Dead Madonna

by Victoria Houston

Published by Bleak House

300 pages, 2007

Buy it online


Soul Patch

by Reed Farrel Coleman

Published by Bleak House

300 pages, 2007

Buy it online





No Place Like Homicide

Reviewed by Stephen Miller

The mantra of real estate is location, location, location and the same often holds true for modern crime fiction. With only so many plot lines to use, and with many authors content to repeat what has worked before, what often separates good mysteries from the pack is their setting. If an author is really at the top of his or her game, the setting becomes another character, enriching not only the work as a whole, but brightening the component parts as well. Independent press Bleak House Books has released a pair of books in which the setting is not only interesting, but vitally important.

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Dead Madonna is the eighth entry in Victoria Houston's "Loon Lake Mystery" series, named for the village in rural Wisconsin where the stories take place. Loon Lake is a weekend retreat for the wealthy folk who come over from Chicago and a year-round home for the rest, who cater to the tourist trade. And like most small towns full of weekend and "summer people," Loon Lake is a village long on demands and short on resources. Law-enforcement is all too typically taxed, as Chief of Police Lewellyn "Lew" Ferris explains to a colleague from whom she's trying to borrow assistance:

"I just told you I'm down to one officer on patrol because I have Tom assigned to the crime scene ... you know, I don't know how it is in Wausau but here in Loon Lake it is peak tourist season. We've got people trespassing on private land, fender benders in grocery store parking lots and altercations at boat launches -- not to mention underage kids sneaking into bars ... that is half my day."

So, when Loon Lake is suddenly faced with two homicides discovered on the same day, it's crisis time.

Nora Loomis, a local senior citizen, is found dead in her cottage sunroom, her head caved in by a sharp blow from an antique porcelain lamp. On the other side of the village, the body of DeeDee Kurlander, Loon Lake's answer to Paris Hilton, is found submerged under the pontoon boat of Bert Moriarty, a Chicagoan with more money than tact. The notion that these are two random victims, with nothing in common and with no apparent connections, is shattered when Chief Ferris is told by a pair of local bank presidents that they've noticed a disturbing series of transactions at their institutions involving phony deposits and mysterious but all too real withdrawals of large sums of money -- transactions that appear to be part of a money-laundering scheme. And the two dead women? They were holders of accounts that had seen these transactions processed.

These victims could not be more different and seemingly unrelated, despite the financial coincidence and the similar financial forensic evidence. Nora was a neighborly stay-at-home type who had recently taken a job at a customer service line; DeeDee was the young "stand there and look good" girl working for a local coordinator of job fairs. DeeDee partied endlessly in her off hours, and was known to carry on with more than one man at a time. How could these two be linked, and why would a single killer care about doing them both in?

Author Houston populates her tale with all the anchors of the traditional whodunit. In fact, if Agatha Christie were alive in the modern-day Midwest, she might well have concocted a detective like Lew Ferris. This protagonist is stubbornly independent, yet not above voicing an anguished cry of frustration (getting any kind of assistance from the state authorities is a major task) and needing support from her significant other ("lover" seems too tawdry a word for Loon Lake), Doctor Paul Osborne, a retired dentist and deputy coroner. Comic relief of a sort is provided in these pages by Ray Pradt, one of Chief Ferris' instantaneous deputies, a jack-of-all-trades who investigates, performs other odd jobs, and is in the process of developing an invention called the FawnCam, a Webcam strapped to the necks of wild deer.

Dead Madonna is traditional to the core, with little profanity, only vague references to the sexual activity of its characters, and all violence occurring offstage. Its pace is deliberate and leisurely, yet the writing is interesting and keeps the narrative moving nicely. Like Loon Lake, the stillness might strike some as a hint of a shallow yarn. I can assure you, though, that this is not a lazy entertainment. Dead Madonna is a compelling summer mystery. Put your lawn chair at the end of a peaceful lake dock and dive right in.

* * *

Brooklyn can be described in many ways, but it will never be mistaken for the eastern cousin of Loon Lake. Yet, in Reed Farrel Coleman's Soul Patch -- the fourth in his series featuring ex-cop Moe Prager (whose last outing, The James Deans, won the Barry, Anthony and Shamus awards) -- that New York borough is no less a distinctive backdrop, with equally matchless characters. The story opens in 1972, along the vast emptiness that is Coney Island.

Nothing is so sad as an empty amusement park. And no amusement park is so sad as Coney Island. Once the world's playground, it is no longer the world's anything; not even important enough to be forgotten. Coney Island is the metal basket at the bottom of Brooklyn's sink. So it is that when the County of Kings is stood on end, Coney Island will trap all the detritus, human and otherwise, before it pours into the Atlantic.

That, my friends, is how you start a hard-boiled detective novel.

Soul Patch is set for the most part in 1989, with Moe in the process of opening his third wine store, a joint venture with his businessman brother. Knee injuries have ended Moe's police career well short of his ambition to earn a detective's badge (an obsession about which he constantly ruminates). His job as a liquor merchant bores him to tears, but at least it's a distraction from the unraveling of his marriage to the daughter of a political boss that seemed doomed to failure. At the opening of his store, Moe's old police commander, the upwardly ambitious Larry "Larry Mac" McDonald, asks him if he believes in ghosts. It's a strange question, but one that's oddly appropriate when he hands Moe a cassette tape containing an illegal recording of a police interrogation session. In a last-ditch attempt to save his own skin, the perp being questioned mentions the name D Rex Mayweather, which brings conversation to a quick halt. Mayweather, a notorious drug dealer from the 1970s, had died a violent and unsolved death years earlier.

After listening to the tape and considering the unsettling possibility that McDonald and others might have been tied into the earlier murder, Moe meets McDonald on the boardwalk at Coney Island. McDonald attempts to hire Moe to look into the Mayweather killing and save the careers of cops still on the job who were tied into and paid off by Mayweather's drug network. Moe resists, despite the allure of getting back into an investigation that could take his mind off his marriage and the monotony of his current career. And when McDonald overplays his hand, threatening Moe and his family to coerce him into taking the case, Moe walks away.

Days later, though, Moe receives a call out of the blue from McDonald's ex-wife. It seems McDonald had recently called to try and make amends for his past sins, and she gets concerned when he doesn't show up for a dinner. Looking not only for something to do, but also to try and patch things up himself, Moe agrees to find Larry Mac. Unfortunately, New York's finest find MacDonald first -- in his car with a hose running from the tailpipe into the front seat. Upwardly mobile SOB that he was, Larry Mac still deserved better than this; and, unconvinced that's looking at a case of suicide, Moe begins his investigation into connections between his old comrades and the long-departed D Rex, remnants of which continue to sprout and grow within the Brooklyn precinct. Along the way, Moe makes the acquaintance of one among the next generation of police detectives in the person of Carmella Menendez, a Puerto Rican 20-something whose drive to succeed makes the late Larry Mac look like a slacker (and it is Menendez herself whose voice appears on the surreptitious interrogation tape). The start-and-stop romance between Menendez and Moe ultimately misfires and sputters, but it shows the moral issues that can rock a man who is floundering and certainly not above temptation.

The dominant theme of this novel is that history can make its presence known in the present. (A character even quotes William Faulkner's famous line: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past.") But there's a sub-theme here that struck me as even more potent -- the longing of an outsider to get back in the game. Moe kvetches constantly about the unceremonious end of his police livelihood, his unrealized career goals and being relegated to the role of an outsider. He seems to be only observing his marriage, and finds himself as one of a crowd of men who either moved up the ranks like Larry Mac, or found they hit the ceiling of their professional trajectory too abruptly. Moe is also, obviously, a Jew in a department full of Irish Catholics, making his hold on police glory still more remote. Moe has a job, one that he longs to escape, but one that provides a more than comfortable living. He has his friends and dwindling contacts in the department and local district attorney's office, but it's not enough. Once the smell of the murdered hits Moe's nostrils, he wants -- he needs -- to become involved.

Coleman tells this story with the steady hand of a ship's captain. This is Brooklyn of the late '80s, long after the Dodgers had departed, but before the current round of gentrification. The earthiness and scrappiness of that borough and its middle-class inhabitants comes through on every page. There's no inferiority complex here -- there's pride on every street corner and in every restaurant and apartment building. Soul Patch brings to life the essence of dignity through the inevitable day-to-day struggle. It's about trying to rescue the reputation of a man who didn't deserve your loyalty, and was probably guilty as charged, anyway. It's about trying to make the grade one more time, even after your time has passed and you should be moving on. It can happen to all of us, and fortunately, we have Moe Prager to show us the way. | June 2007

Stephen Miller is a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors.