Nicotine Kiss

by Loren D. Estleman

Published by Forge

256 pages, 2006

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Project Runaway

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


Even though he has penned dozens of books over the course of his 40-plus-year career, a new offering from Loren D. Estleman always gives this writer a sense of heightened anticipation, particularly when a book such as the new Nicotine Kiss features Estleman's prototypical private eye, Amos Walker.

Nicotine Kiss opens in a rundown hunter's bar out in Grayling, Michigan, on the opening day of deer season. Walker's prey, however, is not four-footed; rather, it's a husband on the run, behind in his child-support payments. While waiting for his target to arrive ("Going after deadbeats is a lot like deer hunting: You pick your spot, sit tight and wait for your trophy to come along"), Walker suddenly spies an old acquaintance, Jeff Starzek, plunking tunes on the bar's upright piano. Cigarette smuggler Starzek seems to have come in from the cold, if only for a few minutes, while running some serious-sounding contraband.

Well, the deadbeat dad finally arrives in the bar, and he makes Walker almost immediately. He then shoots the detective in the leg, before turning the gun on himself. Fortunately for Walker, Starzek has hung around just long enough to drop off the wounded private eye at a nearby hospital, before disappearing into the Michigan winter.

After nearly two months spent recuperating upstate, Amos finally arrives back home in Detroit, only to find Jeff Starzek once again taking center stage. Before disappearing, Starzek had sent a cryptic note to his sister, Rose Canon, instructing her to hire Walker to find him, should he fail to show up by the first of the new year. With Starzek still missing, Rose's husband, Oral, enlists Walker to find him and put Rose's mind at peace. No sooner does Oral leave Walker's office, though, than the sleuth is visited by Detroit homicide detective Mary Ann Thaler, along with agent Herbert Clemson from the Department of Homeland Security, who has taken a keen interest in Starzek. The fed's interest is piqued not by untaxed Marlboros, but by connections an unwitting Starzek may have to terrorists (whom Clemson calls "persons of concern"). And it seems clear to Walker that the feds intend to hunt Starzek down -- before anyone else can.

Thus, Estleman sets the stage for this 18th novel-length adventure (after Retro, 2004) of Amos Walker, the most traditional and consistently satisfying of the fictional American P.I.s still in business. And a guy who seems remarkably unfazed by the obstacles and oddities he encounters during his investigations. For instance, while trying here to find a smuggler who has made a living moving around, cross-country, well beneath everybody's radar (reports of piano playing in saloons being the only telltale signs of his stops), Walker uncovers an evangelical and shady house of worship, the Church of the Freshwater Sea in Port Huron, run by Starzek's much older brother, Paul, who is ultimately found dead and buried within a cord of wood. When, after the discovery of Paul's corpse, Walker gets pulled in by the local cops for questioning, he plays the best "Get Out of Jail Free" card he has: his association with agent Clemson. It appears that the late Reverend Starzek was into cash-counterfeiting in a big way, something Walker is confident will interest Homeland Security. After springing Walker from the local cops, Clemson, over a meal at the local White Castle, helps the P.I. put some of the pieces together:

"Can you give me an idea how big that stack [of paper] was you saw in Paul Starzek's church?"

"I'd say about the size of a double bed."

"That'd be a day's run in Denver. At a guess, fifty billion dollars."

"What's their game plan?" I asked. "Flood the economy with phony scrip and bring it to its knees?"

"Some of my superiors think so. Our economic system's pretty sound, no matter what you hear during the elections. A ton of paper won't push it over. But it'll buy enough weapons and sabotage to keep the jihad going for decades."

From there, the race is on, with Walker attempting to stay one step ahead of Clemson, hoping that he can find Starzek before the feds close in, and never knowing for sure if his old buddy is a counterfeiter, a courier, a terrorism financier or simply a dupe. As the action unfolds, our hero bounces to and from Detroit, enlists the help of his old friend Barry Stackpole, a freelance journalist specializing in stories about the mob, and uncovers the truth behind the relationship Jeff Starzek has with his sister, Rose Canon.

In a deft touch acknowledging his character's advancing age and physical vulnerability, Estleman has Walker in these pages constantly complaining about the pain in his wounded leg, shifting his weight during interrogations and popping Vicodin like breath mints. Those infirmities, however, don't save Walker from having to execute some of the most exciting set pieces I've seen this year, including a furious chase through the Michigan night, with the P.I. driving a $100,000 monster truck and being pursued by an assassin on a barely controlled snowmobile. The tension is accented by the fact this pursuit takes place on an only partially frozen Lake Huron, and that Walker must dodge ice-fishing shanties as he barrels along.

With Nicotine Kiss, Estleman delivers an unusually subtle, yet effective piece of post-9/11 crime fiction. Walker's being hobbled by a gunman's bullet is more than a plot device to demonstrate that age and possible frailties are creeping up on this series' protagonist. It's a pretty clever metaphor for the state of American society itself, five years after the World Trade Center collapsed: unstable, unpredictable and needing constant assistance (and the play on the detective's name is impossible to ignore). The terrorist angle has been plumbed before, and will likely be again; but Estleman adds to that an important measure of the moral ambiguity alive in the United States today, personified by agent Clemson. The fed is a more than worthy counterpart to our hero, but also an impenetrable figure who knows far more than he tells.

Over the course of his career, Loren Estleman has been cited frequently as the most recognizable heir to Raymond Chandler. But as easy as that comparison is to make, it fails to fully appreciate the complexity of this author's Shamus Award-winning detective series. While there are, as one would expect, plenty of wisecracks in Nicotine Kiss, the tone here is ominous, and it's clear that Amos Walker's creator knows how to stretch the boundaries of the conventional P.I. yarn while still paying tribute to the classical elements of the genre. Our man Walker smokes, drinks whiskey and maintains a code of honor that would make Sam Spade proud. But in Nicotine Kiss, the stakes are far greater than a missing-persons case with a murder along the way. Amos Walker is trying to navigate the 21st century in a way that would make sense to us all. Let's just be happy he's out there. | May 2006


Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. He lives in Hilliard, Ohio.