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Book Review: Infernal Angels

A hard-boiled detective uses his hard-earned experience to solve a Motor City mystery

Infernal Angels book cover by by Loren D. Estleman

Amos Walker can’t catch a break. With a bum leg, a burglary case going south and a local cop eager to throw him in the pokey, the old-school private eye has recently seen his skill set narrowed to his ever-ready supply of smokes, Vicodin and well-placed verbal barbs.

But in the sort of strange dynamic that may explain our continuing fascination with noir, the gloomier things look for Walker, the more the reader delights in their recounting.

Infernal Angels is the 21st entry in a series of stylish and gripping mysteries by the seasoned-but-still-relatively-unknown Michigan author Loren D. Estleman. The canvas is the streets of Detroit, and the picture Estleman paints isn’t pretty: abandoned buildings, burned-out houses, drugs sold on the street, robberies at corner stores, corruption in the political arena. A perfect landscape, in short, for a contemporary hard-boiled mystery.

You know what type of ride you’re in for from the first page, where we find Walker describing a recurring nightmare:

For a week I’d been chasing a car with a car chasing me, and then … we all smashed up with me in the middle. I heard rubber howl and metal scream and the squishy crunch of bones breaking and when I woke up I tasted blood.

Like Estleman, who pecks out his books on a 1967 Olympia manual typewriter, Walker is wa-a-ay low-tech. At one point, the middle-aged P.I. turns on his cell phone and draws its antenna out with his teeth. (When was the last time you saw a cell phone with a retractable antenna?!) Thankfully, he’s buddies with investigative journalist Barry Stackpole, who uses his computer-hacking skills to help Walker cyber-stalk — and ultimately track down — the bad guys.

Walker is being paid to catch the guilty party in a seemingly innocuous case of stolen converter boxes. Not precious jewels, not priceless Picassos, not stacks of cold, hard cash: digital converter boxes that let people watch good old broadcast television on their outmoded analog sets.

But there’s more to those boxes than anyone guesses, at least at first. Before Walker can down another shot of Scotch, junkies start dropping dead from overdoses of high-quality heroin. (Other people involved in the case start dying, too, prompting Walker to observe, “Once you’d made the decision to live on the dark side of the moon, all your friends were infernal angels at best.”) Are the converter boxes being used to smuggle dope? Who could have masterminded such a scheme? And why is it happening in Detroit, of all places?

Suddenly the P.I. is embroiled in a case of interest not only to the local cops but to the Feds as well. The lone bright spot is that his investigation brings Walker into contact with an old friend: smart, lovely Deputy U.S. Marshal Mary Ann Thaler, formerly of the Detroit Police Department and now a federal agent. If Estleman engineered their “chance” encounter to give the pair an opportunity for flirty badinage, he chose wisely:

“I hate a man who chews ice,” Thaler informs Walker. “If you ever wondered why we never hooked up, that’s reason three hundred and ninety-nine.”

Counters Walker: “I thought I was the one playing hard to get.”

To his credit, Loren Estleman has allowed Amos Walker to age (though more slowly than in real life) from his first appearance, as an energetic 32-year-old, in Motor City Blue (1980). Now somewhere north of 50, Walker may have lost half a step, but that doesn’t stop him from bashing in front doors with his old abandon. They fly off their hinges to reveal such colorfully quirky characters as fence Johnny Toledo and rap artist Bud Lite.

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