by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Published by Forge
256 pages, 1999
Buy it online
A Cold But Tasty Dish
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Stuart Kaminsky makes it look so easy. He's been around for a while now, quietly amassing an impressive body of work in the crime fiction field, each of his novels marked by solid plotting and compelling, yet down-to-earth and always human, always believable characters. He's the consummate craftsman of crime writing, a perennial nominee and sometimes-winner of Shamuses, Edgars and various other mystery-writing awards. His latest novel, Vengeance, marks the debut of a new series featuring Sunshine State investigator Lew Fonesca. It's an intriguing tale, with a captivating detective, who I hope will be entertaining us for years to come.
There's nothing really astounding about Lew Fonesca. Really. In fact, he's pretty bland, compared to many of the razzle-dazzle, bells-and-whistles private eyes out there trying to grab your book-buying bucks these days. Vengeance offers no industrial-sized existentialist angst or oh-ain't-it-terrible-now-here's-some-more gratuitous violence. Fonesca doesn't surf, he doesn't try to make like Groucho with the wisecracks and he doesn't crash through windows with guns a-blazing. Hell, he doesn't even carry a gun. His usual mode of transportation is a bicycle, for cryin' out loud, and what passes for his psychotic sidekick is a 70-year-old man who rides a motor scooter.
Nope, what Kaminsky does here is tell a story, and he doesn't need some über-private dick to tell it. Lew's just a short, balding, mournful-looking 40-ish widower, a former investigator with the State's Attorney's office in Cook County, Illinois; a transplanted northerner living out of his office overlooking the Dairy Queen on Highway 301 in Sarasota, Florida, working as an unlicensed peeper, a bargain-basement dick and process server for local attorneys. Like Lew says, "any citizen can make inquiries."
Fonesca's backstory goes like this: One day, back in Illinois, in the middle of yet another bone-chilling Midwest winter, his wife left for work... and never returned, the victim of a traffic accident on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. As Lew recalls, "It was winter. I wasn't going any further up in my job and I'm not ambitious. I was cold and too many places and people reminded me of my wife." Still grieving, he jumped into his rattling Toyota and made like a snowbird, heading south, visions of a new life and a warmer climate dancing in his head. He drove that car as far as he could, abandoning it when it finally broke down in the Sarasota Dairy Queen parking lot. Figuring he was south enough and encouraged by a few friendly faces, Lew decided to make his home there on Florida's southwest coast. He started to pick up a few jobs here and there. He doesn't make a lot, but he doesn't need a lot.
It's a simple life. Lew's biggest pleasure is watching old movies he buys on videotape at numerous flea markets and garage sales. He works out, but only enough to keep in shape. (He's not going to bench-press any Buicks anytime soon.) Sure, he's a little obsessed with memories of his beloved late wife, but he also realizes that obsession, and is trying to come to terms with his grief.
You can forget about Fonesca offering any finely detailed lists of exotic ales and fine wines quaffed, or gourmet cooking tips. His meal of choice usually consists of a burger and a shake at the DQ. He is, in fact, rather reminiscent of John Lutz's Alo Nudger, or perhaps Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman, two other excellent eyes whose toughness isn't necessarily of the physical kind, who choose to arm themselves with compassion and decency.
Not that Lew's a wuss, or anything. At one point, a potential client sneers at Lew's independent streak:
"Are you independently wealthy, Mr. Fonesca?"
"No, but I don't have to be wealthy to be independent," is Lew's curt reply. He may rent his services, but the man's not for sale.
Anyone familiar with Kaminsky's handful of short stories featuring Lew (two of which have been short-listed for Edgars) may recognize several plot elements in this novel. But relax: Kaminsky has tweaked and twisted them, so don't think you know what you're getting into. He sets up his plots, gets you comfy and then he takes you on a ride.
And Vengeance is quite a ride, as Lew tries to make sense of two different cases, from two very different sides of the tracks. First, he's hired by a frantic, divorced truck-stop waitress named Beryl Tree from Brisbane, Kansas, who's worried that her teenage daughter may have run away to Sarasota to be with her abusive father (Beryl's ex, a really nasty piece of work). Then, a well-known local real-estate entrepreneur, Carl Sebastian, offers Lew big bucks to find Melanie, his beautiful (and much younger) wife, who seems to be missing in action. The two cases unfold simultaneously, twisting and turning and eventually overlapping. And who's that chunky Italian guy with the gun who keeps following Lew all over town?
Kaminsky is probably best known for his 20-or-so books featuring 1940s low-rent Hollywood gumshoe Toby Peters, who has a habit of rubbing shoulders with the stars of Tinseltown's Golden Age. However, he's also the man behind the decidedly darker -- but no less entertaining -- series about beleaguered, one-legged Moscow cop Porfiry Rostnikov, and several books starring the equally put-upon Abe Lieberman, an aging Chicago police officer. On top of those, Kaminsky is responsible for a couple of non-series thrillers, several short stories, and a half-dozen-or-so non-fiction books about Hollywood. (Like Lew Fonesca, Kaminsky is a movie buff and ex-Illinois resident, now living in Sarasota). He's even penned two recent novels (The Green Bottle and Devil on My Doorstep) featuring Jim Rockford, the private eye created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell for their popular 1970s TV show, The Rockford Files.
Kaminsky's treatment of Rockford, one of television's most-beloved characters, was more than competent; it displayed a rare reverence for the original and actually added much depth. If the show itself was often played for laughs, or at least an occasional warm chuckle, Kaminsky's two novels were tinged with a bittersweet poignancy, as we were at last allowed a peek into Rockford's psyche.
It's that same sensitivity and world-weariness that Kaminsky now brings to his own detective. There's an inherent decency to both Jim and Lew, as well as a certain blue-collar matter-of-factness. Neither protagonist is in any real hurry to get physical. And, like Rockford, Fonesca's life is full of (and fulfilled by) some engaging characters. In fact, an underlying message of both series is the basic tenet that you've got to have friends.
Lew's motley crew includes Ames, the aforementioned scooter-riding septuagenarian; Flo, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed widow with a heart as big as Texas; Ann Horowicz, Ph.D., his 80-year-old sometimes-therapist, who trades history trivia for sessions, and takes a great deal of pleasure in telling Lew how screwed up he is; and Dave, the overly-educated, middle-aged manager of the Dairy Queen, who daydreams of sailing while dispensing burgers, chili dogs and ice cream. And, on the fringes lurks Sally, a possible love interest, a widow with two children of her own, who works for Children's Services. These aren't cartoon figures, but people with real (sometimes even painfully real) lives.
Not that Vengeance relies too heavily on the supporting cast, or even on the detective's love life. Those have become all-too-common practices in mysteries these days -- stacking the deck with a horde of obligatorily quirky recurring characters or some hackneyed romantic melodramatics, in order to distract readers from a weak or nonexistent plot, or just to pad out a flimsy book. Kaminsky's too good a writer to fall into that trap.
Alas, he isn't immune from another hoary, even older cliché: the revealing dream sequence, in which a lovingly detailed nocturnal vision points the detective to the big break in the case he's been looking for. This is one idea the author should have left on Freud's cutting-room floor.
Still, the guy's a pro. Forgive Kaminsky the dream stuff this once and watch a master at work. He knows what he's doing, managing to keep his story moving and the suspense mounting, even as he seemingly wanders all over the place, from case to case, character to character, from one tangent to another. Somehow Kaminsky brings it all home, wrapping up his story with a heart-thumping and satisfying, if not entirely happy, conclusion.
Maybe Lew Fonesca will never set the P.I. world ablaze, but if Stuart Kaminsky continues to deliver these solid, quietly passionate and consistently entertaining tales peopled with such well-drawn and intriguing characters, the home fires will be kept blazing for a long time to come. | September 1999
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 also thinks there's nothing wrong with novels that feature hirsuteness-challenged 40-somethings.