In his third time out (Pretty Ballerina, 1998, etc.), Harding, a p.i. without portfolio—he lost his license in the aftermath of a morally, though not legally, justified act of manslaughter—starts with what looks like a no-brainer: Flaky Charles Muller has gone missing on his wedding day, and Harding is charged with finding him. That’s because Charles’s intended Beth Reinhardt and Harding’s lover are longtime buds, and Alison’s wish is ever Harding’s command. But it turns out that the Chicago cops are also interested in Charles’s whereabouts. They want to talk to him about the murder of a young drug-dealer who may or may not have been Charles’s connection and about a young novelist who may or may not have been busy Charles’s girlfriend. By now, Harding has realized that what appeared a simple cold-footed groom is a lot closer to oh-what-a-tangled-web, and that whatever the messy thing really is, his beloved Alison is smack in the middle of it. So are a mixed bag of amoral types who as undergrads dwelt in a University of Chicago dorm called Grand Terrace along with Alison; Charles; Tracy Lawrence, the murdered girl who may or may not have been Alison’s lover; and a variety of others who give new life to the metaphor “hotbed of ambiguity.” Harding does his best to unsnarl them all, though a tangle or two remains at novel’s end.
The strength here is in the writing, not the plotting, which can sometimes spawn curlicues that run amok. But then that was true of Chandler, too.