- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Meet Harry Lipkin: Part Sam Spade, part Woody Allen, all mensch.
Harry Lipkin is a tough-talking, soft-chewing, rough-around-the-edges, slow-around-the-corners private investigator who carries a .38 along with a spare set of dentures. He’s not the best P.I. in Miami, but at eighty-seven, he’s certainly the oldest. His latest client, Mrs. Norma Weinberger, has a problem close to home. Someone has been stealing sentimental trinkets and the...
Meet Harry Lipkin: Part Sam Spade, part Woody Allen, all mensch.
Harry Lipkin is a tough-talking, soft-chewing, rough-around-the-edges, slow-around-the-corners private investigator who carries a .38 along with a spare set of dentures. He’s not the best P.I. in Miami, but at eighty-seven, he’s certainly the oldest. His latest client, Mrs. Norma Weinberger, has a problem close to home. Someone has been stealing sentimental trinkets and the occasional priceless jewel from her; someone she employs, trusts, cares for, and treats like family. The suspect list reads like the cast of Clue—the chauffeur, butler, maid, chef, and gardener all seem to have motive, access, and a lot more moolah than they should. With the stakes fairly low and blood pressure that's a little too high, Harry Lipkin must figure out whodunit before the thief strikes again.
The arrival of Barry Fantoni's Harry Lipkin, Private Eye at my door caused me to reflect, as I so often do, on what used to be called mystery or detective novels. Once a variously populated genre, it has become a virtual phylum under which distinct, ever-proliferating classes, orders, and species continue to evolve. Two forms of relatively recent appearance are those with supernatural elements and those starring geriatric sleuths. Among the latter are Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit, Keith Thomson's Drummond Clark, and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander — though, to be sure, the inspector only achieved elderliness, and final dotage, in the course of his series, now kaput, thanks to his creator's apparent ill will. I suppose we could, retroactively, put Miss Marple in with these old boys, but I don't think she'd care for it; best leave the ancient maiden with the "cosies" — spelled thus out of respect for her unbending Englishness. But Harry Lipkin is the genuine article, his credentials impeccable: eighty-seven years old, prey to digestive complaints, sporting dentures.
Harry lives in Warmheart, a suburban development outside Miami that, among its other attractions, runs a free bus service for people over sixty. ("So that means everyone.") Still, Harry has wheels, a forty-year-old Chevy Impala with a Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 in the glove box ("under the truss I used before I had my hernia fixed"). He gave up his office in central Miami and now works from home. That's where we find him when Mrs. Norma Weinberger, a rich widow in her mid-seventies, shows up asking for professional assistance in discovering which member of her staff is stealing from her.
There are five suspects: an immense African-American chauffeur with fists the size of human skulls; an Asian butler, the very model of attentive reserve; a docile young Bolivian maid; a stoned gardener with an unfortunate disposition; and the cook, an Ethiopian Jew. Each has personal connections and private pursuits that might explain the continuing disappearance of Mrs. Weinberger's possessions. Harry digs into their lives and reports back to us in the sort of alienated, plank-stacking style with which Raymond Chandler infected thousands of writers: "I called directory assistance. The voice at the end of the line gave me the number of the Four Aces Casino and thanked me for using the service. I dialed what I had written down."
There's something a little odd about the world Harry lives in; it's one in which you can find a cell phone in a woman's handbag and yet pay just $3.40 for lunch for two at a deli (pastrami on rye, chicken liver, potato salad, and two lemon teas). Furthermore, the usual laws of physics don't seem to apply here, for try as I might — and I did — I could not reproduce this feat of mechanics: "I pushed the door shut but left a gap of a couple of inches between the frame and the edge of the door with the hinges." I suppose Harry means that he left the door ajar, but then why did he say he pushed it shut?
This, alas, is really the novel's greatest mystery, as the plot offers none. It's a straightforward exercise in eliminating suspects to home in on the culprit. But the identity of this light-fingered person was obvious to me one-third of the way through the novel, and I can't think that anyone with normal detective novel-reading skills would take much longer than that. On the other hand, there is, I'm happy to say, one violent calamity: a case of death by deferred maintenance. Moreover, old-guy jokes abound: Harry growls through his dentures, he can't hear his doorbell, he is slow of foot, and when attacked thinks of his body as the province of the medical profession: "?he pulled me from my seat and rammed something hard into the base of my spine. Just under the spot where I get the ache in the morning. The ache that doctors can't figure out."
Harry Lipkin's creator, Barry Fantoni, was, from 1963 to 2010, a cartoonist and joke maker for the British satiric magazine Private Eye, one of the world's great comic institutions. So, yes, he is funny. He is also the author of some earlier detective novels, now lost to history. Frankly, Harry Lipkin's prospects don't look much brighter. Whether he will survive will depend entirely on an indiscriminate appetite for geriatric gumshoes. "I might not be the best," he correctly points out, "but I am certainly the oldest."
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
Harry Introduces Himself
Harry Lipkin. Eighty-seven. Eighty-eight next birthday. You think that's old? My mother lived to be a hundred and three. So. Make a note. Send Harry Lipkin a card and a box of soft candy. Something he can chew easy. No nuts. I don't digest nuts. Make yourself at home. Relax. You got some spare time? A little? I got plenty.
When I first started in this business, I rented a place in the center of Miami. Two rooms and a closet. I had a hand-painted sign on the door. Big gold letters: Harry Lipkin. Private Investigator. Standard Rates. It was on the third floor of a block on Camilo Avenue and cost me forty bucks a month.
Now I work from home. My card says 1909 Samuel Gompers Avenue, Warmheart, Florida. There's also a zip code I can never remember. Since no one writes anymore it doesn't bother me. My license I keep in the desk drawer, along with my .38, a box of slugs, my clothes brush, and a spare set of dentures. I might not be the best but I am certainly the oldest.
These days I deal mostly with the sort of cases the cops don't want. Cops want serial homicide. It makes them feel good when they catch someone. But how tough is it to catch a serial killer? You put his picture on TV. Nationwide. You wait. Ten days later a schoolteacher on her lunch break spots him. He's walking out of a Baskin Robbins in a hick town somewhere in Montana. That's him. The guy whose picture was on TV. Before you know it he's surrounded by a million armed cops telling him to drop everything and freeze. And then they shoot him. Ninety-nine cents' worth of vanilla, banana, and pistachio ice cream wasted.
You want to know about my home? The place I leave for the grocery store. The place I come back to from the grocery store. I'll tell you.
Warmheart is an architectural folly. A mix of Flemish and Florida. It was put up by a homesick Belgian called Herman Van Dood. He built it to look just like the town he left behind when the Germans took over in 1914. The houses are single story but with slate roofs thirty feet high. The incline is sixty-five degrees. Everyone else in Miami has a flat roof. You can stand on it and watch the sun go down. On mine you'd need to be a mountaineer.
Last month a hurricane took half the tiles off. Big heavy gray slate tiles. Van Dood imported them from Liege. They landed on the grass. They're still there. Some busted into bits. Some are half buried in what used to be the lawn when I cared about lawns. The tiles don't bother me either. But they bother the woman next door. Mrs. Feldman.
"When you gonna get those tiles put back?" she yells. "You think this is Gaza? It looks like a bomb zone."
I tell Mrs. Feldman I don't pay rent to climb ladders.
So. Here I am. No family and no buddies. Issy. Joe. Angelo from Napoli. Big Mal. Little Mal. Manny. Ike. All gone. My oldest buddy died last Purim. Abe Schultz. Born the same year. Same street. Abe's parents were Dutch Jews. Old man Schultz made cigars. They both had mustaches. His was a handlebar with waxed ends. Hers? Well. You couldn't wax the ends. Abe was a dentist before he retired. He made the spare set I keep in the desk drawer. He only charged me for the materials. Abe was that kind of a mensch.
People ask me. Clients. Usually clients. Clients with time on their hands. Were you ever married? I don't mind. They can ask what they like. I charge by the day.
I did try marriage. But it didn't last. I married Nancy. She had long legs and soft lips. Nancy was twenty years old when we got married. Just twenty. Twenty-one when she walked out. I came home one night late from a stakeout and she was gone. No note. Nothing. Just an empty clothes closet and the faint smell of her ten-cent perfume.
This office has a lot less space than the one I had before. So when I get a client I sit them in the yard. I got a little table and a couple of garden chairs. Plastic with cushions. Yellow. Bright yellow I can see easy. I picked them up in a garage sale. Three bucks and fifty cents. A table and two chairs. For another fifty cents the guy also threw in an umbrella.
Like the suit? I wear it to meet new clients. Brooks Brothers. Seersucker. Classic. 1953. Single-breasted. Loose fit, so the front doesn't go all baggy when I strap on my .38. Perfect for Miami in the summer. It is the same suit that I put on to meet Mrs. Norma Weinberger. Except there was no Mrs. Weinberger.
Posted November 8, 2012
Posted December 23, 2012
No text was provided for this review.