The Devil's Only Friend, Mitchell Bartoy, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.
"I had been a Detroit boy all my life; I had grown up and become strong surrounded by brick and steel and concrete..."
There are lots of reasons to read a mystery - great plot, great characters, sometimes great prose. One of the more unusual reasons is a great and original "voice" - something I think Mitchell Bartoy possesses. Both of his books, from the point of view of the very damaged cop (now ex cop) Pete Caudhill, are told with such stark originality and an unusual view of the world that they are very memorable reads. In this outing, Pete is no longer a cop, he's sort of waiting for something to happen. He spends most of his time sitting alone on the fire escape of his crummy apartment, even letting the snow cover him up as he sits and smokes his life away. Thanks to the war (that would be WWII, this is set in 1943) Pete has lost an eye and part of his hand. He is literally and figuratively hobbled, and as far as I can tell, both these books are Pete's journey to become a whole person again, something at which he is having very little success, though elemental concepts like friendship and loyalty still have some meaning for him.
He's shaken out of his lethargy when he an old friend - a black man named Walker - comes to ask his help in finding out what happened to his sister, who was killed on the grounds of the Lloyd auto plant. These books take place in Detroit and the elderly patriarch of the Lloyd motor company might seem very familiar. He owes Pete a debt thanks to some events in the last book, and Pete goes to him to see what he knows. As it happens, Lloyd had actually been waiting for Pete to visit him, and sets him up as a kind of private investigator (complete with badge letting him into any of the Lloyd plants) to figure out not only what happened to Walker's sister, but to another woman killed on the grounds of another Lloyd plant. Pete finds some help from an unlikely source -after he's been somewhat unpleasantly warned off the job - from a neighbor, Ray Federle. Federle is another vet who has his own issues but he's willing to help Pete out and the three of them - Walker also - set out on their grim journey of discovery.
This book is not only a portrait of Pete, but a portrait of a booming wartime Detroit, where all plants were working at full capacity in service of the war effort. It's beautifully written and evocative, and considering the state of the car companies today, heartbreaking. Pete's journey through life also touches on his somewhat incapacitated mother and his former sister-in-law (Pete's brother was killed in the war). This is a grim book, and a pretty powerful antiwar statement, if you look at it from the point of view of the damaged men in this novel who have come back from abroad. The plot is a little over the top but somehow it all seems of a piece with the rest of the novel, which reads like a dream vaguely remembered but which stays with you all day. I loved Bartoy's first novel, and this is a worthy follow up. Don't miss one of mystery's new original voices.
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