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Sick Like That

By Norman Green
Minotaur Books, 2010

The private eye, or private investigator, is the detective hero of a peculiarly American type of crime fiction that had its beginnings in the early 1920’s. Prohibition (1920-1933) engendered the rise of the gangster, a member of an organized group of criminals, for whom crime is a business, perpetrated for profit rather than the result of emotion. Aside: the term gangster was used originally in reference to politicians until about 1925 when the political usage became archaic, and the criminal usage part of the language. However, many believe the term remains appropriate for politicians to this day.

The private eye story came into its own in 1920, when George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken established Black Mask, the magazine that would pioneer the hard-boiled detective story. It published Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in five monthly installments. The complete novel was released in 1930. It is believed by many to be one of the finest private eye novels of all time, whose central character, Sam Spade, is an exemplar of the type. In 1939, Raymond Chandler added a new dimension to the genre with the creation in The Big Sleep, of his private eye Philip Marlowe. In contrast to Spade, who pursues his own interests as ruthlessly as those of his client, Marlowe is a man of high moral principle, altruistic, a blend of knight and father confessor.

Mystery buffs such as myself are devoted to that very twentieth century medium, film. In a masterful stroke of casting, Humphrey Bogart plays both Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Marlowe in The Big Sleep to the hilt. Rereading The Big Sleep, a delicious touch popped out: Spade touches his earlobe a lot—watch Bogey in the film and you’ll swear he read the novel. Even more wonderful is the initial exchange in the film between Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Bogart to you), and Bogey’s Marlowe:

“So you’re a private detective,” she said. “I didn’t know they really existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotels … What’s your first step?”

“The usual one … It’s on page 47 of How To Be a Detective complete with diagrams.”…

“I don’t see what there is to be cagey about and I don’t like your manners.”

“I’m not crazy about yours.”

You get the idea. The dialogue, true to the book, belies the chemistry between the stars that fairly leaps off the screen.

It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the female private eye came into her own. The newest incarnation, very 21st century, is Alessandra “Al” Martillo, a no-nonsense Puerto Rican P.I. In the eyes of her de facto partner, Sarah:

She looked at Alessandra, who was probably five or six years younger than her, maybe in her late twenties, taller, more meat and less fat, nicer butt, better looking if you went for the dark, moody, and maybe slightly psychotic type.

Al follows in the footsteps of other ornery, pathologically anti-social female characters like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory. (Unlike most of the female P.I.’s, Salander has recently been wonderfully captured on film, but that’s for another column.)

Norman Green; © Brian DeFiore

Sick Like That, the follow-up to Al Martillo’s debut, The Last Gig (2009), finds Al and Sarah Waters running the detective agency while their cantankerous boss Marty Stiles—“A pig with many useful skills”—recovers from gunshot wounds. After a few bumps, Al and Sarah, both street smart but from different streets, have learned to trust each other. Legally, they shouldn’t be in the P.I. business, because neither one has a license, but their ingenuity allows them to skate the issue. Just ask Al:

“Listen, if it comes to that, we’ll go hire a license, Marty ain’t the only dirtbag ex-cop in town.”

A well-to-do woman, Mrs. Thomas West, sits in their office her nicely manicured hands clenched in her lap. She is dying of cancer and wants to reconcile with her stepson Jake. He has been missing for a few years, having fled home after being suspected of killing his father. Turns out there is a lot more to the lady’s story than meets the proverbial eye. There’s her husband’s crooked partner (there’s always a crooked partner), and twenty-eight million dollars gone missing along with that partner.

The twenty-eight million dollar question is, what’s Mrs. West doing in their office? She’s got the accent of class. She should be in Lew Archer’s office. It’s Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case redux. All Al knows is that there’s gotta be a catch.

“Mrs. West, you obviously can afford any agency in town. Why us? Why Sarah and me?”

Something of a hawkish look came into Mrs. West’s eyes. “Caughlan,” she said, and showed her teeth in what was meant to be a grin. Daniel “Mickey” Caughlan was a former client, currently serving time for tax evasion. “I know his wife very well, we share the same tennis coach. I know how much you did for them…. Daniel Caughlan couldn’t have been an easy man to work for, yet you got the job done.”

No surprise, working for the mob has its points. If Sarah and Al can find the prodigal son, it would go a long way towards paying their bills.

While hard at work on the West case, Sarah’s deadbeat ex-husband Frank goes missing. Sarah hasn’t quite resolved their love/hate relationship. Something Al can identify with. She’s got her own unresolved boyfriend issues:

There was a guy.

He was TJ Conrad, a musician of some repute. He was a gifted guitar player, and he knew it. Mediocre piano, according to himself. He was smart, opinionated, fun, arrogant, moody, frequently unavailable, had the face of an ancient Bedouin tribesman and the emotional maturity of a thirteen-year-old delinquent.

She couldn’t quit thinking about him.

So Frank’s a cretin, but he’s Sarah’s cretin. And they have a young son. Plus, he’s got a new job with a wine importer, credentials spotless, actions suspicious. Very like Frank. He’s become a “person of interest” in the murder of a suspected terrorist. Against her better judgment, Al takes Frank’s case while insisting that Sarah butt out and go find Jake West. Along the way, Al finds herself trading quips and blows with a variety of thugs and law enforcement officials, from NYPD detectives to unnamed and unidentified Feds. It gives her a chance to display her show stopping martial arts skills.

Alessandra Martillo is a one-of-a kind combination of the tough and the tender. She approaches life with a smart-aleck zest that hides a deep vulnerability earned as a wild child on the streets. Sarah, her partner in crime prevention, as it were, is a terrific cohort. They’re a team to watch in a very special series.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. You can find all her “It’s a Mystery” reviews here.