Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder
by Dick Lochte
Published by Five Star
218 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Bark If You Like Lochte
Reviewed by Tom Nolan
The sort of concise and satisfying detective fiction short story that flourished 40 or 50 years ago, in the heyday of such writers as Rex Stout, Lillian de la Torre and Ellery Queen, isn't written all that much anymore. The market for such tales has dwindled and not many of today's genre masters feel the urge to tackle a form whose challenges and rewards are so different from those of the obligatory annual novel.
What a treat then -- especially for a reader like me, who grew up savoring the shorter adventures of characters such as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin -- to come upon Dick Lochte's Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder, a nine-pack of stories that deliver a vintage sort of pleasure in a brand-new sort of bottle.
A third of this collection's entries involve the quirky Los Angeles writing/sleuthing team of teenager Serendipity Dahlquist and her reluctant semi-mentor, veteran private eye Leo Bloodworth -- an odd couple first paired in Lochte's Nero Wolfe Award-winning novel Sleeping Dog (1985), and later in its sequel, Laughing Dog (1988).
The clever conceit of those books was in having them told in two disparate voices: Serendipity's, with its adolescently "literary" phrasings ("that fatal Wednesday") and Leo's, with its more blunt cadence ("How long had you known her?" "A week. But it's been a long week"). Their authorial partnership began when Bloodworth and Dahlquist were both writing books about the "Sleeping Dog" events: a tale of multiple murder into which the two narrators were drawn after Serendipity hired Leo to find her kidnapped pet. After the authors' publishing houses merged, both manuscripts were combined in one volume. The result proved popular and another book was demanded. So, as Bloodworth puts it: "Through a series of circumstances too painful to discuss, my writing career had been linked to that of a bright and difficult teenager." Or, as others say to Leo: "You're the one who writes with that little girl."
The two-voice device is continued in Lochte's new collection by having Serendipity pen the first pair of its "Dog" tales, while Leo handles a third.
In this volume's title story, a distraught Leo copes with the death of a pop-novelist friend who apparently committed suicide while he was in her apartment; Serendipity senses there's more to this locked-bathroom puzzle than meets the P.I.'s eye. Meanwhile, in "Rappin' Dog," a rap-music star known as B.A. ("Big Apple") Dawg uses Leo and Serendipity as go-betweens in an extortion plot that turns fatal. Finally, the Bloodworth-narrated story, "Mad Dog," finds Leo appearing on a radio show whose host -- a cross between Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern -- has a bizarre surprise in store for his guests. The dual-prose in this trio of shorts is a delight. It gives us both Leo's impressions of Hollywood at Christmastime ("Neon trees. Elves with tans. Reindeer with chrome sidewalls") and Serendipity's description of that rap-star client ("His hair was dyed a bright orange. And there were enough pieces of metal embedded in his ears and nose to keep him off of planes for the rest of his life").
Fittingly for two sleuths who play with language, words are often clues to solving Leo's and Ser's cases. The denouement of "Rappin' Dog," for instance, stems from Serendipity's careful listening to the lyrics of Bobby Troup's familiar song "Route 66" ("To my ears almost like rap, except they were much more whimsical"). And the titles of this trio of "Dog" tales resonate humorously with their contents.
So engaging are Leo and Serendipity as narrators (Ser, especially -- a teen at once with-it and conservative) that the reader feels an instant rapport with them.
Leo and Ser have a colleague, New Orleans private detective Terry Manion, who was introduced by Lochte in Laughing Dog and later served as the protagonist in two novels of his own (Blue Bayou and The Neon Smile). He proves equally good company in one or two of the stories in this volume. I say "one or two," because the first in which he appears -- a caper with a delightful twist -- is, as its title promises, "A Tough Case to Figure," with Manion only obliquely present.
However, in "Get the Message," Manion is front and center, with a prospective client who wants his sister's dubious boyfriend run out of town. Manion turns the job down; but later, when the would-be client's wife is murdered, he accepts the task of finding out the killer's identity. Narrator Manion acts as capably here as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade does in the trio of shorts about that Bay Area private eye that were included in the recent collection Nightmare Town; and he sounds a bit like Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin with a drawl.
Authentic New Orleans color is applied sparingly in the Manion stories, though with a sure hand, as befits an author who (as related in Lucky Dog's brief but telling introduction) was reared in the Crescent City.
Another layer of N'Awlins lacquer adds a deep glow to Lochte's two 1960s-era tales featuring Manion's early mentor, J.J. Legendre, found here working as an investigator for real-life District Attorney Jim Garrison.
In "Murder at the Mardi Gras," a third-person-voice story that sizzles subtly with the racial and political tensions of its time and place, Legendre rushes to the home of a well-connected family, where the heir apparent's Vietnamese wife has been killed upstairs while a dinner party went on below. The beat cops want to pin the crime on the elusive "Mardi Gras Burglar," but Legendre suspects the killer will be found closer to home. He grills the gathered guests and finds the murderer before the night is done, in a nifty tale that reads like a Hercule Poirot adventure written by Robert Penn Warren.
This book's other Legendre item, "A Murder of Import," is equally rich in ambiance. Turning on a fatal matter of missing bonds, it's a bit like an Ellery Queen puzzle ("Well, Lieutenant, ready to make your arrest?" Legendre cues the policemen in charge, like Queen challenging readers to name the villain before he does) as concocted by Lillian Hellman.
Lochte's penchant for creating puzzlers with a realistic edge would seem to stem from his own life experience, as hinted at in that introduction. Having come of age reading books by such mystery authors as Leslie Charteris and Raymond Chandler, he worked part-time in his college years for a Louisiana private investigator, acquiring "a different sort of education than the one I was getting on campus." Weaned on romantic fiction and gritty fact, Lochte later developed a flair for shaping hard-boiled truths into classic patterns.
He can also handle genre assignments with panache, as shown in the remaining two entries in this collection.
"Sad-Eyed Blonde," originally written for the 1988 anthology Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration (recently reissued by ibooks), is the best Chandler pastiche this reviewer has ever encountered. Set in 1940, it reels off such Chandleresque lines as "Johnny's gun was as big as his head was empty," and "His bungalow was a fading matchbox on a patchy street full of potholes and weird ideas," while spinning a yarn about priceless antiques and triple-crossed partners that also pulls Hammett into the mix.
"Vampire Dreams," another story commissioned for a themed anthology, capably combines a murder mystery with a tale of the undead in a contemporary Hollywood that nurtures more than one sort of bloodsucker.
As well done as all these individual stories are, it's best to take Lucky Dog in small doses. Otherwise, a book with seven or eight protagonists makes for a somewhat fragmented read.
And while the traditional mystery short story offers unique pleasures, it also has inherent drawbacks, a few of which are occasionally encountered here. For instance, is it plausible that the title story's victim would be unwary enough to allow her killer (whose nature she has discovered) to get close enough to do her in? And occasionally the requisite mechanisms of a "closed-community" or "locked-room" tale creak a bit on their hinges.
On the other hand, Dick Lochte injects so much wit and style into Lucky Dog's compact selections that he renews your faith in the vitality of the detective novelette. A reader (such as this one) who likes such fun in small doses is the real lucky dog. | November 2000
Tom Nolan is a contributing editor of January Magazine. The paperback version of his book Ross Macdonald: A Biography, which recently won a Macavity Award, is due out in December from Poisoned Pen Press.