The Magazine

Man of Mystery

The case for the novels of Loren D. Estleman.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By JON L. BREEN
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Nicotine Kiss

by Loren D. Estleman

Forge, 256 pp., $23.95

Little Black Dress

by Loren D. Estleman

Forge, 240 pp., $23.95

The Undertaker's Wife

by Loren D. Estleman

Forge, 288 pp., $23.95

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN WROTE most of his first novel in longhand during sessions of an Elizabethan poetry class at Eastern Michigan University. Some of that poetry must have sunk in subliminally, because he has become one of the great stylists in contemporary fiction, one of the few popular writers--Raymond Chandler was another--worth reading strictly for the beauty of their prose, their loving manipulation of language. The closest present-day comparison working similar ground may be Robert B. Parker, but Estleman is far superior in ambition and achievement.

At least three barriers serve to deny (or delay) the serious literary reputation Estleman deserves: He is prolific; he is versatile; and he writes in popular genres.

That first book, The Oklahoma Punk (1976, reprinted as Red Highway), an unoriginal case study of a Prohibition-era bank robber, offers a first glimpse of preoccupations that would mark the 23-year-old author's future work: historical detail, western background, shifting in time (from 1933 to 1922 and back), and frequent film allusions. The name of the very first character introduced, special agent William Farnum, resonates with old movie buffs. Throughout his career, Estleman, who acknowledges the influences on his first novel of Elmore Leonard, Edward Anderson, and W.R. Burnett, has paid direct or indirect homage to the authors who have gone before, while probing the edges of the fiction, film, and legend they have created.

Estleman the literary chameleon can adopt whatever style suits his subject matter. While it's questionable that rewriting two Victorian horror classics as Sherlock Holmes novels was a project worth doing, Sherlock Holmes Versus Dracula; or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes (1979) capture the Conan Doyle/Dr. Watson prose style as perfectly as any of the hordes of pastiche writers.

Most of Estleman's output of more than 50 novels can be grouped into four categories: The cases of private investigator Amos Walker, the saga of hired killer Peter Macklin, a series on the 20th-century history of Detroit, and westerns. Three of these product lines are represented in new books appearing within the last twelve months.

Walker, who first appeared in Motor City Blue (1980), is an old-fashioned loner private eye in a rapidly changing world. The first-person narrative approximates the style and voice of Chandler's Philip Marlowe as successfully as any of that simile master's imitators, while observing Detroit as acutely as Chandler captured Los Angeles. The sense of chronological displacement is stronger than ever in Nicotine Kiss. In a post-9/11 world of Homeland Security, eBay, and Harry Potter, Walker scatters allusions to Perry Como, Clifton Webb, radio quizzes, and movie cowboys. Defining his role, Walker seems to be channeling Carroll John Daly's pioneering 1920s private eye, Race Williams, who described himself as a halfway house between the cops and the crooks: "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."

In his latest case, Walker adheres to the private-eye code as surely as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. Jeff Starzek, a smuggler of cigarettes and other contraband across the Canadian border, has gone missing. Though Walker neither knew him well nor liked him much, it was Starzek who delivered him to the hospital when he was shot outside a Michigan bar on the first day of deer season. Hobbling around on a cane after a lengthy hospital stay, Walker takes the case, working out a satisfyingly twisty plot involving counterfeiting and murder.

The requisite mystery and hard action are present, but the quotable narrative and dialogue are the main attractions. Walker on babies: "I'd never paid them that much attention. They can't answer questions and don't hit very hard." On the continuing challenge to law enforcement: "The only sure way to stop a crime is to make it legal." On the Detroit winter: "The first snow of November is still there in April, covered by layers like lasagna, each dyed a different color by the soot and oxidized iron that has bled into it in varying amounts." A Homeland Security agent on an important distinction: "Islamics pray to Allah. Islamists only get on their knees to blow an arms dealer."