The Big Boom

by Domenic Stansberry

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

272 pages, 2006

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City Under Siege

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


San Francisco has long been the spiritual center of the private-eye world. Dashiell Hammett started it all, of course, and his tradition has been ably carried on by, among others, Joe Gores and his DKA series, Bill Pronzini and Nameless, and Stephen Greenleaf with his vastly underrated series featuring John Marshall Tanner. The bar for mysteries set in the City by the Bay is demonstrably high; Domenic Stansberry, author of The Big Boom, clears it without hesitation.

This new work, the second featuring P.I. Dante ("The Pelican") Mancuso begins with the sense of dread that blows in with the fog. Mancuso's detective agency, owned by the crusty and weary Jake Cicero, is hired by wealthy developer Nick Antonelli to find his missing daughter, Angie, a woman who just happened to be a girlfriend from Mancuso's youth. She's been missing from her North Beach apartment, even to the point of neglecting her beloved cat, Eccentric. Mancuso, a former San Francisco cop, knows only too well what can happen to missing persons: they either come home eventually, or wind up occupying space in the morgue. His latter suspicion turns out to be correct, when Angie's body is pulled from scenic San Francisco Bay. It's an apparent drowning, though no one believes she simply walked off the end of the nearest pier. Recently employed as a publicity hack for one of the up-and-coming "new economy" companies that always seem to be heavy on venture capital and light on actual results, Angie was recently complicating her life by getting involved with the company's slick CEO, Michael Solano, and then, just as dramatically, breaking up with him. The questions keep haunting Mancuso: Was Angie Antonelli despondent? A suicide? A murder victim? And what the hell happened to her laptop computer?

It all combines for a rather ordinary case, a "wandering daughter job" as Philip Marlowe might have described it. But Stansberry's firm control of his characters and setting make this a compelling and provocative new tale, one that sneaks up on you, like the beauty of Northern California itself.

What makes this yarn's urban setting unique is that it's clear to both Mancuso and his creator that San Francisco is under siege. Not from AIDS, homophobia, or the occasional bouts of Left Coast-itis. What drives this work is the fact that the North Beach way of life is collapsing from within -- specifically, from residents anxious to cash in on today's runaway real-estate market. The locals, mostly working-class Italians with palpable roots to the old country, are nervous about missing out on their big score, yet ashamed to be openly considering cashing in. Mancuso himself, a single man with an off-and-on relationship with a real-estate broker, struggles with his own property-related agony and whether he wants to be upwardly mobile, which he could accomplish by selling the home he currently rents to a couple in severe financial distress. Stansberry skillfully juggles the heavy-gauze romanticism of "the old neighborhood" with the realities of the California craze of escalating values.

If no one had sold, then the neighborhood would be okay. If no one had sold, you would still have Sicilians down by the wharf and Luccans in the heights and the Calabrians working out in the cannery. There would still be opera out on the streets, and in the open-air markets you would still hear the glorious Italian language, and the streets would be clean, and there would be grapevines growing up the telephone poles and beautiful brown-eyed kids on every corner.

The truth, Dante knew, was something different. Martinetti was in a bind. He had signed power of attorney over to his daughter after his wife's death. The old man put on a front in public, but Martinetti was lonely and wept in the apartment. Also, he was running out of money -- and if he sold the house he could afford to move into a home. Meanwhile his daughter and her bum husband needed their inheritance now.

All throughout The Big Boom, The Pelican (so named for his prominent nose -- a protuberance the like of which hasn't received this much commentary since Cyrano) and the other characters (every one of them victims to varying degrees) wrestle with the prosperity that is there for the taking, if only you're lucky enough to grab it while the riches are plentiful. The only problem is that the rose contains a stem of thorns, thorns that will puncture your skin and poison your soul, and perhaps cause some undue suffering upon others.

It was the time of the big boom and everyone figured the prosperity would last forever. There had been other booms before, but those had always been followed by calamity -- a bust that took away everything the good times had given, then kept on taking. The boom would be different, people said ... It was possible to experience doubt at such moments, of course, even if you realized such doubts would inevitably give way in the morning to the knowledge that the old order was evaporating. That soon everything would be transformed.

This isn't to say that author Stansberry subordinates his mystery in favor of a Travis McGee-style rant about development and greed; far from it. The story is marvelously paced and moves with steadiness and purpose, like a trolley rolling down Market Street. Stansberry is too good a writer to lose sight of his plot, and too astute an observer to park it in a locational vacuum.

The girl in the bay, her prosperous parents who hold nothing but contempt for one another, the go-go corporations that have little to show for the millions invested, and the neighborhood choking on too much easy wealth are all victims in The Big Boom. Stansberry, a 2005 Edgar winner for The Confession, has followed up his first Dante Mancuso novel, Chasing the Dragon (2004), with a tale that is nothing short of masterful. In it, the true victims are the ones left alive. It is their souls that are bleeding. | July 2006


Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. In addition to writing reviews for January Magazine, he's a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet.