In the latest novel from Bartley (Every Secret Thing, 2014, etc.), the moral and cynical gangster Ross Duncan hunts for a Chinese antique with a long history in storied San Francisco.
In September 1934, Duncan takes part in a bank robbery with some other New York gangland types, which goes smoothly—except for a double cross involving a man named Fingers Pete. Months later, Duncan winds up in San Francisco with some hot gems to fence and a score to settle with Fingers, a dangerous killer with a trademark .22-caliber pistol. When Duncan’s connection proposes a job involving a mysterious auction lot and a chance to get back at Fingers, he decides to investigate. The job starts with a mysterious question (“What do you think about immortality?”) that starts Duncan off on a quest to piece together the history of the artifact, from ancient China through Chinese immigration to San Francisco’s Mayor Adolf Sutro. In previous books, Duncan demonstrated a knack for getting into situations that involved delving into a lot of history: your average detective might investigate an unhappy marriage, but Duncan’s mysteries tend to involve larger historical forces as well. This installment demonstrates some surprising violence and some neat detection (as when Duncan notices a dust-free picture frame). However, he also spends a good amount of time listening to other characters’ history lessons. Duncan’s a fine guide to this world, however, with his mix of tenderness and coolness: when he finds the dying, innocent girl, for example, he comforts her in her last moments; when he finds the dead body of a less-innocent person, he notes that “He had everything except a pulse now.” Overall, though, as interesting as the history is, readers may wish that Duncan had a bit more to do.
An often entertaining novel featuring some humor and some mystery.