Novel avoids com­mon de­tec­tive-fiction cliche

The Arizona Republic - - SUNDAY A&E - Bruce Desilva

“The Dol­lar-a-Year De­tec­tive” (Per­ma­nent Press), by Wil­liam Wells

Jack Starkey was a Chicago po­lice de­tec­tive un­til he got shot, took his dis­abil­ity pen­sion and moved to Fort My­ers Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There, he bought a bar called the Drunken Par­rot and set up house­keep­ing in a house­boat that is in no way sea­wor­thy.

Jack spends some of his time edit­ing best-sell­ing nov­els writ­ten by an old friend in Chicago. The books are loosely based on Jack’s big-city ex­ploits – the hero en­gag­ing in der­ring-do that the real Jack is too level-headed to con­tem­plate. But Jack misses the ac­tion, so when Cubby Cullen, the po­lice chief in sleepy Fort My­ers Beach, needs a hand with some­thing big, Jack pitches in, ac­cept­ing a dol­lar as his fee.

In “The Dol­lar-a-Year De­tec­tive,” the sec­ond book in this se­ries by Wil­liam Wells, the some­thing big is the mur­der of a bank ex­ec­u­tive and his wife, found shot on a drift­ing yacht.

By the time Jack fin­ishes mud­dling through the case, it swells to in­clude bank fraud, a Rus­sian oil mag­nate, em­bez­zle­ment at an Indian casino, po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and sev­eral more dead bod­ies. Wells’ yarn con­tains none of the swash­buck­ling hero­ism com­mon in de­tec­tive fiction.

As he puts it, “An ace de­tec­tive like me has to at least look busy in­ter­view­ing peo­ple and pok­ing around for clues un­til a snitch comes for­ward and tells me who did it.”

Wells laces his story with hu­mor, but not the wise-crack­ing kind typ­i­cal of much de­tec­tive fiction. Jack rarely makes a joke with his col­leagues, re­serv­ing his gen­tle hu­mor for the reader in his first-per­son nar­ra­tion.

As a re­sult, the book is a de­tec­tive story with the sen­si­bil­ity of a cozy, some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the fine Mario Balzic se­ries by reclu­sive nov­el­ist K.C. Con­stan­tine.

“The Dol­lar-a-Year De­tec­tive” rep­re­sents a ma­jor im­prove­ment over the first novel in this se­ries, 2016’s “De­tec­tive Fiction,” which ex­hib­ited some rookie writ­ing prob­lems. It’s an en­ter­tain­ing, well-writ­ten read that’s well worth the time.

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