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The Haunting Past
Loren Estleman's protagonist Amos Walker has long been a cornerstone of modern-day private eye literature. Estleman's latest effort, A Smile on the Face of the Tiger (the 14th in the series), is filled with all the wry charm and expert insight we've come to expect from Estleman's controlled fusion of wit and wisdom. The author always gives his novels an extra dose of genuinely moving humanity, featuring honest character motivation and a gripping, energetic first-person narrative.
This time out, P.I. Amos Walker is hired by a New York publisher to hunt down the vanished pulp author Eugene Booth, a onetime acclaimed writer of noir crime novels who stopped writing four decades earlier. Booth was never able to recapture the respect and celebrity he had with his most famous novel, Paradise Valley, the fictionalized account of an actual 1943 race riot in Detroit. Though the publisher was set to reprint Paradise Valley, Booth inexplicably returned his advance, broke the contract, and abandoned his home. Now it's up to Walker to find out exactly why.
Eventually Walker tracks Booth to a desolate cabin near the Canadian border; in the older man Walker discovers a like-minded individual who has a real need to dig to the heart of the truth no matter what the price. Booth doesn't want Paradise Valley reprinted because he's rewriting his masterwork and making an effort to tell the real story behind the race riot, including the brutal fact that the police allowed several lynchings to occur for fear of their own safety. Though Booth tried to investigate the case nearly 50 years ago, it cost him greatly when his wife was murdered. Now, when it appears that Booth is being spied on, Walker goes into action to try to reveal events covered up over a half century ago but which still have deadly ramifications even today.
With his tight and pointed prose, Loren D. Estleman is highly capable of providing the reader with an engaging novel concerning racism, police conspiracy, and the haunting past that one can never let go of. Estleman's writing is so sharp and detailed that there is always a supple but convincing underpinning of deeper issues roiling beneath the moment. A Smile on the Face of the Tiger offers us a poetic voice of subtle yet resonating themes relating to loss, audacity, and the hope for redemption.
The author has a real respect and deference for the hard-boiled and noir authors who came long before him. The subject of a mostly forgotten pulp writer is handled with great admiration and affection. Beneath the guise of Booth are his real-life counterparts Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Horace McCoy, and dozens of other suspense authors lost in the recesses of time. That sense of fondness is what makes A Smile on the Face of the Tiger a standout in the Walker canon -- evocative, elaborate, and yet always endearing. The complexity of character detail, the cohesive story structure, and the poignant writing prove once again just what a superior stylist and master craftsman Estleman remains.
The natural fluidity of protagonist and plot is what holds the center of this tightly woven novel together. Walker is an Everyman, a private eye who not merely does his job but is his job. There are no superman elements here, but rather an honesty and humor that prevails through the investigation at hand. The mystery itself is well wrought and engaging, with Walker slowly moving over the same terrain as he rereads novels and studies crime reports and newspaper articles to discover what lies at the core of a long-forgotten writer's life. Walker's persona remains wonderfully balanced between the drive for justice and the humble need for acerbic, self-effacing humor. The author never fails to earn our confidence that the next Amos Walker novel will be of the same distinguished high quality as all the rest.
Tom Piccirilli is the author of eight novels, including Hexes and Shards, and his Felicity Grove mystery series, consisting of The Dead Past and Sorrow's Crown. He has sold more than 100 stories to the anthologies Future Crimes, Bad News, The Conspiracy Files, and Best of the American West II. An omnibus collection of 40 stories titled Deep into That Darkness Peering has just been released by Terminal Fright Press. Tom divides his time between New York City and Estes Park, Colorado.