Reading an Ed Gorman mystery is like sipping beer in a quiet bar with a good buddy while he tells you about his latest adventure.
Thus far I've enjoyed the adventures of three such Gorman buddies. My wife introduced me to Ed Gorman's writing with the Father's Day gift of a Sam McCain novel in 2005. The title, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, turned out to be ironic, as she and I, despite her inscription answering Carole King's musical question in the affirmative, are no longer together.
But my relationship with Gorman is still going strong. I've read all ten Sam McCain nostalgia mysteries and all five Dev Conrad political mysteries. I've read his debut novel, Rough Cut, which one publisher mistakenly says is the first Jack Dwyer mystery. It's not, technically, although the narrator's voice does sound awfully familiar. First of the four official Jack Dwyers is New Improved Murder. I'm here to talk about the second, Murder Straight Up.
This adventure starts off on the wrong foot. Dwyer is working the night shift as a security guard at KLRD-TV, Channel 3. He's on the second floor making his rounds when his flashlight dies. Suddenly he's groping blindly and bumping his knees in a room that's “slightly darker...than in Richard Nixon’s mind.” I include the quote as a sample of Gorman's humor and political proclivity—a fair warning for Trump chumps to jump off now or strap in for the ride. There are more bumps ahead.
It's not a bump that sends Dwyer's heart a'thumping, however, but a scrape against an uncarpeted section of flooring “somewhere to my right.”
Several heavy heartbeats later the chase is on. In the dark. The perp gets away, down a fire escape into the rainy fog. Dwyer curses, notifies the police, notifies the security agency that employs him, and notifies the TV station's building manager. Then he takes a break.
He's in the station's coffee room eating a Ho-Ho, drinking a Pepsi and flirting with Kelly Ford, Channel 3's news consultant, when suddenly Ford says, “Straight up.” This means it's ten o'clock. The night news show is about to begin. The two of them turn to the monitor to watch it live. It is then, immediately following the opening sequence as the number two camera fixes on news anchor David Curtis, that Dwyer and Ford see the anchor get an odd look on his face. He grabs at his throat, mouth foaming, stands up, and then collapses face down across his desk. Dead.
No doubt it's murder. Some at the station hold Dwyer responsible. A plumber had left the rear door unlocked, but Dwyer should have caught it. Knowing his job is at stake he turns detective. His digging turns up the prowler's identity, a troubled teen with a possible motive. Police arrest and charge the teen, but Dwyer believes he didn't do it. There are too many other plausible suspects, most of them Curtis's colleagues at Channel 3.
Dwyer's not your typical rent-a-cop with delusions of grandeur. He was a cop, for real, a job he left to try his hand as an actor. His night job buys groceries and pays the rent. The acting? Well, let's just say our boy is still preparing for his breakout role. He auditions days and lands the occasional commercial job.
He's the most human of any detective I've seen in crime fiction. He talks like I do, using language assuredly inappropriate here, but fine for a novel. I would have to use a lot of ***s and @#$%&%$#@s to give you excerpts from Murder Straight Up. During a car chase, for example, Dwyer complains that his bladder is causing him a certain anxiety.
Here's a partial from that scene I can give you without the euphemistic symbols: I had the terrible uncomfortable feeling that I was going to wet my pants, and I was shaking so bad from nerves that even the soles of my feet were wet. Human.
Here he is consoling a burly truck driver upset over a fatal accident he believes was his fault: “Goddammit, he’s f**kin’ dead!” the driver said. He was obviously a good man, and this was all bullshit he didn’t deserve. “It’ll be all right. You weren’t responsible in any way. All right?” “He’s f**kin’ dead?” This is not an uncommon reaction at traffic accidents. Shock and guilt. We’re a lot more fragile than the macho boys let on. I patted him on the shoulder again. I didn’t know what else to do. The siren was drawing nearer.
There is some fine humor in Murder Straight Up, as there is in most of Gorman's stuff I have read. I laughed so hard reading one scene I worried the neighbors might call 911. A couple of killers attack Dwyer on the rooftop balcony of a building where he has an “acting” job reading promotional hype at a gun show. A team of survivalists from the show arrives to “rescue” him. Shots are fired. Many shots. Eventually many police arrive. The ensuing conversation between the police commander and the gun show manager...well, I don't want to give anything away here. But if it doesn't make you laugh you sure as hell could use another beer.