by Randall Hicks
Published by Wordslinger Press
296 pages, 2007
From Cradle to Crime
Reviewed by James R. Winter
Toby Dillon has a sweet gig. He’s a tennis pro at a San Diego-area country club that affords him an apartment with a view of a swimming pool favored by nudists. To retain his services, the club has converted a storage room into an office, where he can practice law as an adoption attorney. Over his desk is his law degree from UCLA. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that the initials stand for “Uncle Charlie’s Law Academy.” That’s right. Dillon is what’s known in some states as a “reading attorney,” one who studies under another lawyer, instead of attending law school.
Despite the rewards of his chosen specialty, some cases he’d rather not take, as becomes clear near the start of Randall Hicks’ new novel, Baby Crimes.
Nevin Handley is a dot-com millionaire who survived the tech crash and used his wealth to become a civic leader in suburban San Diego. Lynn’s under-the-table adoption, 16 years before, was a means to an end during Handley’s early days as a software entrepreneur, illegal and never questioned -- at least until the notes started arriving.
The notes are crudely constructed from newspaper clippings, which Dillon identifies as being local. He doesn’t want this case. He’d like to see Nevin Handley go to jail for virtually stealing Lynn. However, the now teenaged Ms. Handley is more than just a student to Dillon. She looks up to him as a surrogate uncle, someone who lets her drive his car while her family tools about Southern California in limousines. Besides, Handley has already bought his way out of the criminal charges surrounding this adoption. He just wants Dillon to make it all legal, at last, as though somebody had simply forgotten to file the paperwork.
Only when Nevin Handley is suddenly found dead -- an accident? -- in the family’s home gym does the adoption matter take on a heightened sense of urgency. It doesn’t help that the one cop Dillon gets along with, Detective Watson Hawkes, doesn’t cotton much to attorney-client privilege. Unfortunately, of course, Dillon is required by law to honor that trust. And the widowed Catherine Handley won’t let Dillon admit that he’s working for her family. It doesn’t take long at all for Toby Dillon to realize that Catherine knows who wrote the notes and wants to protect that person.
What should have been a slam-dunk legal case -- with Nevin Handley buying himself a cushy mea culpa for skirting adoption regulations and Dillon processing the necessary forms -- quickly turns into a homicide investigation. When Dillon digs deeper into Handley’s past, it becomes much more than that. Dillon is soon having to deal with organized crime in the form of local waste-management tycoon Julian Toscano.
Hawkes reaches the same conclusion about a link between Toscano and the late Mr. Handley, and Dillon has to dance around his responsibilities to continue working with the detective.
Before long, Dillon and Hawkes find themselves entangled in an attempted coup targeting trash king Toscano. Where it goes affects not only Lynn’s adoption, but Dillon’s relationship with Rita MacGilroy, a renowned actress who was also Toby Dillon’s childhood friend. Rita, who first appeared in author Hicks’ 2006 Gumshoe Award-winning debut novel, The Baby Game, has been dating Dillon ever since the events spelled out in that story.
Further complicating matters here is the presence of Dillon’s lawyer brother, Brent, who represents Lynn’s biological mother. At first, Brent’s presence appears to be calculated to throw Dillon off balance. When the real reason is revealed, it goes a long way toward explaining why the Handleys hired Dillon in the first place.
Hicks spins a good yarn, with character touches that echo classic private eyes such as Jeremiah Healy’s John Francis Cuddy. Just as Cuddy would talk to his dead wife at her graveside (sometimes with replies), Dillon spends time on a landlocked boat in his grandfather’s orchard, talking to the old man, asking for advice. It’s a clever device for getting inside Dillon’s head, and, like Healy, Hicks doesn’t get too maudlin about it.
Hicks’ female characters are strong and well-defined, except perhaps for Catherine Handley, who is given the unfortunate role of “good little rich wife.” While Rita and Lynn are strong-willed women, Catherine is portrayed as someone undone by the necessity of coping with the loss of everything she and her husband had built, including the relationship with their daughter. Hawkes is a decent character, a police detective who could probably hold his own as the protagonist in a novel, maybe even a series. What hurt his characterization for me, however, is Hicks’ shorthand description of the cop. “In a movie,” Hicks writes, “he’d be played by Morgan Freeman ...” While that certainly locked an image in my mind of the character, I felt Hawkes was defined well enough to do without that glaring casting call.
Hicks’ strength is his plotting. In Baby Crimes, he has two subplots running alongside the main story about Lynn’s long-ago adoption. One concerns two friends of his, who are adopting the baby of yet a third friend -- a woman who found herself pregnant after a weekend party. This story line serves early on as a break from the main plot. It’s Dillon working one from the files, but it also fleshes him out without having someone threaten him with a gun. Mostly. It does include a rather amusing, if brutal, encounter with a drug dealer named Zuley, who -- reluctantly, he insists, and only to save face -- beats the crap out of Dillon. But this second thread fades away when the focus shifts to the primary plot line.
The other subplot here concerns the telegenic Rita. Initially, it seems that Hicks is trying to do little more than tie up some loose ends left over from The Baby Game. However, his second subplot also serves a more important purpose, allowing Rita to come into her own as a character, after Toscano’s thugs make the mistake of threatening her children. Almost instantly, she goes from being a low-key celebrity trying to shun the limelight, to a mother lioness. She’s even willing at one point to confront Toscano, alone.
Randall Hicks is not writing anything particularly original in these books, but he is nonetheless managing to turn some of the old standbys of P.I. fiction on their ears. Adoption is Hicks’ specialty away from writing (he’s a Southern California adoption attorney, just like his fictional hero), and it provides fertile ground on which he can revamp the private-eye novel in potentially interesting ways.
I just hope his real-life cases are less violent than the ones in his fiction. | September 2007
James R. Winter is a writer and reviewer from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. A regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and occasional contributor to The Rap Sheet, his short stories have appeared in ThugLit, Crime Scene Scotland and the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Northcoast Exile. Potential employers should look over his contributions to Tales from the Cube Farm.