The Devil's Own Rag Doll, Mitchell Bartoy, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.
You are smarter than Detective Pete Caudhill, Mitchell Bartoy's central character. This is the unusual tack Bartoy takes in his first, very beautifully written novel, The Devil's Own Rag Doll. Caudhill, trapped by various circumstances - he's lost an eye and a brother to WWII, as well as the situation back home, a simmering mix of racial hatred - is sometimes barely able to function or to even express himself verbally. He's more like a witness to events than a participant. Only as the novel progresses does Caudhill become gradually more and more engaged with those around him, beginning to come to terms with his war wounds, his dead brother, and his brother's widow and her son, Alex. Caudhill, a newly minted Detective on the Detroit Police force, is being blown like a leaf by his partner, Bobby Swope, who assures Pete that they've gotten the easiest job of all time - tracking down a rich girl "lost" in one of Detroit's black neighborhoods. Pete, remembering an encounter with the girl when he was a beat cop, thought there was more to her than the spoiled rich girl she appeared to be, and that's the beginning of his reluctant engagement in both his job, and eventually, in his own life. When the partners find the girl dead, Pete's engagement and anger become more focused, and the book really takes off like a rocket.
This book is all about anger, violence, and misunderstanding, and the setting, 1940's Detroit, is hardly sentimentalized. The hatred between the races is palpable; the city is changing as workers move to Detroit from all over the country to help build the planes and other equipment needed for the war. The plot, a convoluted mix of race baiters, rich men, dirty cops and small time hoods, is almost beside the point. You, as reader, are pretty much ahead of Pete at every step, but he's the everyman filter through which the story unfolds. His losses and his inability or reluctance to deal with them seem altogether too human; this is radically different from the white knight police/PI novel that has been the backbone of the mystery genre for decades. Only towards the end when Pete is beaten bloody and is starving because even eating makes him sick, does he start to become more of the type of hero that mystery readers have come to expect. The book concludes with a powerfully written and heartbreaking race riot, with Pete plunging into one of the fights he's witness to and breaking it up, taking a young black boy to the hospital in the process. Nothing in this book is simple, though; as another character points out to him later, "But the way it is, maybe you'd have done better to let the Lord take him down on the street. If he ever comes to, he won't ever walk again, they say." The mess that is American race relations is put under a microscope in this fine novel, and Pete Caudhill's believably 1940's responses to the world he sees around him make it unique. By the end of the novel, you feel Pete has begun a journey - one that's far from over, in, as he puts it, "the only city I knew".
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