The Snake Tatoo
One of the things I like to tell myself about the years I spent learning I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer is that I learned the value of efficiency. Now, it strikes me that I’ve been confusing efficiency with economy. That’s no surprise. Given a choice, I almost always opt for the fuzzier alternative.
Here I revisited a book I’d read when it was first published. Re-reading is a sore subject with me since the stacks of unread books are in danger of being named a fire hazard. But I’d enjoyed a number of books in this series before it evaporated and wanted to see if I’d been wrong.
Importantly, I was also offered a chance to turn answering that question into a full-blown experiment. A colleague had repeatedly told me that she downloaded books–mostly mysteries–to her phone so she was never caught in a line without something to read. Maybe that was the key to making this new-fangled way of reading work. When this book was offered as a download at 99 cents I decided to see and took the plunge. See, economical even in experimentation.
Like anyone crafting a mystery series, Barnes has a hero. Carlotta Carlyle is not, it’s safe to say, cut from the same cloth as other female detectives. Oh, there are similarities. Like Kinsey Milhone she was once a cop. Carlotta can, at times, attract misfortune, although nothing on the scale of Stephanie Plum. And like Evanovich‘s and Grafton‘s heroes, her stories–procedurals, in fact–are told in the first person. To round out the supporting players, there’s a never-present ex-husband. A crazy tenant/housemate. Some cop friends and a ‘little sister’ named Paolina who serves as an outlet for maternal affection.
What’s so different about that? Nothing, yet. Here’s what’s different about Carlotta. Raised in Detroit, she’s currently living in Cambridge, Mass. in a furnished house she inherited from her aunt, Red Emma. Carlotta regularly quotes her mother and grandmother’s Yiddish and provides translations, though her mother married a Catholic which just amps up the guilt. She’s in her early 30s, has a head of massive red curls, stands 6 foot 2 and plays bottleneck blues guitar.
You can see the attraction, right? I’m virtually certain that the blues angle reflects a genuine glimpse of our author. It would be easy–and given Carlotta’s physical description understandable–to mention Bonnie Raitt. So she does. It’s the inclusion of Willie Brown, Rory Block and Chris Smither that give the game away. Bonnie Raitt has hits. Her old Club 47 friends, Chris and Rory, play for the deep cognoscenti. Naming the foundational players, like Brown, is akin to quoting the Pentateuch. You don’t just look this stuff up and drop it in for color. I wonder if Barnes plays.
Carlotta does. She also sometimes drives a cab. The PI business, it seems, is hard to get up and running consistently. As with Milhone, there are more retainer agreements signed, checks handed over and bills collected than in many a mystery with a male hero. There’s probably a dissertation lurking there, although I do recall Hammett‘s detectives making busy with the paperwork. The cab company is co-owned by Sam Gianelli, the son of a local Mob boss who may or may not be making it on his own in the family industry. He’s Carlotta’s Kryptonite, reducing her to puddles of sweat and desire, sometimes just by entering the room.
It would be fair to observe that I’ve prattled on for quite a bit without even mentioning a crime. There is one, trust me. Actually, there are two. But they’re almost incidental. In some series–the Harry Bosch books, Grafton’s–solving the crime is the name of the game. In others–the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, the Plum tales, much of Carl Hiassen–the incidentals matter more than the offense. It’s like spending time with people whose company you actually enjoy.
Oh, the crime. At the outset, Lt. Mooney, a veteran Boston cop and Carlotta’s former boss, comes calling. He’s in a fix and needs her help locating a witness who can exonerate him. Otherwise, his career will go up in smoke, a sacrificial offering in one of the city’s periodic purges of corrupt police officers. Carlotta takes the job, but not without some cajoling, arguing about money and, shortly after, a visit with Mooney’s mom, as scary a cartoon Irish-American dowager as you’ll ever meet.
That’s what brings Carlotta to the Combat Zone in her cab. Mooney’s witness is a tattooed prostitute and in Boston, in the years before this was written (the book was published in 1990), the Zone was the first stop on the Local Smut Express, a diminutive sibling to New York‘s raunchy, pre-film set Times Square. Carlotta’s cruising the Zone, alternately posting, when a teenaged kid who’s obviously been rolled pounces into the back of the cab demanding she drive.
Jerry Toland is a kid from Lincoln, one of those tony suburbs off Route 2 out past Lexington. He’s looking for a friend, Valerie Haslam, who’s run away. They’re neighbors and also classmates at The Emerson School, described as Massachusetts‘ ritziest private school and positively Andover-like in its description. Carlotta drops him at the local precinct and, when he shows up on her doorstep the next morning, agrees to find the girl.
Doing so takes her to both LIncoln and the Emerson, where she meets the drama teacher, Geoff Reardon. I’m not sure why drama teachers so often seem to be portrayed as bad guys. Maybe it’s because they traffic in deception.
I know, I know, it’s illusion, they bring characters to life. But that means they hold secrets (actors know what happens next in the script; at least at first, you don’t) and play roles. It’s a natural fit with duplicity. Reardon knows more than he’s telling and ultimately he’s saying nothing because Carlotta finds him in his Reliant, the windows sealed, the motor run out, a hose connecting the tailpipe with the car’s interior and the life leached out of him.
There’s more and I’m not giving the game away. My thirty-years-old (!) impression that these books were worth reading stood up.
Maybe it’s the optimum medium for entertainment reading.