The Private Eye, Briefly
A Short Suspects List, Compiled by Martin Ross
As a grade school wiseass and punching bag (related syndromes), I discovered the thrill of the mystery genre via the Ellery Queen story “Trojan Horse” from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which looked in 1968 like it hadn’t been touched since they’d laid the Cruft Elementary foundation. A yard sale a few years later introduced me to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and eventually the hard(-covered) stuff–an addiction no twelve-step program has been able to cure over the past nearly 50 years.
One of my great delights is the one-hit wonder–discovering that unexpected morsel of a short in a magazine or anthology or online long after I’ve devoured an author or character’s entire full-length catalogue. Raymond Chandler’s “The Pencil” (a detective by any other name cannot just become Philip Marlowe) or Howard Browne’s Paul Pine short “So Dark For April” (I will accept quibbling rights over “The Paper Gun”).
The one-hit wonder short story may be a mere vignette or anecdote, a non-criminous slice of life or a peek at the detective off the clock. Fodder for an anxious publisher or filler to complete a planned collection, something quick to spice up a magazine cover, an obligation or favor to an anthologist discharged without squandering a possibly profitable plot (see John Denson below). A variant increasingly popular in the digital “singles” age is the detective origin story, which can spur novel sales but requires little or no canonical continuity correction. “Chosen,” George Pelecanos’ non-crime young Spero Lucas story for Amazon (collected in The Martini Shot) is a great example.
Sometimes, the wonder is a true wonder, a cause celebre, the fabled “novel in short.” Due to the fickle finger of time and anthological reprints, Stephen Greenleaf’s darker-than-antimatter “Iris” may outlive any of the five-star John Marshall Tanner novels. John Sandford’s to-date single Lucas Davenport story, “Rhymes With Prey,” is a collaboration with Jeffery Deaver that presents a challenging, complex puzzle that should satisfy both Davenport and Deaver fans. In some cases, we may be treated to a visit with or a nod to a long-absent friend (see the Jack LeVine and Patrick Kenzie entries).
Someday, I hope, one of these guys will once again strike anthology gold.
- “Iris” by Stephen Greenleaf
Featuring John Marshall Tanner
(1984, The Eyes Have It)
The Private Eye Writers of America’s inaugural original anthology was a moment in genre history, marking the rebirth of Matt Scudder and a swan song for ‘60s novelty Bart Challis, and collecting between boards the era’s top, most enduring PIs. While the Scudder tale “By the Dawn’s Early Light” is indisputably a classic, the first-and-sadly-last John Marshall Tanner short story burns into long-term memory. Greenleaf admits the story offered “a chance to experiment” with the third person voice–a strategy that underlines the isolation, vulnerability, and chance, life-changing encounter between “Marsh” and the lost and troubled girl of the title. The San Francisco eye stops to check on the presumed hitchhiker on a deserted stretch of interstate returning home from a Seattle goose chase, and Iris hands him a bundle from what she refers to as “Box B” before fleeing in a VW bug. The bundle is a baby. Marsh gives chase, to a hidden cabin where he uncovers a horrific scheme and the dangerous man from whom Iris has attempted to save the child. Without giving more away, Greenleaf offers up the blackest, most heartbreakingly hopeless conclusion possible in a series known for some truly dark turns.
- “Private Investigations” by Richard Hoyt
Featuring John Denson
(1984, The Eyes Have It)
Hoyt’s entry in the historic anthology is little more than a shaggy dog story with a mildly interesting punchline that might be less forgivable if Denson and his creator weren’t such a gonzo, freeform combo in the first place. The soft-boiled Pacific Northwest eye – a former intelligence agent and reporter, a fan of screwtop wine and raw veggies and opportunistic sex who hates guns – headlined a series of increasingly surreal, hippie-dippy, meandering, and frustratingly revised/reissued/retitled novels. Here, Denson comes off a stakeout of a philandering husband to face the betrayed spouse, only to find out who’s playing who and how. It’s Denson, it’s Hoyt, soooo…
- “Access to Power” by Doug Honig
Featuring Loren Swift
(1986, EQMM, also Sunshine Crime: Murder and Mayhem in Dixie)
Loren Swift was one of those ‘80s lights like Joe Binney or the eye known as Nebraska who shined, oh, so briefly, before retiring to the library stacks and the occasional friends of the library sale when the good old stuff has to make way for another shelf of James Patterson. In our era of fake news and deep-fakes, the Charlottesville, Virginia investigator’s political case resonates as a harbinger of things to come. “Sometimes I wish they held elections every year,” our boy opens. “For private investigators, election times are the best of times.” By the end of the case, he has revised that view. If Loren had only known…
- “Montezuma’s Other Revenge” by Julie Smith
Featuring Paul McDonald
(1990, Justice For Hire)
What’s one notch down from soft-boiled? Welter-boiled? Anyway, Julie Smith, along with Aaron Elkins, the late William deAndrea, and a handful of others presided over the last American Bronze Age of the classic whodunit, before it branched off into a flurry of cat/quilting/baking/antiquing-themed beach reading, historical mysteries, and higher-toned “suspense” novels Netflix might option. Before Smith turned to NOLA eye Talba Wallis, she chronicled the cases of San Francisco “sometimes” private eye/mystery writer Paul Mcdonald, a nice guy with an assortment of colorful friends and acquaintances. One is Booker–“the burglar from the right side of the tracks who planned to stop burgling as soon as his psychoanalysis kicked in.” Booker poses an intriguing conundrum: Who’d burgle a burglar?
- “The Bookie’s Daughter” by Michael Allegretto
Featuring Jake Lomax
(1990, Justice For Hire)
Denver PI Jacob Lomax takes on a missing daughter case – to be precise, the bookie’s missing daughter, kidnaped in exchange for the busted bookie taking the fifth at an upcoming grand jury aimed at snaring bigger fish. Amid cold Coors and frosty discourse with guys with names like Fat Tony and Eddy the Foot (you gotta know there’s a backstory THERE), Allegretto’s widowed ex-cop finds the girl and drops a dime or whatever it cost back then on the culprit.
- “In the Tank ” by Andrew Bergman
Featuring Jack LeVine
(2001, Murder on the Ropes)
The beauty of Otto Penzler’s turn-of-the-century’s sports anthologies–beyond Penzler’s unapologetic intros taking modern pro athletics metaphorically to court–was his ability to draft rare long-form talent like Robert B. Parker (twice!), K.C. Constantine, Mike Lupica, James Grady, Dennis Lehane, David Baldacci, Alexander McCall Smith, and Michael Malone alongside seasoned players like Block, Healy, Hoch, Estleman, Howard, Allyn, and Kaminsky. When you can bring the Father of the Historical Private Eye Story (not to mention the guy that brought you Blazing Saddles) to the game, you can stop right there, Jerry Maguire-style. It’s 1952, and the star of The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 and Hollywood and LeVine accepts the task of bodyguarding one Typhoon Walker, who’s been instructed to take a fall by the “Friends of White Athletes,” New York chapter. A startlingly grim but potent comeback for the bourbon-loving retro dick.
- “The Problem of Leon” by John Shannon
Featuring Jack Liffey
(2001, Murder on the Ropes)
I love the Jack Liffey novels — a cocktail of Moses Wine politics, Spenserian sociology and wit, medium-boiled Nudgerian/Samsonesque humanity, and, often, a dash of Irwin Allen-style, semi-apocalyptic Southern California disaster. Liffey takes his physical and metaphorical lumps like a kickboxing dummy in an anger management session, and here, he relates the two-tiered story of the titular Leon, an old college “buddy” and one of the most unpleasant individuals walking the earth. “I think Wittgenstein himself would have trouble with this one,” Liffey muses. “Who the hell’s Wittgenstein, for crap’s sake?” The problem for Liffey, a finder of lost children, is that Leon is now his client, and Leon has gone full-blown, steroidal Piscopo. The closer is more Rockford than Spenser.
- “Karma” by Walter Mosley
Featuring Leonid McGill
(2005, Dangerous Women)
In 2007, I wheedled the wife into a trip to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, on a mission to find out from Mosley himself if Easy Rawlins would survive his apparent fate in Blonde Faith. I bought the debut Leonid McGill novel, found out Easy had been Reichenbach-ed (read your Holmes), and skulked back to the hotel with my autographed copy. Took me a while to pick it up again–only after Mosley resurrected Easy–but I took immediately to Rawlins’ down-at-the-heels modern-day NYC counterpart. But we first meet “Leo” in his 67th story Empire State Building office, lamenting his lunch choices and pledging a stop at the gym. Leonid, we find out, was the son of a communist and the great-great-grandson of a Scots slavemaster: “You know, the black man’s family tree is mostly root. Whatever you see aboveground is only a hint at the real story.” The same will prove true of Karmen Brown, the potential client McGill brushes away from the other side of his door only to get to know far, gulp, far better in the course of investigating an ATM bankroll heist.
- “Red Eye” by Dennis Lehane & Michael Connelly
Featuring Patrick Kenzie, Angie Gennaro & Harry Bosch
(2014, Face Off).
The premise of Face Off was a no-brainer: Two bestselling authors, two bestselling heroes match talents and/or wits. I shelled out my hard-earned Kindle cash for this one on the basis of the cover line “Dennis Lehane vs. Michael Connelly.” I also was eager to see where Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (his PI and off-and-on romantic partner) were at after the climax of Moonlight Mile (2010). I dug in to find Patrick embroiled in another missing daughter case–that of seventh-grader Chiffon Henderson, who’d vanished through a project window and whose deadbeat dad failed to check in with his PO. The Boston PI doesn’t know Harry Bosch is in town to gather DNA from one Edward Paisley, “surreptitiously or not.” Patrick interrupts Bosch’s simultaneous stakeout on Paisley, but the cop and the self-described “independent contractor” bond over baseball and old vinyl and team up to find the connection between Chiffon, Paisley, and a 1990 cold case. When you finish, grab some tacos and a Sam Adams and chill over a Bosch/Gone, Baby, Gone marathon.
Respectfully submitted by Martin Ross. Martin is the proprietor of Short Suspects, a Facebook blog that examines five great mystery shorts and anthologies a week.