In a Teapot
by Terence Faherty
Published by The Mystery Company
128 pages, 2005
The Confessions of Owen Keane
by Terence Faherty
Published by Crippen & Landrau
226 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith and Cindy Chow
Editor's note: Terence Faherty is an Indianapolis, Indiana, technical writer and lecturer on the films of Basil Rathbone, who has spent the last 15 years developing a pair of noteworthy crime series. One, set in the mid-20th century, follows a former minor movie actor, Scott Elliott, whose screen career ended with the U.S. entry into World War II, and who now works for Hollywood Security ("Problem Solvers of Last Resort"). Introduced in Kill Me Again (1996), Elliott went on to star in Come Back Dead (1997), which picked up a Shamus Award. Faherty's second series builds around a former seminary student, Owen Keane (introduced in Dead Stick, 1991), who abandoned his religious career because of doubts about his own faith, and who has since become mixed up in mysteries that satisfy his appetite for soul-searching puzzles. After an uncommon dry spell, Faherty has just introduced new books rooted in both of these series -- one a novella, the other a collection of short stories.
In a Teapot, a fast-clipping read that features private eye Scott Elliott, is the first original fiction to be published by Jim Huang and the gang at The Drood Review of Mystery. This 23,000-word novella, barely 100 pages in length, wouldn't have been out of place in (and could have added a little much-needed P.I. pizzazz to) the recent, Ed McBain-edited anthology Transgressions, but it's being presented here as a standalone hardcover volume, pumped up with several illustrations (that, alas, weren't in the ARC I received) by noted watercolorist and mystery fan Robin Agnew.
A collector's item? A new publishing strategy? Who knows -- and furthermore, who cares? The simple fact is that In a Teapot is a fine afternoon's read, a giddy romp of a story that goes down easy, like an old Bogart B-flick. And that's surely right in keeping with the spirit of things, for Elliott's beat is 1940s Hollywood. He's a former bit-player (a nice substitute for "failed actor"), now working as the ace op for Paddy Maguire's Hollywood Security Agency, where his cases usually involve trying to keep the nasty little secrets of movie-star clients out of the scandal rags. And that's the way it goes here.
Elliott, with "one foot on the altar," should be thinking of nothing but his upcoming nuptials to the lovely Ella Englehart, a saucy "summertime blonde" who works as a Warner publicist. But Paddy has other plans for his future. It seems a film version of The Tempest, William Shakespeare's final play, is all set to go, and will feature many of the shining stars among Hollywood's famed (but aging) colony of British ex-pats, including Ronald Coleman, Joan Fontaine and Basil Rathbone. The film looks like a winner ("Shakespeare is hot right now," is how the would-be producer puts it). Yet rumors about a torrid romance between Forrest Combs, one of the film's stars, and Betty Ann Baker, a well-endowed but less-than-reputable burlesque dancer, are giving the rather skittish Brits the vapors, and threaten to sink the production before it can even get off the ground. So Paddy dispatches Elliott to buy off Baker and put a kibosh on the romance.
It should be a simple matter of a little dough changing hands, but of course things go terribly wrong terribly fast, and soon Scott and Ella find themselves awash in a sea of troubles that include assorted gangsters, producers, dancers, actors and inconvenient corpses, and making it to the church on time may be the least of these young lovers' worries. Along the way, there's plenty of typical P.I. fare: crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses, and lots of often not-so-savory types with lots of often not-so-savory motives cracking wise and stabbing each other blithely in the back.
There's nothing earth-shattering in this Teapot, just a pleasant little diversion that's entertaining as hell, full of spot-on period detail and dialogue. It ain't Chandler, but then, hell, what is these days? -- K.B.S.
Taking a cue from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's wildly popular Sherlock Holmes stories, Faherty, in his seven Owen Keane mysteries, has frequently referred to events that are otherwise never described, thus creating the illusion of his protagonist having a life beyond the books. Unable to leave the suggestion of these stories alone, however, the throwaway references became building blocks for the short stories that are assembled in his diverse new collection, The Confessions of Owen Keane.
A failed seminarian and ardent lover of the unknown, Keane has pursued an eclectic array of occupations over the years, from Home Depot clerk to bartender to crisis-line phone volunteer. But he's always had a passion for unsolved mysteries -- and more than once that passion has led him into events of an overwhelming nature. In Confessions' "The Third Manny," for instance, the disappearance from the hospital of a traffic accident victim causes Owen to become wedged between Vietnamese gangs and the ATF, and in "The Triple Score" his observance of a gambling con leads him to become emotionally involved in a dealer's death. Even though he never quite made it to the priesthood, Owen's conscience and need to see puzzles resolved forces him into investigations in which he looks closely at the hearts and minds of both victims and their attackers.
The stories in Confessions often start out with a bang and conclude with a contemplative whimper. The twists are unexpected and they frequently build to bittersweet endings, which demonstrate that justice doesn't always win out, and that the bad guys -- who often aren't all that bad -- sometimes go free. If there's an annoying fault to this compilation, it's that the stories are not organized chronologically, or even given dates. As a result, the reader frequently does a double-take, when a character who was described previously as deceased suddenly returns from the grave.
Since the Keane series began in 1991 and was last updated in 1999, with Orion Rising, the short stories here generally take place during those years. The exception is "St. Jimmy," in which Owen reminisces about boyhood betrayal and faith. One of the standout selections from Confessions is the previously unpublished "On Pilgrimage," in which Owen and his niece conduct their own modern version of The Canterbury Tales as they take part in a breast-cancer benefit walk and pass the time with a wheelchair-bound woman, her husband and his mistress, all the while building a fairy tale that heart-wretchedly mimics that trio's twisted relationships. Not surprisingly, the most polished yarn in these pages is "The Headless Magi," a short story that previously appeared in the Christmas collection Murder, Mayhem and Mistletoe (2001). Fans of this Edgar-nominated series will be pleased to find these tales filling in many of the gaps in Owen Keane's life.
The tales to be found in The Confessions of Owen Keane are escapes for a slow weekend, and they provide a thoughtful contrast to the usual world of modern private investigators. Always likable, Owen Keane -- whom one New York Times reviewer labeled a "metaphysical detective" -- is the antithesis of the tough-talking and punch-throwing P.I. If the sign of a successful short story collection is one that has the reader needing to know more and wanting to read the full-length novels, then Faherty has a definite winner here. -- C.C. | August 2005
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor, a Mystery Scene and Crime Spree columnist, and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She also reviews books for The No Name Café site.