Dutch Uncle

by Peter Pavia

Published by Hard Case Crime

256 pages, 2005

Buy it online




Who’s Your "Uncle"?

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


New York-based publisher Hard Case Crime has been a hit with awards judges this year, scoring two Shamus nominations, plus an Edgar Award win in the Best Paperback Original category for The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 1-2/05). And Hard Case stands ready to repeat some of that heady success with the new Dutch Uncle, by Peter Pavia. The jacket quote compares Manhattan novelist Pavia to crime-fiction grand master Elmore Leonard. While that's a flattering comparison, and the similarities are certainly identifiable, it actually does injustice to Pavia's potent and original use of language. This dude is rough-riding over his own brand of storytelling, and he accomplishes in 256 pages what many authors fail to do in 450.

Set in Miami Beach in 1996, Dutch Uncle unfolds in multiple third-person points of view -- from the vantage of the criminals, as well as the Miami police. The chief bad guy in these pages is Leo Hannah, a fellow with modeling aspirations ("I'm thinking of taking a shot at it myself, soon as I get my book together") and with good connections throughout the Florida scene. All is cool with Leo sitting out there on the fringes of the modeling world, having fun spending his dead grandfather's dough on a fabulous rental house, sports cars, clothes and drugs -- lots of drugs. Leo is a cokehead and a skirt chaser; but he also has a vicious and dangerous bent lurking behind his unruffled charm.

In Uncle, Leo cooks up a scheme to steal a brick of coke from wealthy Dutch businessman Manfred Pfiser. Pfiser is a flaming homosexual, and besides indulging a passion for men, he's also seriously enamored of drugs and booze.

Manfred charged out of the closet and threw his arms around a lifestyle he was twenty years too old for. He loved his cocaine, piles of it, though only when he was partying, compulsive behavior he reserved for New York and now ... Miami Beach, the ideal hideout for any late-flowering fag.

Taking part, as well, in the scheme to fleece Pfiser is Hannah's high-school pal Alejandro "Alex" Fernandez, a former baseball prodigy with a now-ruined sports career and no vocational ambitions whatsoever, beyond the simple desire to get high. Alex brings yet a third man into this criminal scenario: small-time hood J.P. Beaumond, a felonious "trailer trash" misfit from Texas.

When the robbery of Pfiser goes wrong (and couldn't you just see that coming?), Leo gets the bright idea to lay the blame off on one Harold "Harry" Healy, a guy he'd encountered during a weekend "retreat" spent behind bars for drunk and disorderly behavior. Setting up Healy should satisfy the cops as well as the local heavies, who don't much care for Leo's antics. But Leo's major flaw is that he is too concentrated on having fun to pay attention to the things that matter -- things that could well cost him his life.

Just like everyone else in Dutch Uncle, Harry has his own set of uphill personality challenges, including low self-esteem, a bad temper and lousy luck. While Leo is the main heavy in this yarn, Harry grabs onto the role of brooding mope. Harry was acquainted with Manfred Pfiser in New York before the latter's demise, so when Leo asks him to help Pfiser sell some dope, Harry, though suspicious, agrees -- after all, he needs the dough. But what Harry doesn't know is that Leo is setting him up, making sure that Harry is not only seen in Pfiser's hotel room, but that he leaves his fingerprints there. Harry could sure use some of Leo's confidence and arrogance, but instead he follows the slow-going path of letting things happen to him.

What Harry had been doing all this time was waiting for something to save him. He didn't know what. An event, a person, something, some vague thing, was going to pull him up and turn his life around. He usually caved in for the rich-chick-as-savior scenario, which is where he supposed Julia fit, but just look at how that one turned out.

If Harry is no leadership-class standout, he's still a bruiser who knows his way around a fight. After the Pfiser job, he finds work as a bouncer at a local bar called Sailor Randy's. There, he meets Agatha St. Denis and begins what will be a problematic relationship. But it's only after Harry is forced to flee to New York City under pressure from police investigating the Pfiser case that the reader gets a closer look into this man's life. Author Pavia's exploration of the brawler's poor association with his musician father is both touching and informative, and it gives the reader some insight into Harry's inability to love himself. Despite Harry's deficient decision-making prowess, he is perhaps the only character here with potential to become anything better than a loser, and he proves that even the misfortunate can alter their destinies favorably.

Representing the Miami Beach Police Department in these pages are Detectives Arnie Martinson and Lili Acevedo. Nearing 50 years old, Martinson is depressed from the wear and tear of his job, yet beneath his jaded, heat-baked front beats a genuinely compassionate heart. At the same time as he's solving Pfiser's murder, Martinson investigates the robbery and thrashing of 80-year-old Josephine Simmons. Without letting anyone know, Martinson visits the comatose woman nearly every day, and the experience brings up strong feelings for him.

No matter how fucked up it seemed most of the time, this world would not tolerate the murder of a spindly old lady walking home with four dollars worth of groceries. It couldn't. Justice existed, as an independent, true objective. It made no difference how twisted the path toward it was, or how long it took, there was such a thing as justice. It was real, Martinson thought, heading back to the parking garage. Justice was real, and this wasn't it.

Martinson hotly follows Harry Healy's trail; he even calls for assistance from his contacts in the New York Police Department, after he realizes that Harry has fled north. But Martinson's pursuit is at odds with that of his superior, Lieutenant John Kramer. Kramer knows less about policing than Martinson does, and the prevailing view in their department is that Martinson should have been given the supervisory position, instead. The frustration of executing the law in the face of departmental politics only adds to Martinson's weariness. Bringing some brightness to his days, though, is Lili Acevedo, a hot Cuban with a "junk in the trunk" booty and hardened police skills. While Leo fantasizes about getting Acevedo into the sack, he grows cautious of the courageous and no-nonsense detective. Acevedo takes the point several times during the Pfiser probe, and her vigorous chase after one suspect leads to his unfortunate death. The give-and-take flow of this investigation, with its emphasis on painstakingly following up leads, contributes to the credibility of the novel. Pavia clearly understands the cop mentality and machinations. Martinson will get his justice in the end, though in unexpected ways.

Dutch Uncle is a flashy crime caper abundant in nubile South Beach lovelies with tanned bodies and miniature dogs, dangerous Cuban thugs boasting arcane monikers and vengeful tempers, and a fashionista party scene straight out of CSI: Miami. The New York section lends this yarn some gritty expansion of setting, though the Florida backdrop shows nary a sign of wilting under the author's masterful control. With a plot twist at the end guaranteed to catch the reader off-guard, Dutch Uncle proves Peter Pavia to be one of the fresher, brighter voices in the hard-boiled genre today. Before summer signs off for another year, read this book -- preferably at the beach. | September 2005


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.