Save the Last Dance for Me
by Ed Gorman
Published by Carroll & Graf
229 pages, 2002
Buy it online
In Tune With His Time
Reviewed by Tom Nolan
Crime fiction fans almost can't help but be familiar with the prolific Ed Gorman, whose book, short-story and editing credits number in the hundreds.
This busy author's most popular titles may be his Sam McCain mysteries: a series of books begun in 1999 with The Day the Music Died and including the fourth, just-published Save the Last Dance for Me.
These very engaging McCain tales take place in the American Midwest at the end of the 1950s and the dawn of the 60s, with topical events (Buddy Holly's fatal air crash, Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States, etc.) nudging the plots into motion.
Twenty-four-year-old Sam McCain, who narrates the books, describes himself as "the youngest and poorest attorney" in Black River Falls, Iowa (population 27,300). To make ends meet, he's an investigator for Judge Esme Anne Whitney, a colorful Republican stalwart whose wood-paneled chambers have "so much mahogany it was like living in the heart of a tree." It's the good lady judge who gives Sam his detective tasks, which often bring him afoul of the local law in the unpleasant and simple-minded person of police chief Cliffie Sykes Jr.
In Save the Last Dance for Me, McCain's brief is to find the killer or killers responsible for the murder both of a snake-handling Ozarks preacher and a mainline Protestant minister -- all before the imminent campaign-stop visit to Black River Falls of presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. Judge Esme doesn't want the vice president to get a poor impression of her GOP bailiwick.
"You'll have your killer," McCain promises -- though it seems like a lot to ask of a hero who is described by one of his sardonic female admirers as "a big brave five-foot-four he-man." McCain quickly corrects her: "Five-five."
In between, during and instead of investigating crimes, McCain does his best to sort out his love life and emotional entanglements, which usually have him yearning for women who love someone else, or being yearned for by females with whom he'd rather be friends. Some of his would-be assignations take place in the rented rooms he shares with a feline named Tess. "She's kind of a watch cat," McCain explains. "She can't bark but if you come in and she's got her doubts about you, she bites you on the ankle."
The McCain books are terrifically winning, and Save the Last Dance for Me may be the best one yet. Gorman takes us back to a time and place when people drank J&B scotch from Peter Pan peanut butter glasses, chewed Blackjack gum, bought their suits off the rack from Sears or J.C. Penney and still heard real music on AM radio. ("It was Mathis or Cole or Darin when I wanted ballads," says McCain, whose tastes run from the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley to the new modern jazz of Miles Davis.) We can't help but be nostalgic for the era Gorman describes. Even McCain is nostalgic, though the narrator wonders, "How can you be nostalgic when you're only twenty-four?"
But McCain's (and Gorman's) is not a myopic nostalgia, and his Midwest town is no utopia. Some of the social realities here -- racial and religious prejudice, unwanted pregnancies and back-alley abortions, police brutality and economic inequities -- don't gibe with the popular pictures of Middle America projected by the media. "Judging by the entertainment shows on the tube," McCain observes, "everything was just okey-dokey here in the land of Lincoln. But we knew better, didn't we?"
Young McCain, soft-hearted but tough-minded, is learning that real life doesn't offer the same easy answers as the paperback novels he loves to read; and that good and evil can reside in the same person: "We're heroes or villains depending on who's talking."
If McCain is hard on the hypocrites in his home town, he's just as tough on himself. "I'm not a grown-up man ... ," he admits. "Not where it counts. Not in the head. Not in the soul. You know that Famous Artists School where you can write away and they teach you how to draw? There should be a Famous Grown-Ups School where real true adults give you all their secrets for being an adult."
McCain already knows some of those secrets, of course; and he's learning (or making up) the rest book by book, in a unique series that's as likable and endearing as any now being written in America. | February 2002
Tom Nolan, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and the editor of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald.