private eye novels, including Bay of Sorrows (1995), Schedule II (1996), The Devil to Pay (1998), Six White Horses (2002) and The Last Man in Berlin (2004), as well as a memoir, Jack’s Boy: An Alcoholic Childhood (2014).
But man, those Mitch Robert books–especially those first six–were something special.
STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH
- “(The name of) my own series character grew out of my admiration for the acting and persona of Robert Mitchum, whose unique brand of honesty, cynicism, humor and toughness appealed to several generations of movie-goers, me included. I was looking around for a character-name that would fit into a retro-noir setting that was generally seedy, rough-edged and glaringly oblique. It wasn’t, in retrospect, hard to see that Mitch Roberts was just as good a name as Robert Mitchum, a name that would hold up if I was lucky enough to get the series published.”
— the author explains where he got Mitch Roberts’ name
- “Night grew in me like a tumor…”
- “The tree itself creaked as if its heart were broken.”
- “”Roberts lay in the dark, his mind running clocklike in nearly perfect and meaningless circles.”
— Samedi’s Knapsack
- “Beggars hounded them for blocks. As they walked along the dust-choked residential streets of Port-au-Prince, Roberts could hear the Creole pleas echoing in the alleyways. Three limbless men on small four-wheeled carts pushed themselves behind him, beseeching him for anything money, gum, trinkets, food.”
— Samedi’s Knapsack
- “Mitch Roberts is one of the more likeable heroes who have taken up the gun and the plastic badge in recent years.”
— Loren Estleman
- “Mitch Roberts is a complex and believable character, one readers will want to know better and so will follow from book to book.”
— Bill Pronzini
- “He was truly a man of letters… His writing was funny but it was also really deep and could be as painful as it was funny.”
— Sarah Bagby
- “Gaylord Dold is one of those restless writers who help keep the genre from going stale.”
— Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times Book Review)
- Hot Summer, Cold Murder (1987; aka “Uptown Wreck)) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Snake Eyes (1987) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Cold Cash (1987) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Bonepile (1988) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Muscle and Blood (1989) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Disheveled City (1990) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- THE WORLD BEAT
- A Penny for the Old Guy (1991) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Rude Boys (1992) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The World Beat (1993) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Samedi’s Knapsack (2001) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Wichita Mysteries: Three Complete Novels (1997) | Buy this book
The author’s official site.
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- August 14, 2021
THE BOTTOM LINE: Whether he was working as a small town eye in 1950s Kansas, drinking beer and trying to keep it together, or later, bopping around the world, the ten books in this series will break your heart.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. And thanks to Phil Gaskill for helping me put my T’s in the right place.