In Bartley’s (To Catch is Not to Hold, 2013, etc.) latest hard-boiled thriller, former bank robber Ross Duncan, commissioned to locate a wayward granddaughter, exposes blackmail and prostitution in 1934 New York.
Coming highly recommended by Chicago gangsters, Duncan is hired by Col. Bennett, an aging war veteran, after someone asking for a payoff sends the colonel a compromising photo of his granddaughter, Veronica. Her blackmailing of married men is just the start of Duncan’s investigation, which is hindered by an open contract on him. But who wants him dead? The fifth book in Bartley’s ongoing series boasts a film-noir feel, more so than the previous novels: Every female character, particularly Veronica, is an untrustworthy femme fatale; Duncan gets roughed up by heavies, and though he’s never slipped a Mickey, he’s otherwise rendered unconscious. Despite saying he’s “something else altogether” when asked if he’s a detective, Duncan does, in fact, play the part of the gumshoe. Bartley relies on previous books in the series to define Duncan; readers familiar with the series will understand Duncan’s personal desire to help the redemption-seeking Bennett. For new readers, amid the mostly superficial references to earlier stories, Duncan will come across as a stoic, hardened man. Most of the supporting characters making a first appearance in the series have plenty of personality, too, including Remo Marsden, a two-bit hoodlum who seems to have genuine affection for Veronica; and Nancy Presser, a woman who remains hopeful even in the clutches of drug addiction and prostitution. Welcome trademarks of the series pop up throughout: a good amount of action (gangsters are trying to kill Duncan, after all); Duncan’s Bible at his side; and keen dialogue, as when Duncan, reminded that he’ll die someday, says matter-of-factly, “I have things to do first.” But the story, despite being refreshingly complex with an endless stream of suspects and red herrings, seems like it could have been told with anyone in the lead, not necessarily Duncan.
Adds little to the Ross Duncan series, but as a self-contained mystery, it’s a knockout.