Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins

Valancourt Books, 2015
197 pp


My hat is off to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print. Originally written in 1934, Harriet is based on an actual British murder case from the 1870s known as  "The Penge Murder Mystery." It is  one of the more disturbing books I've read, although I must say it is also one of the best historical crime novels I've had in my hands in a very long time.  While information is widely available online about the Penge Murders or The Staunton Case (the real name of the fictional title character), I held off reading the facts of the actual case until I finished the novel, because I didn't want to have any expectations at all going into this book.

The titular Harriet is an only child and still living at home at age 32. She is rather simple, as the novel says, what would have been called "a natural," which in an afterword by Catherine Pope is explained as "having learning difficulties." Harriet's  "continued presence in any household was a strain."  After her mother remarried,  Harriet was often sent to stay for a time with "various relations," who were paid to have her at their homes.  As the novel opens, Harriet has been sent to stay with her mother's cousin Mrs. Hoppner, who has two daughters. Unlike Harriet's family, which is very well off, with Harriet having her own money and a future inheritance, Mrs. Hoppner and her daughter Alice have need for the eight pounds a month they'll get from having Harriet stay there. She shows up just after the arrival of Mrs. Hoppner's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick Oman, who are on the verge of moving to the country for both economic reasons and because living there would be "more suited to the pursuing of Patrick's profession" as an artist. Patrick, "made scarcely a penny and kept Elizabeth in a poor way."   Patrick's brother Lewis, who is particularly fond of Alice, is also at chez Hoppner, and is warned by Alice to be nice to Harriet because they don't want Harriet complaining to her mother and going home.  Once Lewis finds out exactly how much Harriet's worth he is beyond nice to her and it is not long before he comes up with a plan to marry her for her money.  A rift forms between Harriet and her mother over marriage plans because Mamma has seen right through him, and eventually, without her family there with her, Harriet becomes Mrs. Lewis Oman. And that's when the trouble begins.

At this point, I found myself totally  unprepared for what happens next, and I'm not just talking in terms of  events.  Here I am sitting at my breakfast table, reading in between bread risings, and I was so taken aback that when the timer beeped I literally could not move from the chair.  It's bad enough that the principals take advantage of Harriet for her money; even worse is how conscience, compassion  and basic morality fall by the wayside when self interest is involved. It's absolutely frightening how these seemingly ordinary people can sink to a subhuman level, all the while able to  justify their actions to  themselves. The author's strength in this novel is showing exactly how this sort of thing can happen -- how festering resentments,  lack of money, a need for control  and other factors can easily change seemingly decent people into monsters.  She employs the use of contrast and irony to great effect, she spends a great deal of time in her characters' heads  so that the reader can see exactly how such behavior is justified, and through it all, she never has to resort to graphic detail to get Harriet's horrific situation across to the reader.

To say I walked away from this novel completely floored is an understatement.  One the one hand, it was extremely disturbing in the sense that it's amazing how anyone could do what these people did for the sake of money without ever batting an eye.  On the other, this book was so well done that even without knowing anything about the case, I could see it all happening right in front of me.

I love these old books and I am in awe that Valancourt continues to find such great works to bring back into print. I highly, highly recommend this novel to anyone who is appreciative of good writing, to anyone who reads and enjoys writers of the Interwar period, and to anyone who wants something far above ordinary crime fiction. It's also a great choice for people who enjoy crime fiction based on real cases.  Oh my god, people, this is one of the best historically-based novels ever.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson

upstart press, 2015
287 pp

paperback, thank you, Shannon!

This book was sent to me some time back, but I've held off posting since it wasn't due to be released until this month.

Where the last book I posted about was more of a manly man's kind of read,  Swimming in the Dark is absolutely focused on strong women.  No kickass heroines here, although the power, the determination, and the actions of the main characters once they all come together toward a unified purpose is quite amazing.

Swimming in the Dark is set in Ms. Richardson's home country of New Zealand and it begins with a local family with a bad reputation.  Mom goes through men like water, the boys are into criminal activities, and then there are the two sisters. The older one is Lynette, who left home early on to make something of herself and has succeeded quite nicely.  The younger is Serena who is still in school.  Because of the family's reputation, Serena has very little in the way of friends, but she's not there to win any popularity contests. She's bright, and with the encouragement of one of her teachers, Ilse Klein, she studies hard and reads widely, and starts believing that perhaps she might be the one member of her family that makes it to university.  But, of course, trouble strikes, and Lynette finds out during a phone call with her mom  that Serena's gone missing and has been gone for three weeks. Mom figures she just ran off, so didn't call the police for two weeks, but the law didn't take Serena's disappearance too seriously; nor did anyone else. Lynette returns to her troubled family and is understandably angry:
"...if it had been a dentist's daughter or a lawyer's daughter or the fucking mayor's daughter it would have been different. And if it was one of those kids missing, they'd be doing something, all right. The fucking TV cameras would be there. They'd be out in their thousands, there'd be fucking church prayer meetings. 'Oh, we're so concerned, oh, this wonderful girl, oh, we're doing our very best. We'll bring her home.' "
But nobody is really looking for Serena -- except her sister and the person who caused her to disappear. What he doesn't know is that she's been found at a most critical moment -- and that's a good thing because life could start getting very much worse for her and for her protectors  if he ever finds out.

The basic story here is a good one and really emphasizes how women can find strength from deep within themselves when they must.  It also explores the abuse of power, especially when that power is in the hands of someone a person, and most especially a child, should be able to count on for help.  It also reveals that regardless of family background, and despite the past that never leaves you,  it is possible to dust off one's boots and pull yourself up by the straps to carve out a new life for yourself.  All of the above comes through loudly and clearly.  Yet at the same time, this novel has way too much focus on the past, bringing in way too much backstory for it to flow as smoothly as it could have. Take the case of Gerda Klein, Ilse's mother. I totally understand that the author uses Gerda's very troubled past to serve her well in the present, but in doing so, she offers page after page after page of Gerda's horrific past, so much so that it actually tends to detract from the contemporary story.  And that's such a shame! This book could have used some judicious editing -- as it stands, it's so muddled with long-lasting flashbacks -- I probably would have broken things up differently so things were a little more organized to make the story flow.

If you enjoy stories about strong women and how they surmount their personal obstacles, Swimming in the Dark will be right up your alley. Don't expect the usual straight narrative, and it does get to be a bit boggy here and there, but even so, I love how Ms. Richardson managed to create worthwhile heroines without resorting to the typical badassness that seems to be the norm since Lisbeth Salander made her first appearance in print.  Cheers to the author for doing it her own way!

Monday, March 9, 2015

when revenge is needed, call The House of Wolfe -- by James Carlos Blake

Mysterious Press, 2015
248 pp

hardcover, thanks to Mysterious Press

The Wolfes are a "tolerant, liberty-loving bunch," a prosperous family whose interests include shrimp boats, a realty company, and a law firm.  They also believe that "there are certain natural rights that transcend statute law," and the right to self-defense is at the top of their list.  From their point of view, the Wolfes see it this way:
"...any law that denies you the means to defend yourself against others armed with those same means is an unjust law and undeserving of compliance, albeit compliance makes you a criminal by definition."
Viva la frontier justice. To ensure that people have the means to defend themselves, they also have a lucrative gun-running business, a part of their "shade trade" of illegal enterprises.  The family organization is split between Texas and Mexico City; the home of the Mexican side of their family (known as Los Jaguaros),  and the two come together in this book when one of the American cousins is kidnapped as part of a 10-person wedding party in Mexico City.  An ambitious leader of a small Mexico City gang wants to be recognized for his evil talents, so he demands a ransom of five million dollars from the parents of the bride and the groom. He figures this will put him on the map with the Zetas, the infamous cartel -- maybe he can buy his way into their favor with part of the money. Kidnapping the Wolfe girl was, unbeknownst to him,  pretty stupid on his part because both sides of the family are coming to get her back. The gang leader has no clue what he's in for.

Macho and manly are the words that ran through my head while I was reading this briskly-paced revenge-thriller told from multiple points of view -- yes, that's a bit sexist, but it's the truth. One of ours has been taken -- screw the cops, we'll go get her ourselves. The Wolfes certainly have the resources to do it, and the family takes care of its own. In fact, House of the Wolfe is part of an entire family saga (which I haven't read) that goes back in time while exploring the family history.  There are two women who feature prominently in this novel -- both are kickass Lisbeth Salander types, likely there to draw female readership -- but the people with the biggest roles are definitely the men, and overall it's a book that I think will draw way more male readers than female.

As far as thrillers go, anyone who loves them will find House of Wolfe irresistible. It's filled with action:  kidnapping, daring escape attempts, chases, explosions,  lots of gunplay, death in fiery pits, feral dogs, even torture -- everything a diehard thriller reader could possibly want.  It speaks to the need to be self-sufficient and to have enough money to buy your way into positions of power and control -- in that sense, both bad guys and "good" guys have the same goal, the "good" ones having achieved it long ago.  And to his credit, the author had one major storyline and didn't go off the rails (unlike so many authors do) trying to incorporate everything under the sun in this book.

Here's another case for me where book does not match reader -- I'm just not a thriller person.   I thought by the description of the novel that it was going to focus on Mexican cartels along the border (a topic that interests me), since its subtitle is "A Border Noir." The cartels that work along the border are sort of sidelined except in terms of one man's ambition to get a foot in the Zeta door, and with the exception of the first chapter, the action takes place in Mexico City, which is nowhere near the border. Nor is this book what I'd call noir.  When all is said and done, it comes down to a story of family justice -- and it's  a showcase for mega amounts of violence.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

misreading A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1957 as For Love of Imabelle
159 pp


A Rage in Harlem is a novel that should NOT be read just for plot.  Let's face it -- the plot in this story is kind of a comical farce that combines humor with violence, a scam that backfires and leads to all sorts of mayhem (complete with requisite crazy chase scene throughout Harlem), a naive central character named Jackson and his brother who tries to protect him from some very bad people who are completely out of his league.  Sadly, I'm discovering that few people who read this book care about what's going on outside of the plot, and in my opinion, this is a freakin' travesty.  In all honesty, the plot is just so-so; the focus should really be on Harlem of the 1950s, the people in this place, and above all, race.  I think reading it as a photograph of Harlem and its people is more of what Chester Himes had on his mind, although I realize I'm not a medium who can speak to the dead and pick his brain.  All anyone would have to do is to google "Chester Himes" and find even the briefest biographical reference and come up with something like this:
"Chester Himes was born on this date in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri. He was an African American writer whose novels and autobiographies explore the absurdity of racism,"
absurdity as in daily life played out in streets of Harlem as the "theatre of the absurd" -- as he notes:
 "realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”
But no. Reviews from a large number of readers come back to "a must for Chandler enthusiasts," or parroting the back blurb by John Edgar Wideman re "surreal, grotesque, comic, hip," etc. I can't begin to count the number of reviews I've read that use the word "surreal" without any explanation as to why the reader thought so, or how Himes is like Chandler.  Again, another cover blurb parroted, this time from Newsweek.  Then there are the readers who bring up the movie as if the book was an afterthought, or those who can't find anything original to say so they just stuff a bunch of quotations into a review.

People, you are missing the boat big time here.

This is Himes' Harlem:

"Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem."
That is Harlem.  So where is it readers talk about Himes' cynical approach to Harlem? About writing about Harlem from the point of view as an exile in Paris? About the borders between the white world and the black world and about how the few (exemplified in the character of Goldy's wife, who we never see) who cross the border on a regular basis do so only as domestic servants to wealthy white people? About  the violence, the scamming, the people feeding like sharks on each other -- preying especially on the more naive folks like Jackson or the more religious-minded people who buy fake "tickets to Heaven" for their deceased relatives or themselves?   About the alcoholism, the drug use, about a reality that in itself is something, as even Himes notes, "stranger than fiction?" About how some of these people lived in places virtually unfit for habitation?  Where are the mentions of police violence being okay when directed at African-Americans? And above all, what about even a brief mention concerning the message running throughout the entire novel that things are not what they seem to be on the surface in this little slice of the city?

How a 5-star review can include absolutely NONE of these elements is just beyond my scope of comprehension.  A Rage in Harlem is an incredibly important novel of its time but no one seems to care -- and that is just a shame. A genuine shame.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

a double blast from the past: The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin and Miasma, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Back to exploring more obscure women crime writers, I ran across two books that have luckily been reprinted to make them widely available to modern readers.  One, The Punt Murder, is set in Britain's interwar period and  Miasma takes us to America in at the end of the 1920s. They are as different as night and day, and while both made for enjoyable reading, Miasma has that dark edge that I absolutely love to find in a crime or mystery novel.

Ostara Publishing, 2007
192 pp

originally published 1936
Sadly, I can't find much about this woman except for a) the fact that she was born in 1876 and died in 1949 and b) the list of the dozen books she's written, which can be found here. Otherwise, her life (to me anyway) is as mysterious as the identity of the killer in this book.  The Punt Murder takes a while to get to the actual crime; in the meantime the author does a great job establishing the scene and more importantly, the characters. It is, like many of the books I've read so far that have come out of the interwar novels, an English country house murder set in a small village.  I am really interested in this phenomenon of the English country house murder, especially those set in rural villages -- and I recently ran across an article written by Peter Dickinson that touches on why these were so popular.  You can read it in full here; one of the most interesting things he states is that
"... the ideal setting for the mystery novel is the imaginary world of the country house. There, supposed balance and harmony is broken by the act of violence, just as in the real world it had been broken by the war. That is why the ideal murderee is the nouveau riche millionaire, the embodiment of the economic upheavals, contrasted with the dwindling resources that had kept the grand old families going". 
I've been wondering about why so little is put into these novels about  the social/economic upheavals of the time -- and now after reading this (and some other things I've been perusing)  I'm beginning to understand. Anyway, the "nouveau riche millionaire...contrasted with the dwindling resources" of the "grand old families" is at the very heart and soul of The Punt Murder, of which the main character is an incredibly wealthy but very young heiress who marries into a very old but now broke British family.  Her name is Merle Holroyd, wife of the squire of Wissingham.  The family home, naturally called Holroyd, was given over to the family by Henry the Eighth although it had been around long before Henry's time.  It isn't long until fireworks start to fly as the traditional world of village squire collides with the modern, as Merle refuses to conform -- and her greatest weapon is the huge inheritance she's brought with her into the marriage. When she realizes the truth behind her marriage, she looks to another for happiness; sadly, the man she has latched on to is an up and coming MP whose career cannot tolerate any scandal.  Soon, however, there's a murder during a  lavish fete, and while the police are satisfied with their choice of suspect, one person has the wherewithal to ask questions, which upsets everyone in the village. With no shortage of suspects, things start to get ugly very quickly.

Moving backward in time, Miasma was published in 1929 and has (luckily for me) been reprinted by Stark House Press, whose motto is "Bring back the mystery." I stumbled onto this small press quite by accident one day, and their list of reprinted vintage crime novels is impressive.

Stark House Press, 2003
269 pp (the full book, which also contains her book Lady Killer)


Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was born in 1889 and died in 1955, and during her lifetime she seems to have been a prolific author. She was the wife of British diplomat George E. Holding, and was the author of 25 novels of which 18 were mysteries; Miasma was her first mystery novel. Her mystery-writing career took off during the Depression when her "serious character novels" stopped selling and she turned to crime writing.   As Greg Shephard notes in his introduction to this edition, she was
"one of the first to write mystery novels that didn't so much ask whodunit, but whydunit,"
and that was the big sell for me in deciding on this author. The whodunits, while fun, are so done to death that I'm much happier finding out the whys rather than the who. Miasma appeals to me on multiple levels -- first, it's one of those stories that I absolutely love where some poor, hapless dope gets caught up in a situation that is much bigger than himself, and only comes to realize very slowly that he's pretty much been painted into a corner and needs to try to find a way out. Here, the main character is a young doctor who is trying to establish himself; he isn't having much luck and is overly frustrated because he will not marry the girl he loves until he can prove himself worthy financially and otherwise.  Second, one of the big questions this book asks is about the nature of justice, a topic I widely explore in my reading.  As the main character asks at one critical point in this story,
"Does it matter? Or can't Justice be satisfied without the whole show -- the judge in the black cap, and the newspaper stories?" 
Third, this book is so claustrophobically dark that it's one I had to put down from time to time just to get out of this very small world in which the main character finds himself -- in this sense, the title is very appropriate. And considering it was written in the late 1920s, it deals with a subject that is of contemporary interest, although I won't say exactly what it is so as to avoid spoilers.

Miasma is the story of Doctor Alex Dennison, who is ready to establish his own medical practice. Before moving to the town of Shayne, he did a lot of careful research to make sure that there "was room for another doctor" there.  He so wants for everything to go right with his career, largely because of Evie, the girl he's planning on marrying, but only after he's made the three thousand a year Evie's decided will be enough for them.  But Dennison's attempt at a practice fails big time and he's virtually on the edge of starving when he decides to take up an offer from another, more well-known physician in town, Dr. Weatherby.  He doesn't have to do much -- see a few patients when Weatherby's busy or away, and he is invited to live in the fine home where Weatherby also houses his practice.  It's a win-win ... he's calculated that he will reach his financial goals easily, and room and board are free.  But as soon as he steps into the house, he has the feeling that something is not exactly right -- that things are a bit off-kilter.  This is a feeling he ignores and when strange things start happening, he goes deep within himself to look for plausible answers, a strategy that works...for a while.

To say that this is a good book is putting it mildly, but then again, I suppose it depends on what "a good book" is to people besides myself. This book has a focus on character much more so than plot -- and although it might feel like it's slow moving, it's one of the better character-based mystery novels I've encountered.   I was impressed with the author's ability to get right inside of Dennison's head from the outset -- nothing, absolutely nothing happens outside of what Dennison sees or more importantly, what he thinks, even though this story is not related as a first-person narrative.  That fact is impressive -- the telling almost reminds me  of something from Patricia Highsmith, although it's not nearly as dark as her work.  Dennison is in a constant battle with himself internally -- and it plays out rather realistically on the page. Frankly, I was hooked on page one and had I not put the book down here and there I easily could have been depressed being so much confined to Dennison's constant headspeak. Then again, that claustrophobia-like atmosphere sets this book apart from the standard crime fare -- a trait that to me, speaks very highly of this author.

So, to recap: there's one whodunit, which is pretty good and which also takes on the intrusion of the modern world into Britain's rigid class system in which appearances are everything, and then there's the "whydunit," my own personal preference in choice of crime/mystery fiction, which immediately immerses the reader inside the mind of a poor, down-on-his-luck guy just looking to do right by everyone, except, possibly, himself.  The Holding is my favorite of the two but both are well worth looking into for anyone who likes vintage crime or mystery.  And one more thing ... Miasma comes in a volume with two complete novels, as do her other works reprinted by Stark House Press, but I'm reading them in chronological order rather than as they appear in the books.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

for the thriller minded: Cane and Abe, by James Grippando

Harper, 2015
356 pp

advanced reader copy - thanks!

(read in January)

According to the back-cover blurb, Cane and Abe is Grippando's twenty-second novel since his debut back in 1994.  He has a set of series novels featuring Jack Swytek (which I confess I've never read) as well as a few standalone thrillers.  Cane and Abe is his newest nonseries book and it is set in Florida where rightly so, the author depicts big sugar as a major villain in this novel.  Big sugar has ruined waterways, has recently sent runoff into the ocean here, has killed wildlife and spoiled the environment big time. Frankly, as he depicts in this novel, I'm afraid that this industry does have the power to line the pockets of some of the officials in the state capital, and sadly, no one in any kind of position of power in this state seems to care enough to do anything. So -- when I read that this book was going to be in some part involved with big sugar, I was eager to read it since I am definitely NOT an advocate of the industry.  

While the book does move a bit among   power wielders in the industry, it turns out that the sugar industry is not the biggest focus here, but it does play a background role in the search for a serial killer whose trademark and killing method "harken back" to the industry's past. That's one plot line. Plot line number two centers around main character Abe Beckham, whose first wife has passed away and who is currently married to wife number two, an old flame named Angelina. Abe is asked by the state attorney's office to take part in the investigation of a body discovered in the Everglades that may be the work of the still-uncaught serial killer. He teams up with an FBI agent named Victoria Santos, and in the middle of their hunt for the murderer, Angelina goes missing.  He is frantic with worry that she may just be the latest victim, but in plot line number three, Santos decides that Angelina's disappearance may not be related -- and Abe finds himself under suspicion, leading to plot line number four in which he works to clear himself. 

The story, for me, was best when suspicion falls on Abe and no one believes him when he says he had absolutely nothing to do with Angelina's disappearance. There is evidence (explained away during the course of this plot line) that points in the opposite direction, and he really goes a little crazy trying to get himself out of this mess. He's also got Santos (who, by the way, I couldn't stand) to deal with -- a colleague who for some reason goes off the deep end on the ball-busting side trying to make a case against Beckman.  On the other hand, bringing all of the storylines together leads to a very rushed and sloppy last few chapters that just didn't work. First of all, I figured out the Angelina angle way early on in the game; second, after such a long buildup, the actual ending came rushing out a little too quickly.  However, I will say that the last page  left a bit of a shiver running up my spine as I realized the implications for Beckham's future.  

I'm just not a big thriller reader, so really, this book didn't really grab me all that much. Billed as a "spellbinding new novel of suspense," I found it to be neither all that spellbinding nor suspensefulIt's like been there, seen that, nothing highly original here. And really, when someone writes 22 books in 21 years, well, think about it -- there's no way the output is going to fall on the literary side of crime writing.  On the other hand, my husband, who is very much into thrillers of all sorts absolutely loved it,  with the exception of the ending.  And from what I can see now looking at reader reviews and ratings, there are many other people who think like he did -- it's getting some 4 and 5-star ratings and readers are enjoying it immensely.  

Bottom line -- thriller readers or regular readers of the author's work  (if my husband is any judge) will  love it.  

I read this book for TLC book tours, and there are still plenty of opinions to come after mine. The schedule for this book can be found here.  Many thanks to Lisa for thinking of me!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

a new author for me: James Sallis -- The Long-Legged Fly

Walker and Company, 2001
originally published 1992
200 pp


Well now here is something entirely different -- rather than having an entire series follow a main character's arc, James Sallis manages to put it into one book.  There are five books which follow this one in his Lew Griffin series which I haven't read, but The Long-Legged Fly covers a span of time from 1964 through 1990.

Set in New Orleans, each section of  The Long-Legged Fly centers around Griffin's search for someone who is lost.  Taken as a whole, one could argue that Griffin is also searching for himself in this book.  Who is this Lew Griffin exactly? When we first meet Griffin, he's hell-bent on vengeance and actually kills a man before he goes back to settle into his office where we discover he's a PI  who is friends with a local cop -- pretty much standard pulp-fiction fare.  Then another surprise -- he hits the skids and comes back as a collector for a loan outfit, spending time in a halfway house after weeks of detox for his alcohol problem.  At some point he becomes interested in writing and changes his life again, becoming the author of a Cajun detective series,  until there's a big twist at the end where just who is actually doing the narrating becomes a central question that forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything he or she has just read.

As New Orleans changes over the years, so too does Lew Griffin.  According to the chronology, the book begins when he is twenty-four.  He is asked by a militant group to find a missing activist who got on a plane in New York and was never seen again. This part of the book has a lot of focus on racial identity, which is a theme carried throughout the novel, with references to early works of Chester Himes and George S. Schuyler (among others), and black heritage, including history and the blues which the author will later note was
"a way of letting you get outside -- outside the sixteen or eighteen 18 hours you had to work every day, outside where you lived and what your children had to look forward to, outside the way you just plain hurt all the time." 
 In the second part, Griffin (now age 30 but feeling "old and tired")  is tasked with finding the "shy" daughter of a couple from Mississipi, who had been gone for three weeks. New Orleans, her parents say, is where she'd been talking about going and that she was talking about staying with an actress with Willona.  It will be tough -- as Griffin tells them,
"...the city doesn't much care about any of us individually, let alone a sixteen year-old girl from Clarksdale." 
It's also in part two where we discover that Lew had served in the military as an MP and had a penchant for "busting heads."  1984 comes along and we find Griffin in a hospital doing detox after he had hit bottom -- committed by the court.  He is in the care of a British nurse with whom he falls in love; through her he feels "new worlds opening within him" that he knew were always there but he could never reach. While staying at a halfway house he meets someone whose life is cut short by gang violence in the inner city, but not before Griffin had agreed to find the man's missing sister.  Six years later, things have really turned around for Lew; he's become a successful detective novelist, a part-time teacher,  and life is good -- up until the day he gets a call about another missing person, this time someone he knows very well. Once more its time time to take stock -- and reflect.

Clearly, this is no ordinary man and Griffin is definitely not the stock PI of pulp fiction. There is a certain rich interplay of elements in this book that makes it unlike any other in this genre. First, there's New Orleans, a city that, like Lew, reinvents itself while keeping its history intact; there's also an abundance of literary references and references to local blues artists and their work.  Griffin has to work through a lifetime of pain and, as noted on the back-cover blurb, he fears "becoming as lost as the frail identities he is trying to recover."  I genuinely appreciate an author who allows his or her characters to discover themselves around a plotline rather than making the plot the central focus of a novel -- and since I prefer understanding people and why they do what they do in a given situation,  I've always felt a plot should be secondary with characters first.  Then again, not everyone reads like I do, so readers looking for a fast-action, pulpy PI novel will definitely not find it here. Readers who also prefer a strictly linear chronology may also not care for this one, but for me, The Long-Legged Fly  is something completely out of the ordinary.  Recommended with absolutely no qualms whatsoever, but mainly to readers who are much more into fullness of character rather than straight-up action.