There were at least 2,341 other things I wanted to be doing that December morning. Tramping around a dirty alley in fifteen-below temperature was not one of them. The alley lay behind the Avanti, the sort of chic restaurant where BMWs just naturally go of their own volition, not unlike homing pigeons, and where a mid-westerner like myself can pronounce no more than three of the items on the menu.
Had I heard this at a reading of A Cry of Shadows I just might have jumped to my feet and shouted BRAVO!, clapping maniacally and perhaps even stamping my feet in astonished admiration. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration of my enthusiasm for the novel's first paragraph despite it's being one of the—if not the—very best ever written. And if the reader were willing, I would be there in the front row rapt and goggle-eyed hearing the entire novel.
In retrospect of my reading of the novel I would do Prometheus Hall of Fame author F. Paul Wilson one better when he predicted of the book’s 1990 debut, “A Cry of Shadows will touch you as deeply as anything you'll read this year.” Read yesterday for the second time since then, it touched me as deeply as anything I've read in recent memory.
Maybe Wilson suspected somehow what I now know, something that takes me to a level of poignancy and mystery deeper even than the sublime excellence of the novel itself, that it would be Ed Gorman’s final tale featuring cop-cum-P.I./actor Jack Dwyer. Without a whisper of warning Gorman moved on to other crime series, abandoning Dwyer after his fifth outing.
On second thought maybe Jack Dwyer moved on, too, accompanying his creator into the ten-book Sam McCain series. As an actor Dwyer, with a little makeup, likely would have little trouble slipping into the role of the young, big-hearted lawyer/P.I. who makes his living in Black River Falls, Iowa, where he grew up and where more murders occur per capita than in Chicago or New York City—all of them solved, of course, by the intrepid McCain. Dwyer, in fact, grew up in an unnamed town quite similar to Black River Falls, as we learn in his penultimate adventure (as Dwyer), The Autumn Dead.
I daresay there’s yet another clue to Dwyer’s evolution, in yet another novel—Gorman’s debut, Rough Cut, which one publisher mistakenly labels the first Jack Dwyer mystery. This is understandable, as the protagonist, Michael Ketchum, is clearly Jack Dwyer trapped in an advertising executive's body, which Gorman evidently recognized at some point, releasing him to be himself in the subsequent Dwyer/McCain novels. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that Dwyer also portrayed Dev Conrad in a later series about a political operative with scruples and a humane soul in addition to the requisite dog-eat-dog savvy.
The fact that Ed Gorman’s background included advertising and political speechwriting, and, despite the cut-throat reputation of both fields was deemed by all who knew him even peripherally as a friendly, kindly man, gives us an insight to the true incarnation of these fictional characters. In the very next paragraph, the novel’s second, where Jack Dwyer describes the tawdry rear of the fancy restaurant his agency’s been hired to check out for possible security flaws, he finds a tiny kitten where dogs and cats are scrounging for food among the Dumpsters and garbage cans this freezing night. He picks her up and puts her in his overcoat pocket “so she could get warm for at least a while,” he tells us.
“Even beneath my lined gloves I could feel her frail ribs tremble with cold. I carried her around and every once in a while she’d poke her head up and look at me with those sweet little eyes, but then she started clawing in such a way that I thought she might need to pee. So 1 set her down and damned if she didn’t immediately lift her cute little tail and make a small clump of snow corn yellow. Then she bounded off and I wondered if I maybe shouldn’t have taken her home.”
In the same paragraph, he sheds enough more light on his character to avert our mistaking him for a spinster cat lady in disguise. He tells us “the woman I see” had been gone a week on a skiing trip (with people from an advertising agency—aha!) “and I was in need of company...In some peculiar way, I felt jilted by the kitty, which should tell you something about the state of my self-esteem.”
Although the kitten shows up again in this story, Dwyer wastes no time pining for her, at least not after he meets one of the restaurant’s bartenders: “She had intelligent brown eyes and a sad sweet face. There was an air of irony about her, as if she had seen enough to know that little of it was worth any personal grief. She carried an extra fifteen pounds with erotic elegance. In her white blouse and black slacks, she looked newly showered and fresh. She had radiant, thick dark hair that tumbled to frail shoulders. She smelled wonderful.” Uh huh.
While I missed this when I first read A Cry of Shadows, for good reason, as the political landscape was a tad different back then, this time I couldn’t avoid the astonishing irony of one of the central characters—Richard Coburn, one of the restaurant’s owners. In the 1990 novel he’s described as a blond, oversized, obnoxious bully:
“He was a big, violent child who was almost psychotic about getting his own way. He had very specific goals and they mostly had to do with money and power and he didn’t let anything stop him from reaching those goals...I kept thinking of him as Jay Gatsby, the poor boy trying so uselessly to be something he was not and never could be, destroyed ultimately not by the mendacity of others but by his own self-indulgent naïveté.”
“It was approval. That’s what he wanted,” one of Coburn’s many sexual conquests tells Dwyer. “I mean, I don’t think he suffered from satyriasis or anything. But he did need approval. From men he got envy. He took pleasure in taking things away from them— their money or their businesses or their women.”
A male acquaintance told him, “Whenever Richard got real low, he’d start hitting on the women really hard. He liked his booze but nothing seemed to work for his self-esteem like women.”
Prescient, maybe? One might dream, but in real time more likely just archetypal.
Coburn had hired Dwyer’s agency because he suspected some undefined trouble at the restaurant. Soon after Dwyer’s inspection, Coburn is found shot to death in his car outside the place. The immediate suspect is a young black busboy Coburn had lashed out at in Dwyer’s presence for tracking mud on the ballroom floor. Dwyer, who doesn’t believe the busboy did it, has plenty of suspects to investigate, including homeless people who hang around outside scrounging for food like the dogs and cats and harassing customers near the entrance. Coburn’s three bouncers helped him intimidate these people and run them off. Many of the homeless have mental problems and live at a nearby former church, now run as a shelter.
“We walked ten yards into the darkness,” Dwyer says, “it was like being banished from Eden, the rich warm restaurant light receding, receding—and in the gloom I began seeing them, the ragged gray forms of the homeless staring at us, filthy faces and mad eyes.
Problems this intimate proximity of luxury and poverty create seem eerily allegorical to the society at large. Dwyer muses on the disparity now and again from a dispassionate viewpoint, more realistic than ideological. “I was at least as much a snob about rich people as rich people were about working people,” he tells us. “From my years as a policeman, I’d learned that malice and evil come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and social levels. It’s tidy to divide the world into the evil rich and the noble poor but it doesn’t work that way.”
As a mystery I found A Cry of Shadows to be the most artistically clever and baffling I have read, perhaps ever. The ending pulled my jaw down in utter aghast amazement. The larger mystery, of why Jack Dwyer vanished from the Gorman canon can no longer be solved, as we lost Mr. Gorman himself last year. But the legacy he left us of his deeply human characters and their gripping, haunting stories will be with us as long as people have the ability and the will to read. For me A Cry of Shadows sits atop that sumptuous list.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]