In his third outing (Trouble Comes Back, 1999, etc.), Jason Keltner, musician, makes it clearer than ever that he’s also Jason Keltner, wannabe warrior whose bible is his treasured copy of The Night Men, a pulp fiction novel in which Tom Carter—p.i., latter-day knight-errant, and authentic hard guy—takes a bare-knuckles approach to moral ambiguity that Jason would love to emulate, if only he had the same bare knuckles. But Jason’s no quitter. When the call for help comes in from his friend Zeb, proprietor of the Magic Music Shop, he rushes out instantly even though it’s the dead of an icy winter night, the Brooklyn Bridge is treacherous even for a foot crossing, and there’s nothing he can do to reverse the no-holds-barred vandalizing that has reduced Zeb’s shop to rubble. Is the trashing the mindless, homophobic hate crime that at first glance it seems? Or is it somehow uglier and more complex? Truly, it’s a case for intrepid Tom, whose motto, incidentally, is the unabashedly chivalric “when you can’t save yourself, save someone else.” Driven by healthy dollops from The Night Men, the story moves back and forth in time as Jason chases the answers. Tom’s terrific, sure, but flawed, floundering Jason is infinitely more likable.
Though billed as “A Jason Keltner mystery,” it’s not much more than mystery lite. Instead, it’s really a belated coming-of-age story—Jason’s 30-something—that’s frequently funny and at times surprisingly moving.