A literary detective story ingeniously told in ten cases. John Dorn is a classic gumshoe. His woman has left him, he lives in his office, and he drinks too much. His one friend, a lawyer named Demetri, hands Dorn an infinite supply of hopeless cases and lost causes, to which Dorn, ever the champion of the underdog and the oppressed, is drawn to “as a sledgehammer is to a kneecap.” A superlative work of hardboiled literary detective fiction, The Midnight Promise wonderfully evokes the underbelly of contemporary Melbourne, its battlers, its hard men, its victims, and its ill-fated heroes.
“[A] powerful hard-boiled debut . . . The cases get progressively more disturbing, both in terms of their subject matter, which include gruesome torture, and their impact on Dorn, a classic world-weary narrator.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lovitt has a neat way with a yarn. . . . And just when you think he is going to stay close to a kind of downbeat realism, there is a slide into something a little thrillerish and action-packed.”The Sydney Morning Herald
“[An] artful, Down Under nod to the hard-boiled private eyes of Chandler and Hammett.”The Christian Science Monitor, “10 Excellent International Thrillers”
“Lovitt is sure-handed in sketching characters, and he laces Dorn’s cases with sardonic humor and prodigious bits of human frailty. . . . Fans of international crime fiction will enjoy Dorn and his milieu.”Booklist
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Zane Lovitt’s stories have been featured in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 and in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. “Leaving the Fountainhead” won the SD Harvey Short Story Award at the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards for Australian crime fiction. He lives in Melbourne.
Read an Excerpt
I'm sitting on the floor of my one-room flat reading the newspaper when Demetri arrives. This is my local paper, the Western Gazette, the kind any suburb has in its laundromats and fish-and-chip shops, and I've been flicking through it, killing time, mentally urging Demetri to hurry up. He knows the way to my office, he's been there about a thousand times. He's never been to my home.
"Nice place," he says as he steps inside. "Where's the rest of it?"
Standing here with his designer shirt and his gold wristwatch, Demetri looks like a wealthy parent visiting a college dorm. Eyes travel over the coffee mugs in the sink, the oven full of recycling, the bathroom that reeks of mildew, that's also a wardrobe. He fights a knowing smile, loses that battle when his eyes come back to me.
"How's the private detective business coming along then?"
"I'm doing all right."
"Are you sure? This is like a shanty town I saw once in the Philippines."
"I guess some of us are resigned to not being a rich bastard."
"You should be working for a firm, doing something behind the scenes. Mendes Duke or somewhere like that. Nice discreet little card, John Dorn, Corporate Paralegal." Demetri shrugs theatrically. His combed grey locks cling to his scalp, unmoving. "But okay. So long as you're resigned to it ..."
On the open page of the Western Gazette in front of me there's a full-page ad for novelty greeting cards. One of the cards says: "Congratulations! You Finally Got a Real Job!" You know a lot of parents buy that one. Parents, and people who talk to you like they're your parents.
"How's single life treating you?"
"Have you even had a girlfriend since what's-her-name?"
Demetri remembers her name. Pretending to forget is how he expresses his support. It's how he quietly says, "Good riddance."
"Been too busy with work, I suppose ..."
I smile at the meaninglessness of my response and he gives a meaningless hum of conclusion.
"If you've asked me here to help with Anton Goldberg ..." Demetri says, strolling to the centre of the room and wheeling around to face me. He's got his tough scowl on to show how serious he is. "John, he's a waste of time. Take it from someone who knows all about wasting time on criminals. Anton's one of the ones who enjoys prison."
Last month, Anton Goldberg was charged with robbing a dry cleaner in a western suburbs shopping centre called Highpoint. Anyone who doesn't live around here calls it Knifepoint and, sure enough, Anton was armed with a long machete, the kind you'd use to clear a path through the jungle. He's got more prior convictions than brain cells which means he won't get bail, so he's wallowing in the Metropolitan Remand Centre at Ravenhall, trying to find a lawyer who'll argue that society is to blame.
"If someone had bloody fucken taught me to read," Anton declaimed on a crackling phone line from Ravenhall, "then I would have seen the bloody fucken sign that said Security Personnel Patrol This fucken Area. Then I bloody fucken never would of bloody knocked the fucken place over."
For some reason, criminals in the western suburbs have a reputation for being slow-witted.
I told Anton his case was weak but he insists on going to trial and he's asking for my help. What's good about someone being in jail is, you can't return their calls.
But Anton Goldberg isn't the reason I've asked Demetri to my flat on a dull and windy Sunday afternoon.
"So why am I here?" he asks. He seems to be thinking about sitting in my brown armchair, but it's old and sticky and he doesn't trust it. "Did you want me to help you burn your furniture?"
"I've got something amazing to show you. But first I need a favor. A big one. There's no money in it."
"Of course," he says, and the classic Demetri smile breaks through his tough scowl. He loves to be asked for favors; helping people is his nature. I suspect that as a criminal lawyer he doesn't get to help people as often as his nature demands.
Now he tries to get the scowl back, managing only an amiable pout. "But John, don't you think you should get remunerated every now and then?"
"I make money. Not enough to spend on my wardrobe, if that's what you mean. Did you come straight from your club?"
Demetri glances down at his outfit, his tapered trousers and silk socks. It's the kind of casual wear that says, I'd rather be wearing a suit.
"So what's this amazing thing?" he asks. "Are you going to put on a clean shirt?"
"I need you to come for a walk with me."
He recoils, turns to the window. What he can see, past other blocks of flats, is a grey sky that's mustering rain. Demetri makes a face. "Is that necessary?"
"I finally get to show you around my neighborhood."
"Is that the favor? Putting up with that, at my age?"
"No. The favor is for someone Anton met inside. Someone you don't know. His name's Gary Blanche."
Demetri wilts. "And I suppose he's developed an equally brilliant line of legal reasoning to support his not-guilty plea."
"He's only just gone into remand. He hasn't made a plea yet."
"And whatever the charge is, he assures you it's a massive miscarriage of justice with the rights of freedom for corruption and victims, innocent, travesty, persecution, outrage, more justice and then injustice ..."
I grab the newspaper I was reading, fold it and tuck it gently into my jacket pocket.
"You'll see," I say.
Demetri gets an overcoat from his car and together we hike silently into the wind. Footscray is the delta where trucks pour out of the city and spread across the west of Melbourne, so living here means slowly drowning in exhaust and the yawn of diesel engines and bored drivers who watch you in their rearview mirrors. It's what keeps housing cheap and makes somewhere so close to the CBD a home for half of Melbourne's migrant population. Sundays here are like low tide on a coral reef: every shape and color of life is on parade, hollering into mobile phones and undertaking their own serious mission, just like me and Demetri. I steer him away from the stir of Paisley Street and south under the rail overpass and he's happy, at least for now, not to know where we're going.
I tell Demetri about Gary Blanche.
"He's up on three counts of possession of an illegal weapon. The police found the guns in his house a week ago after a tip-off. Gary's lawyer told Gary who told me that the prosecutor's after a custodial sentence of one year per count, not concurrent."
I can't tell if Demetri's grimace is because of the wind or because of Gary Blanche's sad prospects. We turn left onto Broadfield Avenue.
"That sounds right," he says, wrapping his coat tighter. "It's part of the State Government's crackdown on getting re-elected. New penalties for possessing firearms, proposed by none other than Her Highness, the Director of Public Prosecutions. She's talking about running for pre-selection and she wants to look tougher on crime than any of the blokes. But those laws only commenced a fortnight ago. When did your friend get charged?"
Demetri exhales theatrically. "Sounds to me like he's the winner of this month's unluckiest bastard competition."
"Gary got my number from Anton and he called me from Ravenhall. He told me he'd been in there once before, for possessing stolen goods, and he didn't think he could last another stretch. I've never met him face to face, but from the sound of his voice I'd say something terrible happened the first time he was inside and he's frightened out of his mind it'll happen again."
"I can see where this is going," Demetri shakes his head. "Perhaps Ravenhall shouldn't be the kind of place it is. But do you think he wasn't planning something terrible himself, John? I mean, what was he doing with the guns?"
"Exactly," I say. "That is exactly what Gary asked me to find out."
We turn right onto Farrel Street, a stretch of run-down weatherboard homes and blocks of flats that smell of urine and all seem to slump against each other like penguins in the Antarctic. The ones that have gardens really only have weeds that seep into the cracks in the concrete paths and across abandoned playthings and up to the windows, threatening to breach the walls and ravage the people inside. The dogs that bark at us from behind torn wire fences rattle their chains and demand to know how they ended up living here. The street is deserted because it's the kind of place where you don't spend a lot of time outside. Even when it's not as bitterly cold as today.
"What are you talking about?" Demetri demands. If he was out of place in my flat, he's more than out of place here. He doesn't seem to notice. "He asked you to ... what?"
"Gary wants me to find out where the guns came from. And before you ask, yeah, I'm working for free."
Demetri squeezes his eyes shut. "He doesn't know where they came from?"
"Does he live alone?"
"He lives with his father, Gary Senior, but Gary Senior's in a wheelchair and he never leaves the house. They weren't his guns."
"So, your friend's story is that they materialized, inexplicably, within the home?"
"Sort of. Gary Junior's just begun an apprenticeship as an auto-electrician, and with a record like his it's hard to find work, which means he's hysterically happy to get the job and he doesn't want to mess it up. So he goes to work every day an hour before everyone else, just to show them how committed he is, and he's leaving the house bright and early one morning when he opens the front door and finds a .35 caliber Beretta, pre-World War 2, sitting right there on the porch steps. From what I've managed to find out, it's a pretty rare gun. Valuable."
"A Beretta? All by itself?"
"No note from one of his classy friends who collects antiques?"
"Nothing else. It wasn't even loaded."
"Right," says Demetri, moving from confusion to disbelief. He steps around a puddle on the footpath. Nobody clears the gutters on this street and there's dead foliage clogging up the drains — Demetri's shoes don't look like the kind you get wet. "So, of course, he took it straight to the police."
"Gary's got a record and he doesn't imagine the police will be too happy to hear from him. Also, he thinks it's a practical joke. He's a new apprentice so surely this is some kind of initiation prank. That's understandable, isn't it? He doesn't want to come across as a wuss who calls the cops at the first sign of a gun. What he does instead is he takes it upstairs and hides it in his sock drawer. Whoever pulled the prank will reveal themselves eventually and meanwhile he's got to be Mister Super Cool."
"This is the story he told you?" Demetri asks.
"And there's no one to corroborate?"
"No witnesses of any kind. He didn't even tell his father."
"And you believe him?"
"If you heard him tell it, you'd believe him too. So. He comes home from work that same day and finds a .38 self-loading Glock in the mailbox."
Slowly, Demetri comes to a stop. He tries to give me a doubtful, even offended look, but the wind picks up and stings his eyes and he flinches, blinking.
"Come on," he says with a defensive step back.
"It's my sixtieth birthday coming up ... That's what this is about, right? You're keeping me occupied so my wife can build a gazebo or something ..."
I don't answer, meet his eyes with patience, which only frustrates him more.
He says, "Where the fuck are we going?"
I nod in the direction we've been walking. "It's one more block," I say. "The scene of the crime."
"Because I think you need to see."
"Well, we've got a problem. Because I don't go in for bullshit stories. Even if you do."
And standing there, he folds his arms.
It's not like Demetri isn't familiar with the traipse through these rundown, frigid neighborhoods. A lot of his clients come from places like this, and he's always on the lookout for another Jim Yedda. I think it's fair to say that Jim Yedda changed Demetri's life. I think Demetri would say that he did.
What happened to Yedda was he got drunk and fell asleep in St. Vincent Place, a lush green park in South Melbourne which is open to the public but exclusive enough that the locals call the police when someone's asleep in there. Two uniforms attended the scene and reported that Yedda was in an "agitated" state, though they said this might have been the result of the kicks to the knees they administered to wake him up. Turning out his pockets they found seven or eight small scraps of paper that they assumed to be tabs of LSD, and when they asked him what they were he replied, slurring and blinking, that he didn't know. The two policemen promptly drew the conclusion that Yedda was, at that moment, tripping on acid, and they placed him under arrest.
During the interview at the South Melbourne police station, Jim Yedda was charged with possession. Typically, if you're charged with possessing a small quantity of something, the first thing that happens is you're offered a bail application. But Yedda had no fixed address, so even if he could rustle up the money, he could never meet the bail conditions. They told him to sit and wait in Ravenhall, overnight, for the paper to be tested. There's nothing unusual about that for homeless people on remand.
What was unusual was that the cross-eyed, overworked prosecutor who landed the job forgot to tick a box. On the form that goes to the forensic laboratory, there's a box you're supposed to tick when the suspect is in custody — it fast-tracks the tests. If that box isn't ticked, well, the lab has a million more urgent tests to do.
It was two months before the tests came back, and they came back negative. Not LSD, just ordinary scraps of paper.
In those two months, Jim Yedda was sexually assaulted more than once. He witnessed a murder and he lost a finger in an attempt on his own life.
Finally he was released and immediately hospitalised and Demetri took up the case, banged the drum with the press and successfully sued the Director of Public Prosecutions for negligence. Soon there were activists clamoring for the DPP to resign. Even talk radio seemed to sympathize with Yedda's story. No one minds how awful our jails are, so long as everyone in there is supposed to be in there. And just when the news media was moving on to other scandals, a local musician wrote a popular song called "Scraps of a Life" about Jim Yedda, and the story became front page news all over again. Demetri did the morning shows. It was a public relations nightmare for the DPP, and it cemented Demetri's reputation as a legal white knight.
You can bet he didn't get paid for that job.
So Demetri's not really annoyed because I'm dragging him through the western suburbs on the crappiest day of the year, and he's not annoyed because he's old or because his shoes are getting ruined. He's done more for people who appear more guilty.
Why he's annoyed is because, it seems to him, some lowlife has taken advantage of his friend.
I say, "Why would Gary beg me to help him if it wasn't true?"
Eagerly, Demetri counts off the answers on his fingers. "To give him the appearance of innocence. So that you might find something that throws the jury or something that makes the cops look bad —"
"He's not that smart."
"You wouldn't believe how often I've said that about a client and been wrong. Criminals in the western suburbs aren't as dumb as people think."
"I told you I've got something amazing to show you. Do you want to see it or not?"
"He's already got a lawyer, right?"
"Yeah, but we need you."
"You're Demetri Sfakiakopoulos, champion of the lost cause."
He smiles. It's too cold for him to blush.
"In future, the causes don't need to be this lost."
"Bullshit," I say, edging on along the pavement, tempting him to follow. "I think they need to be exactly this lost."
Demetri turns to the sky again, looking partly for rain but also maybe to God for guidance. Up there a passenger airline glides by, unhelpful. On windy days they change the flight path so that planes headed for the airport make their approach over Footscray, low and loud and self-conscious. Demetri deflates, gives me a look, swallows, pushes his hands deeper into his pockets and trudges past me, leading the way. "So he put the Glock in his sock drawer too?"
"The two guns won't fit in his sock drawer now," I say, skipping to catch up. "He sticks them under his bed."
"Was it loaded?"
"No, but the next one was."
"Christ. The next one."
Ahead of us there's a small shingle that protrudes from the second storey of a shaky brick edifice rising over a thin laneway. On the shingle are some faded words: The Prince Leopold.
I point at it as we approach.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Midnight Promise"
Copyright © 2012 Zane Lovitt.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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