He’s My Brother

Linda Barnes

It’s a dead certainty that more than once I’ve sworn to read more “real” books and less, well, fluff.

Fluff keeps winning.

My hairshirt is at the cleaners so for now I’ll confine myself to the story at hand. Once again we find ourselves in the neighborhood of Boston in the company of Miss Carlotta Carlyle, private investigator.

You remember Carlotta, don’t you? She’s the Amazonian, volleyball-playing, bottle-neck-guitar-loving PI whose practice is forever struggling to get off the ground. Carlotta lives in an inherited house in Cambridge, across the Charles River from The Hub. It’s the town that both Harvard and MIT call home.

There seems to be a rule that female crimefighters must possess a comic streak. Sometimes (I’m thinking of Stephanie Plum), the crime seems almost incidental to the comedy. Sometimes the tale risks cracking apart from the deadly serious nature of the characters, as with Kay Scarpetta.

I could go on like this, arraying female tecs on some sort of comic Richter scale, but that would merely be an exercise. It’s easier to admit that I return more often to the tales leavened with humor than to the straight shooters. My free time is limited and Dr. Scarpetta is not who I want to spend it with, even if she does have an amiable cop companion.

In a town with some pretty fancy neighborhoods, I picture Carlotta’s house as being more like this one.

Carlotta Carlyle is not without her amusing moments. These usually arise when she’s quoting her mother or aunt, both of whom are dead. Typically she renders the quote in Yiddish.

Looking more broadly, the whole set-up is comic. Like many other detectives, Carlotta is a former cop and she maintains a close relationship with her mentor, Lt. Mooney. Most of the force thinks they have something going on.

Her true love interest, though, is Sam Gianelli, son of Anthony Gianelli, local mob boss. Sam is one of four boys and the only one not in the, ahem, family business. Theirs is a rocky, on-and-off romance as one might expect.

Just to keep it interesting, Carlotta has a tenant, Roz, who is, shall we say, sui generis. An artist (or is she an art student?) who gives off a distinct Situationalist/punk rock vibe, she seems the sort who commutes by skateboard. Roz pays part of her rent in chores and, along with being perpetually randy, is also a martial arts enthusiast. You can see her utility.

Life imitates art. It turns out Boston does have a taxi king who is not a good guy.

Currently, Roz is sleeping atop a mattress stuffed with $40k or so in cash that was sent by a Columbian drug lord for the education of his daughter, Paolina, to whom Carlotta plays Big Sister. The cast is rounded out, for the most part, by Gloria, the plus-size, wheelchair-bound, African-American dispatcher and co-proprietor of the Green & White Cab Company.

Carlotta drives for Green & White when she needs to make ends meet, which is to say quite regularly. These books are set, roughly, in the 1990s when the national urban crime rate was higher than it currently is. Driving a cab then was almost as dangerous as in 1981, when I was behind the wheel. That danger is a constant source of friction between Carlotta and Sam who is, conveniently, Gloria’s partner in Green & White.

I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on the characters not just to avoid giving away the plot but to shine a light on the craft demonstrated in popular books like this one. As laid out above, that’s one wildly improbable group of people. You’d hardly expect them to exist, let alone live intertwined lives.

Alright, so the $44-word I learned in 10th grade, verisimilitude, doesn’t apply. Does it need to? On the physical environment, Barnes’ Boston is recognizable and that’s probably enough. The characters, I don’t need to remind you, are fictional.

Mob doings and deaths are even big in Boston.

More important, despite their collective implausibility they’re a likable bunch. Admit it. You’ve attended at least one party at which everyone was basically the same. SImilar jobs, similar backgrounds, similar politics, similar concerns. Wouldn’t you rather find yourself in a conversation with a handsome mob guy and a punk rock black belt?

There’s no crime fiction without a crime, though, and this time the crimes are being perpetrated on and around cab drivers. Or are they? At the outset, Carlotta is approached by Lee Cochran, whose been referred by Gloria. Representing the Smal Taxi Association, he’s certain the cab-focused crime spree is the work of his nemesis, Phil Yancey, a man determined to corner the Bean Town taxi medallion market.

Yancey soon arrives in Cambridge to personally warn Carlotta off, but by then she has a paying client: Green & White. Drivers are being assaulted and so aren’t showing up to work. In the taxi business, as in many others, cash is king. No drivers, no cash. Gloria needs results–fast!

Definitely not a taxi that appears in this story.

She gets more than she bargained for. In the course of the tale her brother Marvin, a one-time boxer and former felon, is driven into the woods in Franklin Park.

Carlotta takes his place to spare G&W the backlash of letting an ex-con drive and Marvin avails himself of non-market medical care.  He’s eventually relocated to Gloria’s quarters behind Green & White to recuperate, which is where he is when the building explodes.

Cab wars can get vicious if they don’t always approach mayhem. Likes and dislikes arise between drivers. Dispatchers form opinions about people they only know from the bleed-through on the radio. Because of the co-ownership of Green & White, though, a mob angle can’t be ruled out. Mooney, who’s well aware of Sam and Carlotta’s relationship, can’t ignore that.

That’s all you’ll hear from me on the plot. There are more than a few twists which made this one of the better volumes in this series for me. I’d first read many of them back in the 90s and somehow missed this one, which I believe is the sixth.

We should all do so well the sixth time out at anything.


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