February 03, 2011

BOOKS: In Search of Mercy, Michael Ayoob (2010)

For 25 years, the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin's Press have sponsored the Best First Private Eye Novel competition. The PWA's interest is obvious; I assume that St. Martin's gets first crack at publishing the winners, as they've done with this, the 2009 winner.

The novel has some of the feel of a traditional hard-boiled, noir-esque private eye, though its hero is younger than usual for the genre. Dexter Bolzjak is 25, and is still recovering from the two events that have come to dominate his life. As a high school senior, Dexter was a star hockey player, until the night he choked and lost his team the state championship; later that night, he was kidnapped and tortured by four particularly demented fans. Those events have not only destroyed Dexter's confidence, but he's also dealing with some serious post-traumatic stress. As a resort, he's never accomplished much, and scrapes by on his job at a produce warehouse.

All of which would make him a fairly unlikely candidate to take on a missing-persons search, but that's what he's asked to do by Lou Kashon, an elderly drunk who's rapidly dying of cancer, and longs to see the love of his life once more before he dies. She won't be easy to find; she vanished imore than 40 years ago and hasn't been seen since. And it's not as if people haven't been looking, because Lou's vanished love is Mercy Carnahan, who had been a huge star in the late 40s and early 50s, and continues to have a loyal cult of worshippers.

Ayoob does a nice job of capturing his working-class Pittsburgh setting, and his descriptions of Mercy's career and her glamorous appeal are good enough that I found myself wanting to see her movies. The resolution of the mystery wasn't quite satisfying, but Dexter and Lou are appealing characters, and I'd be happy to see Dexter return in another book.

I was bothered, though, by the chapter in which Ayoob takes us back to the night of Dexter's capture and torture, which he describes in excessive detail. We've already gotten the gist of what happened, certainly enough to understand Dexter's reaction to it; the blow-by-blow is gratuitous and out of place. And I'm not normally particularly disturbed by such things, so I would guess that those who are more sensitive will find it very tough going.

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