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Michigan Mysteries

American Detective, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $7.99.

American Detective by Loren D. Estleman

Amos Walker's client in Loren Estleman's American Detective is a former major league pitching star and it's tempting to see Estleman in the same way - except that there's no former about him, he's a wily veteran at the top of his game. If I needed a stopper in the seventh game of the World Series of Writers I'd go for Loren.

Like baseball, classic Private Eye fiction has fixed parameters but within these parameters a skilled practitioner can explore unlimited possibilities. American Detective begins in classic hard-boiled fashion when Amos is hired by a Detroit sports legend fallen on hard times, ex-Tiger great Darius Fuller (think a black Denny McLain) who wants Amos to convince a shady Lothario to break up with his daughter before she comes into her trust fund in a few months. Of course nothing's as easy as that, and soon enough the bodies start falling, leading Amos and the reader down a twisted path of illegal gambling, crooked labor leaders, powerful Asian crime ladies and international rackets.

Loren has such a firm grasp on the fundamentals that he makes it all look easy, nailing character -- "a man on the thready outer edge of middle age" - and place in just a well placed line or two:

The building had been a department store back when Detroit had them, with an iron front and three floors above the two-storey ground floor where the money was counted and inventory recorded for the general manager to tilt back and blow wreaths of blue cigar smoke from behind a desk the size of an emerging African nation. There was still a depression in the elevator floor near the push buttons where an operator had sat on a stool to work the buttons.

He has expert command of plot and pace, too, knowing just when to turn up the heat with a few penultimate scenes of life or death violence, and crafty enough to throw in enough curves and screwballs to make it all surprising yet believable. But what puts Estleman above the other all-stars and into the Hall of Fame is his most basic stuff - his prose. There's so many great passages in his books that a reviewer is tempted to just present quote after quote, and at least once in every title Loren will uncork a bravura passage that, like a Michael Jordan drive or a Willie Mays catch, takes your breath away, in the case of American Detective, a brilliant riff on the seemingly prosaic subject of doors, which contains within it all of Private Eye fiction:

You can't work my job without becoming a connoisseur of doors, and a diviner of what was waiting on the other side: oak and stained glass - a kleptomaniac heir and a fat retainer; chipboard and printed veneer - a deadbeat dad and a rubber check; peeling paint - a cheating spouse and a tetanus shot; solid mahogany - an embezzler and a coverup; rusted screen - a shotgun and a running start. There were quaint Dutch doors that swung out in halves, seducing you with the smell of warm bread and a lonely restless woman at the oven; walnut-paneled doors that led you across fifteen feet of pile cuff-deep to a senior executive seated behind marble and glass, silver haired, with a golden parachute and a stomach made of perforated tin; towering double-sided doors made from old growth forest with Tiffany and Waterford in case lots behind them and no way to collect on what you had coming; steel-core, quilted on the reverse to lay the lunatic head against; swinging doors the orderlies bumped open when you'd knocked on the wrong one; sliding doors, revolving doors, electric-eye doors, doors with bars, doors that moved up and down on tracks; doors that were just doors, something handy to push shut against a cancerous world, with bolts and latches and braces, and God help you if you came to it to ask for information, because it might come in the form of a forty-grain slug, fired by someone who was just a little more afraid than you were (see: swinging doors).

I could go on - the next sentence is pretty great too, and the one after that -- but I'll let you enjoy them yourselves. (Jamie)

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