Monday, July 23, 2012

Dancing on Graves is Good PI Fun

Dancing on Graves
Jack Clark
Createspace, 217 p.
Trade paper $13.95, Kindle 4.99

Of the major awards for genre fiction, at least among the ones I pay attention to, the Shamus Awards (given by the Private Eye Writers of America) are pretty close to the top of the list.  So if a book's cover says that the author is a Shamus Award Finalist, I pay attention.  And when a Shamus Award Finalist emails me to ask if I he can send me a couple of his books to review, do you think I'm going to be open to that idea?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Does a bear...never mind.

Now I realize that the focus of this blog is primarily heroic fantasy and historical adventure and the focus of my other blog, Futures Past and Present, is science fiction in all its forms.  Granted there's been little historical fiction in recent months, and I don't update the science fiction blog very often.  That's because this one keeps me busy enough.  So busy that I find I have very little time left for the other two closely related genres that I really love, noir  and private investigator fiction.  There are times when this drives me nuts because that's what I'm in the mood for.  I've decided to occasionally include some noir or PI novels in my reviews, just to preserve my own sanity.  Not a lot of them, but every once in a while, maybe once very four to six weeks.  I know some of the people who read these posts on a regular basis are also noir/PI fans, so I don't think I'm completely deserting my audience by this move.

Jack Clark's Nobody's Angel was one of the first books I reviewed here, before I really hit my stride.  It was top notch.  Dancing on Graves is, too, and it's the first of two books Mr. Clark kindly sent me that I'll be reviewing, and for which I would like to thank him.

There was a question on someone's blog the other day, I think James Reasoner's but I'm too lazy to look it up, asking how many ongoing PI series were left.  Other than Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker and Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective, there weren't too many names suggested.  A few others, but not many.  The Nick Acropolis series by Jack Clark can be added to that list. 

Acropolis is a former cop who left the force approximately ten years prior to this novel under conditions that were not of his choosing.  That plays some role in the plot. 

Back in 1981, when Acropolis was a homicide detective, a young law student named Katherine Traynor was brutally murdered in a Chicago park.  The man arrested for the killing, Billy Mansfield, ran out of the park and was hit by a taxi.  He claimed he couldn't remember what happened prior to his being struck by the vehicle.  He was also covered in blood.  It was an open and shut, slam dunk case, with little to no investigation done.

This was in the days before forensics.  Billy Mansfield has been on death row for about 22 years, placing the events of the novel in 2003 or early 2004 if I caught all the dates and numbers correctly.  Acropolis, now a private detective, is approached by a group that's trying to clear death row cases.  They manage to convince Acropolis that there is a possibility that Mansfield might be innocent.

So he agrees to help them look into the case, although he doesn't think it will go anywhere.  If you've read even a little detective fiction, you can make an educated guess just how wrong he's going to be. 

In good detective fiction, you don't know what's going on but you think you do.  This should be true of the reader as well as the detective.  Only as you get deeper into the book should little things not add up, creating a sense of frisson, and the further you read, the more secrets start to open up like layers in an onion.  That's exactly what happens here.  This is one of those books that rewards patience, when about halfway through you start to discover that you really don't know what's going on after all, that there are currents at work dark and deep and ready to suck you under.

This was a good PI novel, a fine addition to what has gone before in the genre.  If you like this sort of thing, and I know some of you do, Jack Clark is someone to check out.

Now, lest some of you think I'm giving Mr. Clark a pass because he sent me free books, let me address a couple of negatives.  First, the layout/formatting/whatever.  I've never dealt with Createspace, so I don't know how difficult this part is.  There were numerous places where the top and bottom margins were off, mostly the bottom, with the text ending before the bottom of the page.  This had the effect of making me think I was at the end of the chapter (they're short for the most part) only to find I wasn't.  Was this annoying?  Yes.  Was I able to get used to it?  Yes, after a bit.  Did I let it stop me from enjoying the novel?  Is a bear Catholic?  Does the Pope...never mind.

The second was a factual detail.  At one point, Acropolis makes a reference to Pluto no longer being classified as a planet.  I don't remember the context, or even what part of the book it was in other than it was in the first half or so.  Why is this a big deal?  Because in my offline life, I'm a science geek, that's why.  This novel takes place in 2003 or so, and Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.  That type of little detail is the sort of thing that can bug me.  It's not a big deal, and certainly not essential to the story, but it stuck out in my mind.

One other thing, and it's not a negative really, but something you should be aware of.  Many of the great PI series take place in large cities where the city itself is to some extent a character and the detective's interaction with the city becomes part of the attraction of the series.  Amos Walker in Detroit.  Phillip Marlow in Los Angeles.  The Continental Op and the Nameless Detective in San Francisco.  Matthew Scudder in New York.  John Francis Cuddy in Boston.  I could go on.  Jack Clark is a Chicago cab driver, and the city is very much a central part of the book.  Never having had an opportunity to visit Chicago (a three hour layover in the airport doesn't count), many of the references were lost on me.  I could have looked some things up on the internet, but we've already discussed my laziness.  Besides, I was more interested in finding out who killed Katherine Traynor.  If you've not been to Chicago, you might not fully appreciate the aspect of how the city had changed over Acropolis' lifetime.  Even not having seen some of the places mentioned, Clark still managed to make me feel the sense of loss Acropolis experienced as he moved through a city that was no longer the one he grew up in.  It was powerful writing in places and made Acropolis more than just another gumshoe.

While there were some negatives to this book, the positives far outweighed them.  The other novel is Highway Side, also an Acropolis novel.  I'll review it here when I've cleared some other commitments.  I'm looking forward to it. 


  1. I have two good friends, Candy Proctor and Laura Joh Rowland, who write historical mystery series. Laura's is in old Japan while Candy's is in England. candy writes under the name C. S. Harris for her series.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I'll look them up. I've noticed a number of historical mystery series but haven't had a chance to read any other than some of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January, set in pre-Civil War New Orleans. There's at least one series set in Imperial Rome and another that features the Knights Templar. Those types of series are on the radar but I've not cleared the queue enough to get to any of them.

  2. Always good to get off-your-usual-genre for a read or two. I used to do that via audiobooks when my commute was longer. I did mysteries, historicals, the Harry Potter series, some Stephen King, some Bradbury, etc.

    1. I used to read across a wide variety of genres, but since I started blogging I've mostly read fantasy. I'm trying to figure out a way to maximize my time for reading, blogging, and my own fiction, especially my fiction.