Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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Retro cover
Retro, by Loren Estleman
St Martin’s Press £5.99 pbk , ISBN 0765343738

Amos Walker has been around a long time.  Motor City Blue appeared in 1980, and 24 years later, Retro became the 17th novel, and 18th book in the series.  Another, Nicotine Kiss, has since been published in hardback in the USA this year.  Walker was part of the golden age of private eye revivals, which perhaps began with Robert Parker and included Roger Simon, Jonathan Valin, Michael Z Lewin, Stephen Greenleaf, and many many more.  What distinguished Walker was the setting, a very hard Detroit, and the tone, which was very much that of a working man doing his job.  The job of private eye is not a glamorous one, nor is it the kind of thing whose skills can be learned ay university.  Amos Walker has always been a six-pack of beer and working class kind of guy, working among cops who are the same.  You might say only crime and lawyers truly transcend the class divide, even in America.

    Loren Estleman is a prolific writer, perhaps the heir to another Detroiter, Elmore Leonard, for the way he has succeeded in keeping his hand in the western genre.  His Page Murdock series, like the Walker books, seems well attuned to the realities of the social settings of its time.  Even better, he has done a number of stand-alone westerns which have been well-crafted, mood pieces.  The Master Executioner (2001) carries a real emotional impact, and would not be out of place on anyone’s list of the best crime novels of that year.

     Amos Walker is also unique in that he is aging, if not completely accurately, as least gracefully, and Retro is in some ways an indulgence of that.  Aging is a problem with any prolific series.  Parker ‘solved’it by aging Spencer and Hawk in dog years, while aging Spencer’s dog Pearl in human years.   But the Walker of Retro is someone who’s been around long enough to understand the retro elements of the crime, been around long enough to perhaps wonder where his career has led, and is leading him to.  In Retro, Walker is hired to find the long-lost adopted son of a dying Detroit madam, one of those last relics of the golden age of old-time Detroit.  Walker finds the son, who’s been living in Toronto since dodging the draft and the FBI in the sixties.  He delivers the mother’s ashes to the boy, and thinks his job is over.  The boy knows who his real father was, a black boxer who was a lightweight contender when he was shot dead, and he wants Walker to investigate that unsolved murder.

     Then the son turns up dead in a Detroit airport hotel, where Walker just happens to have had a meeting scheduled.  You can fill in the rest from there, but you won’t do as good as job as Estleman does, blending a fifty-year old crime with a recent one.  The sons of gangsters and the mothers of sixties radicals who blew themselves up all figure in, as does the racial effrontery of boxer Curtis Smallwood.  The sins of the past come back to haunt us today, and Walker, who may have seen much of it, and remembers much of what he didn’t see, copes with it through sheer persistence and that kind of working ethos which often seems to have vanished with fedoras for men and gloves for ladies. 

    Estleman is endlessly inventive with the familiar elements of the private eye genre, but he’s also more persistently realistic than most writers.  His books deserve more attention, indeed, to be in print, in this country. And don’t worry about going back to 1980, Retro is as good a place as any to start.



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