Friday, June 27, 2008

A hardboiled blast from the past

When you call yourself a writer you frequently find yourself reading books not for the pleasure of reading them, but for things to mock and, with luck, the short-term reassurance of feeling that if this guy can sell books, you can too.

That was the reason I picked up the 1987 paperback Hot Summer, Cold Murder by one Gaylord Dold. A friend loaned it to me with the endorsement that it wasn't terrible, that it was crime novel and it was set in Wichita. He didn't have much else to say about it.

Now, there are a lot of not-bad crime novels, but very few set set here in the Paris of the Plains. I can think of only one other, offhand (The Ice Harvest, by Scott Phillips). In Hot Summer, Gaylord Dold introduces the brooding PI Mitch Roberts, who drinks muscatel and smokes Lucky Strikes and exchanges improbable repartee with an improbably beautiful femme fatale.

I know: the last thing crime fiction needs is another hardboiled private investigator. And the painfully titled Hot Summer clings so tightly to the conventions of the genre that it sometimes feels like satire. Hey, check out the cover. But it was written more than 20 years ago, so let's not quibble. What I like about the book is the sense of place -- a feat Ice Harvest never quite managed. Unlikely as it seems, Wichita in the summertime does have a personality of its own, with its sultry heat and thunderstorms and certain brick streets that run through "caverns of dusty elms." Maybe you have to live here to appreciate it. Maybe it helps that the book is set in the mid-50s, just before widespread air-conditioning robbed the Midwest heat of its ability to ignite the baser emotions.

I guess my point here is that if I was looking for things to mock and a feeling of authorial superiority, I'll have to look a bit further. Hot Summer, Cold Murder is an enjoyable read. Turns out you really can't judge a book by its cover. Well, once in awhile you can't. Google Gaylord Dold and you find out he published eight more novels with the same character, and managed to land a hardcover contract with St. Martin's. I'd be damned happy with that.


pundy said...

Interesting review. One mark of a good book is a fine sense of place. One of the reasons I used to like Hemingway so much. I'll look out for the guy as a result.

Dave Knadler said...

I have a couple more of his Wichita mysteries here. Since Hot Summer appears to be his debut effort, I'm hoping his stuff only gets better.

I know what you mean about Hemingway.