Nicotine Kiss, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $23.95.
Thank God for Loren Estleman. I recently plowed my way through a book that a former classmate, now a creative writing instructor, had written which had all the fictive elements currently in vogue - irony, surface cleverness, political correctness, name checks of celebrities high and low - but lacked the characteristics the academic literati have deemed passe, like plot, character, credibility and structure. This misbegotten volume, along with the run of substandard mysteries I've encountered lately, made me depressed as to what passes for a novel these days. Depressed, that is, until I opened Nicotine Kiss.
From Estleman's first sentence the reader is palpably there, not confronting a snarky, self-conscious pile of words, but immersed in a yeasty, full blooded world that's very much like ours, except the dialogue's better. And our tour guide to that world is old friend Amos Walker, a crusty, observant and mordantly funny private eye of the old school, and proud of it.
His Maltese Falcon on this adventure is one Jeff Starzek, a cigarette smuggler and old acquaintance who, after saving Amos's life (or at least his leg) disappears, ensuring that Amos will pull out all the stops to find him. The closer he gets to Starzek the more trouble he gets into, both from the nominally good guys and the nominally bad guys. In one of the many eminently quotable passages Amos describes his place in the scheme of things:>
Chaos and order, black and white, the rock and the hard place. I'd built my business square between them. That makes me the only police force some people can turn to when they have a complaint. It's a definite niche. The pay stinks, but the hours are long, and the benefits include county food, a cot, and free burial by the state.
Estleman is able to effortlessly integrate timely elements like terrorism, the Office of Homeland Security, and religious extremism into a spellbinding plot that unfolds in logical yet unexpected ways, Amos's wounded leg adding an interesting complication to the usual tough guy act. He's on the road a lot, leaving Detroit for the Lake Huron coastline and Michigan's own legendary Thumb, encountering great characters, all finely drawn from the most major to the most minor. Estleman knows how to set a scene memorably and economically and then atomize it with a few shotgun blasts. Let's just say you'll never think about fat ladies on snowmobiles in quite the same way.
Like Jeff Starzek the peripatetic smuggler, Nicotine Kiss is stripped down, relentless, nimble and just keeps moving. It's the total package, one of the strongest entries in what is, let's face it, the best continuing private eye series in the universe. So if you need to renew your faith in mysteries, or just novels in general, do what I did - get a Nicotine Kiss. (Jamie)
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