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Michigan Mysteries

Little Black Dress, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $23.95.

Little Black Dress by Loren D. Estleman

Opening a fresh Loren D. Estleman book is like cracking a cold beer on a hot day - from the first taste it's so delicious and goes down so smoothly that you know you're in for an eminently satisfying experience. And it's not just any brew, either, but one like the mythical ambrosia that's on television commercials, made with only the choicest characters, the finest prose and the crispest plot.

Little Black Dress is a Peter Macklin novel, a series I'm grateful Estleman has revived. There's nothing wrong with his more famous Private Eye character, Amos Walker, of course, but the audacity of having a semi-retired hitman as the lead allows him to provide a different perspective on crime, and there's nothing like the kick the reader gets when the "hero" rubs somebody out every so often.

In this latest installment Macklin's trying to adjust to married life and all that entails, including a new home, a difficult mother-in-law, and most crucially, the mother-in-law's significant other, one Benjamin Grinnell. Grinnell is a man very much like Macklin, a cool, calm, deliberately understated blue collar artisan of criminality, but unfortunately, like Macklin, he's still in the game, serving as a spotter and mob liaison for a motley gang of armed robbers. The gang has had an unfortunate experience at the last video store they held up and have now decided to turn to another place that has a lot of cash on hand and not much security - a big bookstore on the night of a bestselling author's signing.

This set up allows Estleman to give full play to his satiric wit at the expense of the publishing industry, big box bookselling and the cult of celebrity. But he's also the master of just plain writing, of making even the most minor character memorable, the plot involving and credible and the prose rich and evocative without being pretentious. There are always a few sentences in his books that I write down just to savor their diction and rhythm:
"The river, abused and reclaimed by turns, sloughed along behind the buildings, shucking reflected light like scales."
Forget U of M - you can learn more about writing from one Estleman book than from ten MFA programs.

Admittedly, Little Black Dress probably isn't the best Estleman book ever - the ending reads more like the lead in a future installment than a real resolution - but it's definitely one of the more satisfying books you'll read until you open the next one Estleman brews. (Jamie)

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