A trigger-happy, Chandler-esque gangster story set in 1930s Chicago.
Bank robber Ross Duncan is wanted by the FBI. Looking for his late partner’s little sister in Chicago, Duncan suddenly finds himself being courted as a hired gun by both the Italian and the Irish mobs. He has ample opportunity to demonstrate his skill with a .45, and his dialogue has Philip Marlowe’s steely wit. But unlike Marlowe’s outings, this debut novel, the first of a projected series, is less sure of its protagonist’s moral compass and intentions. The Irish want Duncan to bump off an Italian mob captain, while the Italians want him as extra muscle on a poorly planned bank job. Eventually, both syndicates want him to rub out Chicago’s new, incorruptible federal prosecutor. Meanwhile, Duncan tracks down Elinore, the long-lost little sister, but she turns out to be a laudanum addict and the girlfriend of the head of the Irish mob. Bartley mixes up a stiff noir cocktail: sharp dialogue, shadowy settings, and severe, coldblooded violence. Unfortunately, up until a multichapter flashback two-thirds of the way through the story, Duncan is such a man of mystery that the heart of the book feels empty. He also seems starved for female companionship; Elinore initially slinks into the story like a femme fatale, but she elicits so many conflicting impulses from Duncan that their relationship ends up feeling tame and lifeless. A faint human connection with his widowed landlady and her young son similarly goes nowhere. Yet the outstanding final set piece, a tensely rendered raid on a federal office, nearly makes up for the holey story. The prose can sparkle, the atmosphere is there, period details are pitch-perfect, and the action scenes are executed with verve; hopefully, as the series progresses, Duncan will be inspired by his excellently rendered environment.
A striking start to a series with solid action and arresting details but saddled with a bland hero.