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THE RIVER RAT MURDERS by Frank L.  Gertcher

THE RIVER RAT MURDERS

by Frank L. Gertcher

Publisher: Self

A 1920s amateur detective and her mysterious partner investigate a string of killings in the Wabash Valley in Indiana in this novel.

Caroline Case has been on her own since age 16. She worked her “way up ... through dim dance halls, road houses, tavern back rooms and later, a rather elaborate houseboat on the Wabash.” By 24, she had earned enough money to purchase the houseboat, which is now the home and base of operations for “Madame Caroline” and her four “girls.” On July 1, 1921, the 20-something Caroline is sitting on her aft deck and spots a partially submerged body by the beached boat of her friend Alec Feleovich. She and Susie, one of her girls, run over and discover old Alec, the side of his head crushed in. Alec had been a fisherman and a trapper until Prohibition led him to the more lucrative career of running his own still and bootlegging. The medical examiner rules Alec’s death accidental. Caroline knows it was murder, and she begins gathering evidence. Although she has always worked outside the law, this new avocation puts her in serious danger. Fortunately, she has help from the enigmatic Hannibal Jones, a handsome stranger who appears just after Alec’s death. Gertcher’s (The Dark Cabin Murders, 2018, etc.) carefully crafted prose, presented as Caroline’s diary, tracks the pair’s investigation of five murders that occur between 1921 and 1928. As the charming narrator of this tale, the delightfully quirky Caroline is developed into a fully defined character who shares her keen, professionally honed understanding of human behavior as well as her enjoyable, frequent mental asides. Hannibal is far less knowable; his background is revealed slowly and only partially as the narrative progresses. The author skillfully alternates action scenes depicting violence and political/police corruption spilling into the Wabash from the Chicago gang wars with his focus on the gently evolving relationship between Caroline and Hannibal. Detailed descriptions of developments in forensic techniques and equipment add a historical bonus. The story hints at a sequel.

Surprisingly and pleasantly lighthearted for a tale involving prostitution, bootlegging, and murder.