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."

A doctor who has just admonished Walker for straining his bad leg to the edge of amputation isn't surprised the shamus doesn't have insurance: "From what I've seen, you couldn't get a group rate with the bullfighters' union. What are you, a crash dummy for Smith and Wesson?"

Walker replies, "Only on the side. The rest of the time I'm a detective."

Doctor: "I thought detectives were stealthy."

Walker: "I didn't say I was any good at it."

Little Black Dress features Peter Macklin, who was introduced as a killer for hire in Kill Zone (1984) and has returned four times since. From the beginning, Macklin has had domestic troubles, including an understandably alcoholic wife and a drug-taking son who wants to follow in his dad's hit-man footsteps. Now he has another wife, has given up assassination for hire, and is trying to escape the remnants of his bloody past. But you just know he won't bring it off. For me, the Macklin saga, a multivolume soap opera in which crooks off each other (or try to) like the principals in a Roadrunner cartoon, is the least rewarding part of Estleman's oeuvre.

Still, Little Black Dress has its benefits: a terrific final line, and some pointed satire on a jerk bestselling author who, enamored of the big bookstore chains, grouses about his present book-signing venue: "I don't like independents. They all smell like old magazines and they treat me like an idiot because I'm not starving."

There is no new title in Estleman's multivolume history of 20th-century Detroit, but the books are worth seeking out. Jitterbug (1998) gives a vivid sense of the World War II home front, with the Ford plant converted to defense uses, a migration of southern blacks and poor whites creating racial tensions, and a throat-slitting serial killer disguised as a soldier (and, in his own twisted mind, a patriot) who takes his victims' ration books and leaves the trademark message, KILROY WAS HERE. Edsel (1995), narrated by former newspaperman Connie Minor, now in advertising and assigned the top-secret job of promoting the titular car line, offers some great 1950s advertising history, including Winston's introduction of its filter-tip cigarette and the marketing success of Ivory Soap "because the careless way it was milled caused it to float in the bathtub."

A Ford executive admits, "The first car we ever made was the best. It climbed mountains and crossed deserts on a teaspoonful of gas and any kid with a pair of pliers could fix anything that went wrong with it. It's all been downhill since the Model T. We just add lights and horns and whistles so people won't notice."

Unlike his fellow writer of 20th-century historicals, Max Allan Collins, Estleman rarely includes a note separating fact from fiction, and Edsel could use one: I wondered how many of his Ford executives were real people.

The inevitable fading of the western in contemporary culture--from film, television, the bookshelves--may cause us to neglect some of our best American writing. Some of Estleman's westerns are fairly traditional. Sudden Country (1991), which transplants Treasure Island to the Texas Panhandle, includes the following classic shoot-'em-up dialogue: "'Why did you kill Peckler?' / 'Son of a bitch cheated at cards.' / 'You weren't playing cards.' / 'I recollected suddenlike.'"

His more recent works in the genre, though they include gunfights and colorful historical personages, are far more unusual and represent the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist. Recognizing that many frontiersmen were better educated than today's college graduates, Estleman writes eloquent dialogue for his westerners, abjuring semiliterate cowboy dialect. He goes beyond the ranchers, cattle rustlers, and lawmen to feature people in other walks of life, while displaying a James M. Cain-like interest in how things work in particular jobs and industries.

The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association (1999) is a tribute to the pre-World War I pioneers who fought the Edison monopoly and invented movies as we know them. Its protagonist, wannabe writer Dmitri Pulski, takes the name Tom Boston in tribute to Jack London and leaves the family ice business, though not before it is delineated as vividly and knowledgeably as the movie business, circa 1913. The Master Executioner (2001) follows meticulous, scientific hangman Oscar Stone from the Civil War to 1897, describing his work in rich and unjudgmental detail. (It's remarkable that a novel on this subject should take no position for or against capital punishment.)

The similarly structured The Undertaker's Wife illuminates 19th-century mortuary practices. We first meet the famous restorer of corpses, Richard Connable, late in his career, near the turn of the 20th century. Elihu Warrick, "the well-known Chicago speculator, railroad investor, and meatpacking magnate," has committed suicide while en route from New York on the Michigan Central. Connable, though semiretired, at least in the mind of his wife Lucy, is summoned from Buffalo to Cleveland to prepare the deceased for an open-casket funeral, while concealing the bullet wound in Warrick's head lest the fact of his suicide cause a shareholders' panic.

The action flashes back to Civil War-era Monroe, Michigan, where Lucy is first attracted to Richard because of his remarkable job reconstructing the ravaged face of her twin brother, a Union infantryman killed in an explosion. Their personal and professional story continues in San Francisco and several other points along the way, including Hays City, Kansas, where the colorful sheriff, Wild Bill Hickok, sends Connable considerable business.

With the violence mostly offstage, the emphasis is on the characters. Neither a traditional Western nor a mystery nor even a crime story, The Undertaker's Wife is more than anything a study of marriage.

Estleman's Writing the Popular Novel (2004), which can be recommended for its insights and entertainment value even to those who never intend to write a word for publication, reveals much about his outlook and methods. Though a language purist who spends a whole chapter called "Gears and Pulleys" on English mechanics, he is enough of a maverick to defend the use of contact as a verb on the reasonable ground that no single word does the same job.

In excerpts from a journal he kept while writing Bloody Season (1988), a novel of the OK Corral gunfight closely based on the historical record, he describes the process of making a credible fictional character from an extremely contradictory historical personage, Wyatt Earp. How could the same man have both Earp's positive attributes (solid friendships, devotion to duty, fidelity to second wife) and his negative ones (desertion of first wife, arrests for horse thievery, and a confidence game)? At first believing Earp was essentially a gambler, Estleman finally decided the key that explained the complex Earp was something he constantly reiterated to interviewers: He was a businessman.

For all the admiring reviews and steady sales his books have received, a great popular writer may be passing under the radar. When it was suggested that his writing manual should have "a subtitle promising lessons on how to write a best-selling novel," Estleman had to point out a hitch: "I explained that since I'd never written a best-selling novel, I wouldn't know where to begin. This confession surprised some editors, who assumed that because my name had been around since man learned to walk upright, I must have cracked the venerated New York Times list many times. My sales have always been respectable, although not spectacular."

Given that Estleman is as outstanding and as accessible a writer as any regular inhabitant of the lists--indeed, vastly better than most--I can only wonder why everyone isn't reading him.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.