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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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.)