by Arthur Rosenfeld
Published by Forge
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
In the Rough
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
How did the surname "Diamond" ever get to be so popular with fictional investigators? From 1957 to 1960, long before he starred as a private eye in Harry O, actor David Janssen had the title role in another TV series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (which, by the way, also featured Mary Tyler Moore -- or at least her legs -- as his answering service operator, Sam). "Red Diamond" was the adopted moniker of a cab driver turned shamus who appeared in three parody novels (beginning with 1983's Red Diamond, Private Eye) written by Mark Schorr. In Peter Lovesey's The Vault (1999) and five earlier books, Peter Diamond is a grumpy but keen detective superintendent who heads the murder squad in Bath, England. Eve Diamond is a compulsively curious journalist who's exploring the Asian teen subculture of Los Angeles in The Jasmine Trade (2001), the first novel by Denise Hamilton. And, of course, Peter Falk (much better known for his understated work in TV's Columbo), lampooned classic hard-boiled gumshoes in Neil Simon's Murder By Death (1976), playing Sam Diamond -- a character who was no gem, believe me.
Now along comes Maximillian Diamond, a lonerish, motorcycle-riding, martial-arts-practicing, cigar-loving Yale grad, bald and Jewish, who -- thanks to his work as a Miami-area inspector with the United States Postal Inspection Service -- endures an almost constant state of career inferiority. "Postal inspectors don't wear uniforms and swagger about in the public view," Max muses early on in Arthur Rosenfeld's refreshingly different new novel, Diamond Eye, "and since they are rarely portrayed on either the small or big screen, the general public is barely aware we exist. Postal employees, however, know us all too well, and generally view us as river trolls with guns. ... At best, most people think we are little men who examine letters to make sure the address is spelled right."
Forget addresses. What Max is examining in Diamond Eye is kiddie porn. Videotape after videotape of low-brow, amateurishly produced exhibitionism that he's watching in hopes of it leading him to whoever has been shipping these materials illegally through the public mails. But then, one day, the cheesy plots and numbingly repetitious nudity are abruptly interrupted by what looks like the on-screen murder of a female sex player. Max's bosses insist the scene must be bogus -- until he discovers more snuff films and starts to trace them back to a distribution network operating between South America and South Florida. This is dangerous duty from the get-go; more so, as Max tries to connect the pornography to Cuco O'Burke, a cool-headed Latino crime boss whose international notoriety is muffled behind a surprisingly low profile and a respectable home in Miami's Little Havana district.
In another author's hands this premise might have led to a gloomy, dispiriting tale. However, Rosenfeld consciously packs Diamond Eye with enough entertaining subplots and enchantingly eccentric secondary characters that the darkness at its core, while never trivialized, also never overwhelms. Max Diamond has his own distractions from the darkness, not the least of which is the bright light of a college friend, Phayle Tollard ("one part sister, one part lover, one part shrink and one part demon. A case study in chaos, she was gloriously as unpredictable as the growth of a galaxy"), who says she's in town to sell software to an upscale department store chain. She's also planning to attend the funeral of their mutual college chum, Twyman Boatwright, a lawyer who perished during an unfortunate encounter with a table saw. Yet when Phayle's reappearance in his life is followed by the bathtub electrocution of Boatwright's law partner -- still another of their Yale cronies -- the postal cop can't help but question whether happenstance or homicide is to blame.
Phayle? Twyman? Parents looking for novel names with which to encumber their newborn offspring might find inspiration in Diamond Eye. Here we also meet Max's boss, Wacona "Waco" Smith ("Her librarian looks are deceiving. She's a barracuda"); his new partner, Mozart Portrero, a former Vietnam "tunnel rat"; Seagrave Chunny, a senior postal inspector who is determined to win the hand of Max's widowed immigrant grandmother; and Guiomary O'Burke, the crime king's elegant daughter ("shining jet black hair, pouting lips, a high-collared sea-green dress to match her enormous eyes, just enough chin, and the body to start a revolution"). Originals, all. Yet none is so memorable as Max Diamond himself, with his pet Galapagos tortoise, his father who did prison time for real estate fraud and hates it that his son went into law enforcement ("He lumped all cops together as heartless bastards who had misunderstood him and ruined his life"), his rueful recollections of a sister who died in childhood and his charming if awkward exuberance around fetching females (which leads, at one point, to his being caught by a security guard as he seeks to seduce Phayle beside a swank hotel's swimming pool). Max is better drawn in his very first outing than some fictional detectives are over the entire course of their career.
Despite his having penned only one previous novel -- A Cure for Gravity (2000), a picaresque yarn about mismatched motorcyclists on a magic-flavored journey across the United States -- Rosenfeld boasts a surprisingly polished narrative voice and some skill at engineering suspense. (Especially rewarding is an episode, about three-quarters of the way through Diamond Eye, that finds the inspector interrogating a Peruvian terrorist he believes can expose an international child-smuggling operation.) He's also adept at composing warmer sequences dependent on dialogue, such as that in which Max talks with his firecracker of a grandmother, Sara, about a ring she has just received from Seagrave Chunny:
"What kind of ring?"
In fact, Rosenfeld shows so much talent in so many areas that his infrequent stumbles are all the more glaring. For instance, while his characterizations are generally imaginative, the author's decision to make Max's partner, Mozart, a gay, black ex-Marine -- a balance of the tough and the tender -- is rather a cliché. And his casting of Guiomary O'Burke, the notorious Don's daughter, as a doctor at Mercy Hospital -- an angel to her dad's devil -- is a real groaner. It's unfortunate, too, that Phayle Tollard, who is such a free-spirited and flirtatious presence in the first half of the book, remains offstage during most of its second half. She returns at the end, sharing a personal history that ties in with the porno tape shipments, but by then Max -- and Rosenfeld -- have pushed her to such a distance from this drama that her pain no longer affects the reader as it might have done had she remained a focus of the plot all along.
There's such an abundance of Florida crime novelists these days -- Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White, Tim Dorsey, E.C. Ayres, James W. Hall and the rest -- that they tend to blend together, like tropical birds belting out similar, if similarly pleasing, tunes. But Diamond Eye is a special delivery, no question about that. With its wit, warmth and wonderfully wild cast, it promises more genre-enriching adventures to come from Boca Raton resident Arthur Rosenfeld and his moral agent of the mails, Max Diamond. Hey, who knew that detective fiction could benefit from going postal? | August 2001
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.