Another hard-boiled novel that doesn’t quite make it.
The narrative starts out with a far-from-unique premise. Lawyer Frank Milhet is in bed with a hooker, Jean Gaynor, and immediately after their hot encounter the cell phone of Milhet’s partner, Jack Slidell, goes off. After a brief and cryptic exchange, he heads out to the seedy motel where Milhet and Gaynor were having their tryst, only to discover Milhet dead and Gaynor in traumatic distress. It seems that in their sex-and-drugs encounter someone laced their coke with cyanide. When the cops arrive, they arrest Slidell because he’s on the scene and thus the only available suspect. From then on, Slidell’s life starts to head south—he loses his job at the law firm (no great loss) and of course decides to track down the killer. While Robert Flowers, Slidell’s former law partner, commiserates with him, Slidell himself snaps into action. His assistant in this quest is Caroline Wonder—blonde, blue-eyed and a “Dutch Knickbocker bluestocking,” in contrast to Slidell’s hardscrabble background. At first Caroline is icy and able to resist the cynical Slidell’s cold charm, but over the course of the novel things heat up between the two. Slidell is pursued by a thug he calls “The Cowboy,” a menacing presence whom we first meet when he skewers a motel clerk’s hand on a desk spike. Along the way more murders occur (including Robert’s), and Black continues adding to his stable of idiosyncratic and exaggerated characters. In addition to The Cowboy, who tries to kill Slidell as they both participate in a demolition derby, we have (on the good side) Mama Lucky, a helpful informant for Slidell and “the fattest woman Caroline had ever seen,” who seems to live on Jack Daniels. (Needless to say, Slidell’s drink of choice is bourbon.) The putative motivation for all the killing is, of all things, electrical pollution.
While the elements of the hard-boiled detective are here, it’s all rather predictable and ho-hum.