Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

Monica’s Sister, by Earl Emerson *****

monicassisterAh, it’s good to be reading a Thomas Black story again. Black is back with his lovely wife, Kathy, a good-hearted woman who makes some interesting friends. One of them is Angela Bassman, a woman who shows up all the time like a bad penny, making ridiculous charges against anyone and everyone, and bragging about having so many friends in high places, having done such fantastic things, that one is left rolling one’s eyes. And so when Thomas hears Angela’s voice approaching his office, he does what any thinking human being would do: he leaps into the closet and shuts the door. Anything to avoid that woman!

The wheels of the story start moving, and things get more complicated. Angela, whose famous sister is the actress, Monica Pennington, hires Black to help her with what is supposed to be a simple task, but isn’t. He would like to back out, but he smells a rat. Despite the crazy nature of Angela’s claims, she is obviously being followed by someone. Strange things happen, and too many coincidences occur. Whether Angela is crazy or whether she isn’t, his detective’s intuition starts to quiver, and he becomes more entangled in her affairs than he had anticipated, especially when she falls to her death, and he sees it happen. Later, Pennington hires Black to find out why Angela killed herself. Because of course, that’s what happened…isn’t it?

Emerson, a Shamus winning author who sets his stories here in the misty Pacific Northwest, usually right here in Seattle, is one fine writer. Hundreds of interesting, free galleys come my way in a given year, but I wanted to read his story badly enough to put it on my wish list, and luckily, my spouse snapped it up and gave it to me for Mother’s Day. What a fantastic gift!

The overall tenor of the story begins as gut-bustingly funny, and then gradually darkens and becomes more suspenseful. By the story’s end, I was literally (yes, I do mean literally) sitting on the edge of my seat, putting off the family members that wanted my attention with a robotic “…just a sec. Just a sec. Yeah I know. Give me just a minute.”

Emerson also uses the occasion to talk a little bit about bipolar disorder, and the ways it can turn a person’s life upside down, but he does it in a way that prevents the book’s pace from hitching. It’s masterfully done!

If you like strong detective fiction, or fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, or both, you just can’t do any better than this book. Seriously recommended for just about everyone.