Joker Poker

by Richard Helms

Published by iUniverse

241 pages, 2000

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Trying Hard in the Big Easy

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


Is this the way of the future? Thanks to the DIY punk work ethos of the 1970s, the DTP boom of the 80s and the Internet explosion of the 90s, more and more authors are turning toward self-publishing, e-publishing and various print-on-demand arrangements, bypassing the traditional corporate world of big-time publishing altogether. And there are more than a few companies that have sprung up and are willing to make a few bucks off these would-be Shakespeares. Just don't call them vanity presses.

One such byproduct of the self-publishing game is Richard Helms' Joker Poker, an enjoyably old-fashioned hard-boiled romp, featuring New Orleans jazz musician, "professional bully" and sometimes-private-eye Pat Gallegher. It's a promising series debut, energetic and passionate, that rises above its flaws.

Yes, it is flawed. But not tragically. Part of the problem, in fact, lies in its author's relentless enthusiasm and exuberance -- a typical first-book problem. Helms seems to want to tell it all, and ends up including not just the kitchen sink, but the bathtub, the washing machine and the shower stall, as well. In his 1946 screenplay The Blue Dahlia, Raymond Chandler had one character caution another, "Don't get complicated, Eddie. When a guy gets complicated ... his luck runs out." That's advice Helms should heed.

* * *

Fortunately, Helms' luck doesn't run out, but he comes uncomfortably close a few times. The author -- a forensic psychologist in North Carolina and an expert on sex crimes -- has a solid, straightforward story going here, along with some great characters, but his attempts to dress it up only throw roadblocks in the way of his strong narrative drive. Joker Poker's plot would be better served by a cleaner, less cluttered approach.

It turns out that Gallegher is a very complicated guy ("too complicated," Chandler might have said). There's also some clunky introspection near this novel's beginning, where Pat muses about his status as a latter-day knight-errant. It's a comparison that belabors the point, and it's weighed down with its own portentousness. At least Travis McGee managed to do it with a certain amount of self-deprecating wit.

And Helms can't seem to leave well-enough alone. Too much emphasis is given, not just to Pat's deepest thoughts, but to his varied and colorful past, and it all slows things down considerably at times.

Take chapter 7, for example. Where the hell did this come from? The entire chapter seems to have been dropped into the book from a great height, wedged into place by the force of its impact. It doesn't seem to have much to do with the plot at all, although it details a tragic and supposedly pivotal point in Pat's life. It's the sort of thing that works, at best, when alluded to briefly, not rendered in detail. It's the kind of detour that can throw off a whole book, though Helms manages to get back on the road soon enough. But it is typical of the background overkill in Joker Poker.

It's not enough that Pat is a jazz musician, playing jazz cornet every night at Holliday's ("two 'L's, like Billie"), a tiny dive off an alley in the French Quarter, jamming with Sockeye Sam, a nearly blind, piano-pounding nonagenarian. Nor is it enough that Gallegher works occasionally for Justin Leduc, a local loan shark, whom he's into for 20 large. Being a big bruiser of sorts, Pat's paying off his debt by acting as an enforcer, although he's not completely at ease with his new role as a professional bully. In a great scene at the beginning of this novel, our hero confronts a delinquent debtor and tosses out the rueful admission that "Deep down, I don't like violence a bit, but I'd rather inflict it than eat it."

So he's a charming but trouble-plagued jack-of-all trades. OK, we get all that. But, as in a late-night infomercial, there's more. Pat's also been, off and on, a practicing Catholic, a seminary student, a forensic psychologist, a gambling addict and a college professor. The guy's had more former lives than Shirley MacLaine -- though, to his credit, at least he seems aware of it, remarking at one point that he may be "slipping farther and farther from grace."

And it's for that reason, to assuage his guilt and to prevent further grace slippage, that Pat also acts as an unlicensed P.I. Recalling Lawrence Block's early Matt Scudder novels, he does "favors for friends, and friends of friends" as a way of salving his conscience. Those favors include "finding lost objects and people when it was too embarrassing or compromising for the friends to go to a real detective." And that's what kicks this story into gear.

* * *

One night at Holliday's, Gallegher's lawyer pal shows up with an attractive, well-kept woman whom Pat notes "smelled like a million in crisp twenties, which led me to wonder what in hell she was doing in my little dive with the likes of Cully Tucker."

Between sets, the woman, Clancey Vincouer, explains: It seems she has been having an affair with a young man, who has subsequently disappeared. And she's afraid her rich and powerful husband has had him killed. It's a delicate situation, one that she might understandably not want to take to the police, or even a licensed detective agency, which would be legally obligated to reveal any crime its operatives discover. The sort of problem you might take to a certain off-the-charts unlicensed gentleman who doesn't mind getting a little rough, if necessary, and knows a thing or two about finding things. It's lucky for Mrs. Vincouer that Pat is such a gentleman, and he comes "pretty cheap in the bargain."

Of course, as is common in this sort of tale, things are never quite as they seem. As the plot reveals itself, lies are found out and betrayals revealed. People get hurt and rocks are flipped over, revealing any number of unpleasant truths. And murder, of course, rears its ugly head. Joker Poker is a good, sturdy yarn, entertaining and engaging, though perhaps not as novel as Helms may have hoped.

The book works because Helms can be a very, very good writer. He has an eye for detail, shows a sure and steady feel for the streets of New Orleans and his narrator has a way with a phrase. Pat Gallegher is a literate, educated man, sensitive and well-spoken enough to describe a house as not "particularly esthetically displeasing," but also down-to-earth enough to toss in the comment that he could live for weeks on a covered front porch and "never piss in the same place twice." He lives in a refurbished apartment above Holliday's and jokes about driving a "Nixon-era Pinto" with pre-ignition problems, then captures the tenderness of a post-coital scene with a surprising amount of sensitivity and empathy, even working in an allusion to Richard Brautigan.

Helms has a real knack for creating memorable characters and he introduces a slew of them here, beyond his main protagonist. There's Sockeye, of course, and Cully, Pat's attorney, "a fairly decent lawyer with a real self-esteem problem." Even more interesting is Dag, an alcoholic priest who serves as Pat's closest confidante and moral sounding board. The rather touching friendship between the lapsed Catholic leg breaker and the recovering drunk is handled with grace and skill.

* * *

It's that sort of grace and skill that makes Richard Helms' writing a pleasure to read and marks him as a definite contender in this genre. Assuming, of course, that he learns to leave well-enough alone. Helms may have some great stories to tell, and a deft hand at telling them, but he has to learn not to try to tell them all at once. It's as though he fears he may never get another shot at telling them (though he already has two more books in the Pat Gallegher series planned).

And that, sadly, is the real problem with this otherwise quite enjoyable book. There's a fine story buried under all the asides and flashbacks -- the sort of things some harder editing and a clearer vision would have eliminated. It's a common problem with many books, but self-published books often seem to suffer from it more than others. When you only have yourself to please, and not some unseen but omnipotent editor, things go a lot easier. Yet sometimes, hard calls are not made. And proofreading is not the same as editing. Still, I recommend this novel and look forward to Pat's next adventure. | January 2001


Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal writer and reviewer of crime fiction. He's also the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media, which makes him something of a self-publisher himself.