by Ken Kuhlken
Published by Poisoned Pen Press
307 pages, 2006
Summertime Won’t Be a Love-in There
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
Ken Kuhlken first burst onto the crime fiction scene with The Loud Adios, which won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Award for Best First Private Eye novel for the year 1991. Set in 1943, it introduced private eye Tom Hickey and his family, and continued for two other books, The Venus Deal (1993) and The Angel Gang (1994). As the Hickey novels stretched into the 1950s it appeared that the thread had run itself out.
Tom Hickey is back, however, in Kuhlken's latest, The Do-Re-Mi. Set in the summer of 1972, Tom Hickey is now a supporting character to his son Clifford, a disaffected soon-to-be law student who drives north into the redwoods of Northern California to attend and play at a folk jamboree in the town of Evergreen, a tense place overrun by both hippies and a sadistic motorcycle gang known as The Cossacks. Clifford's other reason to drive north is to reconnect with his adopted brother, Alvaro. Alvaro is a barely balanced Vietnam veteran and fellow musician who is all too familiar with the tactics of jungle warfare. Only hours after their reunion, both brothers are rudely awakened from their sleep at Alvaro's campsite by the sound of gunfire. Local law enforcement suspects Alvaro of having killed a deputy's son, for reasons that are unclear and seen as mere details. The deceased was also somehow involved with The Cossacks. Alvaro grabs his Browning rifle and heads for the hills. Clifford is arrested, cuffed (tightly enough to damage one of his hands and make a musical future doubtful) and taken to the local police station, where it's made plain that Alvaro is responsible for the murder and his flight from justice will only make things worse.
[Federal agent Per Knudsen] lifted his open hands. "Hey, it'll be a damned shame, your brother getting shot down, which he most certainly will if he won't stop running, when all he's got to do is come in and cop a plea. Maybe he walks."
"Yeah, maybe," I said. "If I run into him, I'll tell him these sheriffs are the kind of guys he can trust with his life."
"Clifford, you're going to feel responsible if the deputies have to kill your brother. That sort of guilt can be tough to live with. Now, how about coffee or a soda while you're making up your mind?"
"The way this town's going south, people want a scapegoat. I'm betting -- if they don't nab your brother -- it'll be you."
Faced with the pressures of trying to find the real murderer, locating Alvaro and navigating the centrifugal pressures of Evergreen's natural antagonists -- the hippies versus the bikers -- Clifford Hickey eventually realizes he has to call in a professional. And so, father Tom arrives with Clifford's mother in tow. Things are only complicated when the jamboree is disrupted by a gunshot aimed at Phil Ochs, the musical headliner and known Communist (this is 1972, after all). Clifford and his dad are convinced that the Cossacks are behind the attack; others are still pointing fingers at the elusive Alvaro. And so it seems that a town of communes and peaceniks is about to explode in violence.
The elder Hickey could have more than carried this story, but Kuhlken was looking for a different angle. In bringing Clifford Hickey front and center, Kuhlken provides the reader with the quintessential anti-hero for crime fiction. Clifford likes the idea of following in his father's footsteps even less than going to law school (in the first chapter, son asks father: "Are lawyers crooks to begin with or does being a lawyer make them crooks?"). He would much rather have the life of an itinerant musician playing jam sessions and rubbing elbows with Mimi Farina and Bob Dylan. While Clifford respects his father (and with good reason; Tom Hickey is one of the most honorable creations IÕve seen in a mystery), there's no desire on the son's part to perpetuate a family detecting dynasty. And yet the symbiotic way in which these two generations work together to help save the unpredictable (and perhaps unsteady) Alvaro gives the reader hope that Clifford will, in fact, turn into his dad.
I suppose at one level, The Do-Re-Mi exists in a space that might be described as "James Crumley meets Roger L. Simon." Clifford can't help but remind me of that earlier (but contemporaneous) California detecting renegade Moses Wine. But Clifford as a young man shows depth and compassion that it took Wine a few books to grasp. Kuhlken's prose style easily reminds the reader of Crumley in that it's elegant, understated and difficult to consume silently. But along with the interplay between the characters, the poignant comments and the laugh-out-loud one-liners, The Do-Re-Mi contains more than a trace of the bitter aftertaste of realization that the Summer of Love and the promise of the 60s not only failed to transform America, but left the country in the throes of paranoia and confusion for the 70s. The forlorn wistfulness of those times permeates this work, almost as a fog that enshrouds the Northern California coastline. Kuhlken's characters know that nothing betrays you like faded and failed ideals. Like law and order. Or perhaps a family member who went crazy when you weren't looking. Or maybe it was you.
The Do-Re-Mi ends, perhaps inevitably, with the knowledge that the next time we see either Tom or Clifford Hickey, several more years will have passed by. Their saga is not one that immediately picks up right where the previous book ended. These lags allow the characters to develop nuance and insight, traits that are seen only in the hands of superior writers such as Kuhlken. This book is an unexpected treasure. My naive hope is that there will be more. | January 2007