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Michigan Mysteries

Retro, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $24.95.

Retro by Loren D. Estleman

Retro is classic Loren Estleman, and it couldn't be more aptly titled. From the first page, where Estleman compares the death of a madam then and now - "the new (day) belonged to the self employed" - and introduces us to said madam in all her glory in a nursing home in Farmington, Michigan, to the last, the novel is a complete homage to the past while still set very firmly in the present. Every sentence he writes seems to have a double or triple meaning, and I found myself reading slowly, savoring the content. In Retro Amos Walker is asked by the dying madam, one Beryl Garnet, to find her son and give him her ashes. Walker uncomfortably agrees and more or less forgets about it until a lawyer shows up with the ashes in an urn and he turns to an old FBI contact to help him find the missing son, who's been on the ten most wanted list for years. Walker pretty easily finds the son, but what's not so simple is the story behind the son's life, and what happens to him once he gets back to Detroit.

All of Estleman's novels are steeped in Detroit - whenever I'm driving into the city on 94 I half expect to see Amos speeding alongside me in his beat up car, avoiding the cops or chasing a bad guy. I think it explains the devotion of his readers, as well - Amos is such a well drawn, believable, real character and the descriptions of Detroit are so crisp and true, that it would almost be denying your Michigan citizenship not to enjoy these wonderful novels. Estleman is also able to use lots of the conventions of the hard boiled genre - the dame, the cop, the mafia guy, and somehow put them into the 21st century. Walker is more than up to the task of figuring out what's wrong - and he's usually a good bit ahead of me in figuring out the mystery, something I appreciate. I read so many mysteries I can often spot the killer, but with Estleman, I'm usually surprised, and I definitely was in this case.

The story is tied firmly into the past as the father of Beryl's son - a handsome, so-so boxer who was gunned down in the 40's - becomes tied into the son's problems in the present. My favorite scene is an incredibly evocative description of an old reporter and her memories, and what she's able to find in a box full of photos and a bottle of beer (or two). Estleman's description of old age is unsentimental but he still has a high regard for the old - they are the keepers of memory, and he honors that in this book. It's really a book about memory, and the things Estleman can conjure with it are amazing and wonderful. This is one of our best writers of beautiful prose and well told stories - a writer who fully and joyfully embraces his chosen genre - and it's a delight every time I have the pleasure of reading a new Estleman mystery.

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