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Michigan Mysteries

Gas City, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $13.95.

Gas City by Loren D. Estleman

One of the many great things about Loren D. Estleman is that he's not afraid to write a flat-out private eye novel, and it's his unapologetic embrace of genre that paradoxically allows his books to transcend genre. But as his latest book, Gas City, proves, he's equally capable of writing a flat out novel. And take it from me, even though Gas City has crime, murder, mob bosses an even a serial killer, it's more than a crime book, it's a great novel, the kind that novelists these days have forgotten how to write.

This is a work that the author has been thinking about a long time and it shows. Gas City is about power and honesty and how hard it is for the two to co-exist in the modern world. It reminds me of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key or the very best of John O'Hara in that it expertly dramatizes characters from many layers of society, all the way from streetwalker to mayor and every social level in between. The plot begins with the death of Marty Russell, the wife of police chief Francis Russell, a loss that causes the Chief to stop caring about consequences and to start actually doing his job, upsetting a careful arrangement that gives the mob free rein over part of the city, containing vice in one lawless area and lining the pockets of many public officials.

His decision sends shock waves through all of Gas City, and Estleman shows the effects on Palmer, the washed up ex-cop hotel dick, Zeno the mob boss, Dungannon the priest of a death spiraling parish and a host of others, all of them fully fleshed. But not only are the characters expertly illuminated, but Estleman turns his deep focus on all the different places and things of Gas City as well. The resulting picture is so real that even the ice in the drinks is characterized: "Flakes floated on top, the ice made from Gas City's hard water was laced with iron and white lime, and Russell's had melted long since."

Only the dialogue may ay times be a little too snappy for total verisimilitude, but who can complain about snappy dialogue? Add a serial killer, dubbed "Beaver Cleaver" by the press, and you've got a book that both compels you forward and makes you want to savor the richness of the composition. The denouement is suitably clever and shocking, but also subtle and understated, as if to emphasize the delicate mastery of the whole.

One of the reasons Loren Estleman is underappreciated by some is that he makes everything look so easy, and the conventional surface of his series books sometimes obscures the profundities within. Hopefully even the most obtuse reader can see his gifts now - Gas City is a self evident masterpiece and among the many, many good books Loren has written I believe it will stand among the very best. (Jamie)

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