The Hours of the Virgin

by Loren D. Estleman

Published by Mysterious Press

288 pages, 1999

Buy it online






The Living and
the Dead

Reviewed by Jack Curtin


Faces from the past are best left there.

This first sentence from Amos Walker's 1980 debut in Motor City Blue might serve as an appropriate coda for his 13th and latest case, The Hours of the Virgin, in which the Detroit private eye faces a tragedy out of his past. A similar admonition is expressed to Walker here by both an old woman, who was witness to the murder of his partner 20 years ago, and later by his oldest and truest friend, John Alderdyce:

You can't love the dead more than the living.

Wise words, and Walker is usually very much a realist (albeit a cynical one), who doesn't get emotionally involved in his cases, beyond the traditional affinities for justice and the underdog which mark all the knights who walk fiction's classic mean streets. However, this latest novel -- like Loren D. Estleman's Every Brilliant Eye (1986), in which the seeds of this present tale were first planted -- touches on issues and memories that are at Walker's very core. The Hours of the Virgin is nominally about the search for an invaluable medieval illuminated manuscript, but the links between this case and the decades-old shooting of Walker's mentor, Dale Leopold, are what drive the story and, indeed, the hero.

Leopold and the man who shot him, Earl North, are first mentioned in Every Brilliant Eye, to the best of my recollection. And even if they did have an overlooked moment on stage in one of the five earlier Walker novels, it was not a noticeable walk-on. In Eye, however, we learn specifically about Walker's apprenticeship to ex-cop Leopold, who was gunned down at 3 a.m. on the steps of a seedy motel on a dark and deserted street by an errant husband he was tailing. North's guilt is a certainty to Walker, but the courts found otherwise, due to the absence of a weapon or witnesses. There is a bit of retro-history in all this, it must be noted. In the 1986 novel, Walker was said to have accompanied Leopold on the tailing job and to have wounded North after the shooting of his partner. North's lawyer later used the supposed shooting of "an unarmed man" as a key element in his successful defense. In Virgin, though, this account is revised: Walker offered to go along on the tail, but was told by Leopold that it wasn't necessary.

But enough nitpicking. This is supposed to be a review of The Hours of the Virgin.

Bottom line: I liked it. A lot.

Author Estleman is the purest hard-boiled P.I. writer working today, perhaps closer to Raymond Chandler than to either Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald in style and attitude, as a general rule (though this particular novel, with its themes of the past haunting the present and characters who are inter-related in unexpected ways, puts Walker in more of a Lew Archer mode). And he has studiously avoided most of the modern trappings of the genre: the extended cast of lovers, sidekicks and assorted good/bad and bad/good guys, and the unmitigated audacity of the hero to be cheerful, even happy, now and then. There are a few recurring characters in the Walker saga -- Alderdyce, the tough cop who has progressed from lieutenant to inspector on the Detroit Police force over the course of this series; Barry Stackpole, the Detroit News columnist-turned-freelance writer, who was the focus of Every Brilliant Eye and from whom Walker now keeps a guarded distance (because of what he learned in Eye about Stackpole's tour of duty in Vietnam); and, of course, the requisite beautiful women (notably an ambitious New York book publisher and a sharp-tongued Jamaican beauty) who turn up now and again. But mostly Walker is the classic loner -- poor, lonely, just this side of bitter, a cynic with a heart and barely suppressed anger, not about his own life but about the travails of his clients and the condition of the world in which he lives.

The second major character in every Amos Walker novel, as has been said so many times now it has become a cliché, is Detroit itself, a city whose disrepair, rough style and checkered history in many ways reflects Walker's own curmudgeonly personality. Estleman's Motor City, as painted in the Walker novels and his equally popular series of historical thrillers (Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit is the most recent), is a bleak and gritty place, but one with a sense of authenticity as powerful as any in fiction. Estleman clearly has a deep affection for his city, yet he's fully cognizant of its faults. "If L.A. was where the American dream went wrong, then Detroit is where it bellied up dead," he once told Beauford Cranford of the Detroit News.

In addition to capturing the essence of his hometown so vividly, Estleman also writes some of the finest opening chapters in the P.I. genre, and both of these skills are evident in the first paragraphs of The Hours of the Virgin:

I spotted Merlin Gilly standing against the empty space where the Hotel LaSalle had stood two minutes earlier. It was a bum trade.

The hotel had been a going concern in July 1930, when Jerry Buckley signed off his radio broadcast at midnight, went down to the lobby to meet a woman, and was met instead by three men in silk suits who shot him eleven times. They never identified the woman and they never found the shooters, but the memorial service on Belle Island lit up the sky on both sides of the Canadian border. That was when Detroit was run by the Irish, who thought a wake was better than a trial any day.

In the decades since, the LaSalle had hit all the landings on the slippery back slope of American history: residential hotel, home for the aged, crack house, and blackened shell in the biggest ghost town this side of Sarajevo. Pigeons sailed in through the missing windowpanes and cartwheeled back out on a contact high from the angel dust blowing about inside. The time had come to end its suffering.

The new mayor, dapper in a borsalino hat, tan Chesterfield with gray suede patches on the lapels, and gray kid gloves, said a few words on the order of Detroit rising from its ashes, then squashed down the red button on a remote control the size of a pocket Webster's...

When it was over, [the crowd] applauded, whistled and cheered as if the relic were making way for a school or a free clinic. A casino was going in next year, or the year after that if the Japanese held out. Until then, it would be just another vacant lot in a city with more empty spaces in its skyline than a goal-tender's grin...

They called it a Renaissance. I call it opportunity; but then, no one comes to me with work when he's happy.

Gilly, a ne'er-do-well political hack and informer whom Walker inherited from his late partner, puts the detective in touch with Harold Boyette, a consultant to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), who hires him to oversee the ransoming of a stolen 15th-century illuminated manuscript. Boyette says the manuscript-nappers are willing to turn over the artifact in exchange for $100,000, the swap to be made in the unlikely setting of a seedy porno theater called the Tomcat. Walker is more than happy to accompany Boyette on the ransom run, not just because he's broke, but because the purported thief is Earl North, the man who murdered Leopold so long ago. Not surprisingly, though, things go wrong at the theater. A beautiful woman with mismatched eyes sits down next to Walker and distracts him, just before someone tries to blow his brains out. In the resulting confusion, Boyette and the ransom money disappear. In fact, everybody disappears. The only things left behind are one of the mystery woman's earrings and the slug which barely missed Walker's head before burying itself in a wall.

No reader of this genre will be shocked to learn that Boyette is a fraud, who may well have worked with North in scamming the DIA. Walker discovers almost immediately that the woman in the theater was Lauren Strangeways, the teenage wife of porn tycoon and rare book collector Gordon Strangeways, a man confined to a wheelchair ever since he was beaten severely by born-again thugs in Little Rock, Arkansas (think Larry Flynt). A visit to the Strangeways home reveals that North, on a recommendation from Boyette, had been hired to do some cataloguing work there and had formed a rather obvious relationship with the now-missing Lauren. The nature of that relationship is the key element in this plot.

Not unexpectedly, Boyette soon turns up dead (as does Gilly, though his demise -- the result of his inveterate womanizing -- is unrelated to the case at hand). Walker's discovery of a second earring in the late Boyette's apartment suggests that Laurel is leaving a trail for him to follow. Follow it he does, until the secrets of not one, but two women with mismatched eyes are revealed, and the impact of the past upon the present becomes clear.

The tying together of two seemingly separate cases, one old and the other current, is a common bit of business in P.I. capers. But Estleman handles it particularly well here, even if in a somewhat convoluted fashion. Suffice to say that there are reasons well beyond coincidence that Walker has been brought into the case of the vanished manuscript, among them the fact that several characters other than he and North have ties to the late Dale Leopold.

All of this is revealed as the story unfolds, leading to the inevitable confrontation between Walker and North. That clash, by the way, has an unusual resolution that leaves the reader with even more respect for Amos Walker. It's another reminder of just how clearly he stands apart from most of his often morally ambivalent contemporaries. | October 1999


JACK CURTIN is a freelancer based in the Philadelphia area who writes regularly on such diverse topics as politics, beer, comic books and mystery fiction. He is currently working on his first crime novel, Truth Is the Perfect Disguise.