But his cheap-cigar-smoking captain Ackerman thinks otherwise. There’s a crime here somewhere, he keeps saying. Find it. And thus a skeptical Sonntag finds himself on another hunt for a murderer.
What I like about Axel Brand mysteries is the retro world of police work circa 1949 that it conjures. And the naked city his police call home is not the mean streets of New York, Chicago or LA. It’s the mainly placid Milwaukee, the beer capital of the Midwest.
I also like Joe Sonntag. He’s a hard-working, decent man, who wears inexpensive suits and rides a streetcar to work. At night he returns, often late, to his wife Lizbeth, a drink, and meatloaf. It’s an empty nest, one son grown and gone. The other son only a memory of a boy who thrived and then died of polio.
His marriage is a mostly comfortable one, though not without signs of strain. For lack of a job of her own, Joe’s wife takes more than passing interest in his work. You get the idea she wouldn’t make a bad cop herself. She settles for packing his lunch every morning and the occasional night out on his meager salary. On Sunday she goes to church alone.
|1949 Buick Super
The dead genius of the title is a questioned document examiner. Often called upon as an expert witness, he could tell if a document was what it claimed to be. He could testify whether or not a will was forged. He could spot a phony contract, or a bogus signature. A walking encyclopedia of typewriter fonts, he could identify the year and make of the machine used to type a letter.
For all who knew him, he was also a man of mystery, claiming a past too far-fetched to be true and dying without heirs. The pieces won’t fit together, and there are those who might have had reason to do the man in. There's a disgruntled protégé with a desire to take over the business, and a doctor and lawyer in an unseemly hurry to cremate the remains.
|Milwaukee County Courthouse, built 1931. Photo by Sulfur.
Sonntag is not Joe Friday. The tone isn’t deadpan, but more like my favorite TV cop show, Barney Miller, which ran 1975-1982. (Read more here.) There’s humor and quirks among the men on the force, and Joe has a hidden side that haunts him each time he rides the streetcar between home and work.
Far from hard-boiled, maybe soft-boiled is what you call this kind of crime fiction. It’s love of its characters and the pitch-perfect evocation of the period make it thoroughly enjoyable. I hope Richard Wheeler has a whole lot more Joe Sonntag stories up his sleeve.
The Dead Genius will be released in August and is now available for pre-order at amazon.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: The Naked Spur (1953)