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Book Review: Infernal Angels

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

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.

The real star of the hunt for the converter-box con artist, of course, is Amos Walker himself. It’s fun to follow him around Motown in his vintage muscle car (a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass), sometimes blundering, occasionally getting beat up, always antagonizing whoever gives him lip. In the process Walker blurts out a boatload of comebacks and one-liners, all neatly balanced by the author so as not to cloy — or clog the action. Watch Walker handle a shopkeeper wary of telling him the name of a suspicious neighborhood kid:

Her smile grew doubtful. “Are you with the police?”

“I’m not against them.”

Explaining one of the many occupational health hazards of his line of work, Walker remarks: The leg always lets me know when a solstice is coming. If you’d rather get that from a calendar, duck the next time someone shoots at you.”

And here’s Walker debating whether to divulge certain case details to some Detroit cops: “I made a mental note to tip them off the next time I was near an anonymous pay phone, right after they tracked one down and told me where it was.” Walker’s disinclination to help out the local cops stems from some prior run-ins with a Lieutenant Hornet, who would like nothing better than to run Walker in for meddling in official police business.

Endurance and perseverance have been hallmarks of Estleman’s long writing career. He has crafted more than 65 novels since 1976, picking up four Shamus Awards for his mysteries and short stories (and eight awards for his Westerns) along the way. His latest Amos Walker caper reinforces Estleman’s skill at original plotting and lively dialogue, but it’s his crusty protagonist who leaves you longing for more.