Lead, So I Can Follow

by Harold Adams

Published by Walker & Company

208 pages, 2000










Sepia Noir

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


Maybe you don't always need the mean streets. Maybe sometimes, despite what Raymond Chandler once said, a dusty dirt road with parched prairie grass defiantly jutting up between ruts left by the tires of beat up pickups and rusty farm vehicles is all you need for a little hard-boiled entertainment. That's certainly the case with Lead, So I Can Follow, Harold Adams' latest crime novel featuring Carl Wilcox, his hard-traveling Depression-era drifter, ex-con and occasional detective. Not to put too fine a shine on it, but this is a good 'un.

Carl is a treat, plain and simple. While most current hard-boiled crime fiction has a particularly urban bent, being set amidst metropolises full of cheap violence and cheaper cynicism -- as "now" as tonight's news -- Carl's turf is the long-ago and faraway. His 15 adventures thus far (beginning with Murder, 1981) have taken place in and around the small Dust Bowl towns and hardscrabble farms of America's northern Plains during the 1930s. But these aren't lame nostalgia trips seen through rose-colored glasses. Adams is too honest and clear-eyed a writer for that. The good ol' days? Not likely.

Sure, as Adams pointed out in the preface to an earlier book in this series, most people back then "went to church on Sunday, no matter how scandalously they'd behaved on Saturday night." But they were hurting, too, reeling under the twin weights of the Great Depression and Prohibition. These people were losing their farms, their businesses and their homes. Families were being ripped apart and a good man couldn't even get a decent drink without breaking the law, thanks to that era's own futile war on drugs. It's not difficult to believe that under the easygoing façade of simple, God-fearing country folk, there were hearts of darkness beating, full of frustration and fear, of barely suppressed anger and even, occasionally, murderous rage. You might call stories with this backdrop "sepia noir."

And into this straitlaced world of self-denial comes Carl, a free spirit if there ever was one, an itinerant sign painter and ne'er-do-well, with a taste for bootleg hooch and an eye for the ladies. He's no angel -- he has spent more than a few nights in a cell and has tried his hand at everything from wood chopping to cattle rustling. But what Carl really seems to have a knack for is solving crimes -- sometimes to save his own neck, sometimes to help a friend and, occasionally, for cold hard cash. In fact, over the course of Adams' series, Carl's reputation as a detective has grown to the point that he's been hired more than once by various small town police and private citizens to "take a look."

* * *

I have to admit that, prior to reading Lead, So I Can Follow, it had been quite a spell since I'd last spent any time with Carl, so I was a bit taken aback to discover that the old hound dog had gone and got himself married. Now, this is not entirely unknown in detective fiction, but it was still something of a shock. After all, Carl has gained quite a rep over the previous books in this long-running series when it comes to women, particularly pretty young widows.

But here we are, with a happily married Carl. At least, he seems to have found a woman who's clearly his match. "I promised to love, honor and obey," his wife, Hazel, explains at one point, but then warns him, "only when it made sense."

Hazel's a standup dame, a small-town librarian every bit as strong-minded and determined as Carl. In fact, she puts some of the supposedly more liberated companions of today's detectives to shame, with her straight-up honesty and sleeves-rolled-up sense of adventure. As the book begins, Hazel and Carl are on their honeymoon, camping, canoeing and fishing their way along the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, a long way from Carl's home town of Corden, South Dakota. Can you imagine Spenser's beloved Susan Silverman camping or gutting a fish?

But the newlyweds' slumber is disturbed one night, just outside of Indeville, Wisconsin, by a gunshot and a scream. Stumbling from their tent and making their way by flashlight through the woods (during which Hazel passes Carl her flashlight, saying, "Lead, so I can follow..."), they discover a body on the railroad tracks, apparently fallen from a cliff. Carl manages to snatch it away just seconds before a freight train thunders through. The taciturn local sheriff shows up and Hazel and Carl immediately become suspects in the killing... until a few phone calls reveal Carl's reputation as something of a crime-solving whiz.

Indeville's mayor, realizing that the local law is out of its league and could use whatever help it can get, decides to hire Carl to investigate. Suddenly, the Wilcox's honeymoon is a working vacation. And it's an offer the newlyweds can't refuse, for although the Depression is waning, honest work is still hard to come by. Besides, Hazel is eager to watch her man in action. Not that Carl and Hazel appear to be working all that hard -- their M.O. seems to consist mostly of settin' down a spell, having a drink and chatting with anyone and everyone. Their interrogations take them from front porches and farmhouse kitchens to roadhouses, dance halls and pawnshops, and even on a road trip to the Twin Cities.

It turns out the body belongs to Link, a talented but rebellious young trombone player who had the hots for headstrong local beauty Kat Bacon, referred to by her grandfather as "independent as a hog on ice" and by Carl as "sleek as a show cat." Both Kat and Link were members of the same University of Minnesota band.

Carl soon discovers a possible connection between Link's murder and the apparent suicide of Nate Pryke, a failed farmer in the Indeville area. Pryke's wealthy grandfather, still grieving, offers to sweeten the pot, to boost the payment due Carl if he can clear up the questions surrounding Nate's death, as well. As the honeymooners' investigation proceeds, and the circle of suspects grows, it soon becomes clear that the ways of the heart can be just as twisted and tortured under the wide-open skies as under the shadows of a city skyline.

* * *

Lead is narrated by Carl in a laconic, matter-of-fact tone. But he misses little:

Quinn's farm was on land so low it even had a slough on the north end, with brackish water and a few mudhens paddling about. From the look of it, they may have been wading; the water didn't look deep enough for swimming.

And the wit shown here is equally understated. During a brawl, for instance, his attacker complains to Carl: "Jesus... you gotta be the dirtiest fighter I ever took on."

Carl's reply? "Well, I'm littler than you, I can't afford to be sweet about it all."

However, readers will find plenty that's sweet, and even refreshing, about Carl's equally down-to-earth, occasionally salty tone, as in this exchange between the groom and his new bride:

We kicked the whole business around some more but eventually went to sleep without anything more than a little smooching because her period had begun.

"Now I know why they call it the curse," I said.

"The hell you do," she told me.

This is the straight goods, not the urbane, sophisticated banter of Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora in The Thin Man, who worked so hard at being glib and clever. Adams captures the way people talk, upfront and straight from the heart.

* * *

With his taut, clean prose and Carl's sharp-eyed view of the world, there's much to admire and enjoy in Lead, So I Can Follow. Adams' writing is hard and clear, terse in a way fans of Hammett would recognize. And don't be fooled by Carl's low-key narration and occasional "aw, shucks" mannerisms -- these books are plenty tough, the crime fiction equivalent of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath or Woody Guthrie's Dustbowl Ballads. The irony and the charm (and charm's a strange word to use for a series that doesn't exactly show human behavior in its best light) is that Carl's world is one that is too often dismissed as an easier, better time, the entire Depression recast as just one big character-building exercise full of plucky survivors, thanks to reruns of The Waltons and too many fond reminiscences by overly nostalgic grandparents. But people are people, no matter when or where they live and we're all fueled by the same greed and lust for things that can only be found, as Steinbeck once put it, in the darkness on the edge of town. It's a testament to Adams' skill and fierce vision that the motivations for the crimes in Lead, So I Can Follow are as real and familiar as the secrets we hold deep in our own hearts.

And it's always a pleasure to read a book in which the author gets in, tells a story and gets out. There's no need for fancy embellishments or existential flights of fancy just to pump up the page count. Adams' work is straight and direct and I doubt if any installments of this series stretch much past the 200-page mark. In fact, Lead seems to be one of the longer ones, a whopper at 226 pages.

Harold Adams' feel for the Depression comes naturally: He lived through it. He's the retired director of the Minnesota Charities Review Council and currently lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota. A previous book in his series, The Man Who Was Taller Than God, won the Private Eye Writers of America's prestigious Shamus Award for the Best Private Eye Novel of 1992.

Lead, So I Can Follow is a simple story, low in action, perhaps, but high in character. And Adams delivers it in a deceptively easy manner, sprinkling in just enough period detail ("It was fun driving the Model A, with its gearshift clutch and no need for a crank") to bring it all home. For readers who've been sucking on the dark exhaust fumes of too much slam-bang big-city crime fiction lately, do yourself a favor and head out to the country for a bit of quiet and fresh air. After all, like Woody's song said, this land is your land, too.

Yeah, sepia noir. I like that. And I like this book.

Color me impressed. | April 2000


Kevin Burton Smith is 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. He lives in Montreal and he always liked what Woody's sign said on the other side.