Monday, October 21, 2013

James D. Best, The Return

You know you’re in good hands with James Best. This new “Steve Dancy Tale” is told with the usual economy, clarity, and attention to detail. Best’s characters are fully three-dimensional and spring to life in a few words of dialogue. Best of all, you enjoy their company.

I like Steve Dancy. He’s an Easterner who has adapted in a few short years to the West, where he has interests in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado. He comes with a social pedigree that he never flaunts, and he has grown up the son of a firearms merchant. He has a head for business and is a good judge of character.

He tells his own stories, and Best is one of the best at first-person narration. Dancy is articulate and intelligent, the sort of man who draws similar men to him, so you like his friends, too. They are, as he says, honest and true. In this story, one of those friends is a woman, who offers Dancy some very adult and levelheaded long-term romance.

Leadville, Colorado
Plot. You think this story is going to take place entirely in Leadville, as it sets up the initial conflict. A nasty protection racket has sprung up in town, and one by one the shopkeepers and other places of business are being forced to make weekly cash payment to a gang of thugs. It’s either that or trouble, from broken windows to arson.

Dancy, his friend Jeff Sharp, and their business partner Virginia Barker stir up enough support to stage a protest, and they are joined by six Pinkerton agents from Denver. Soon the thugs are sent packing. And before we know it, Dancy, Sharp, Mrs. Barker, and Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkertons are involved in quite another gambit. This one takes them back East.

There, they work as a team of investigators for none other than Thomas Edison. The famous inventor retains them to find out whether a project to bring electric lights to lower Manhattan is being sabotaged by competitors vying to grab up the market for this new technology.

New York, 5th Avenue, Puck, 1878
Pleasures of the text. As the plot unfolds, there are several things to enjoy. Among them is Best’s description of New York itself in 1880. It’s a teeming metropolis, yes, but crowded with both people and horses, existing in often repugnant and unsanitary conditions. Overhead, the streets are strung perilously with wires on poles. Indoors, gas lighting gives off a noxious odor.

For the well to do, there is escape from all this in the comforts of a high-class hotel, like the one where Dancy and his team take rooms on Fifth Avenue. There he is met by his scornful and condescending mother. A mean-spirited woman who masks sarcasm with politeness (cf. the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey), she has been trying to run his life since boyhood. Their scenes together are sharp and glittering as broken crystal.

Meeting Edison and his beleaguered wife and seeing his operation in Menlo Park bring to life the few dry facts the reader may remember about the man from history books. Of interest also is the insider’s view we get of the Pinkerton agency, portrayed as an early version of the FBI. McAllen and the bodyguards assigned to Dancy’s team offer interesting lessons in crime detection, security management, and self-defense.

Thomas Alva Edison
The romance that blooms between Dancy and Mrs. Barker provides pleasures of its own. If you are familiar with western romance fiction, (e.g. Pamela Nowak’s Changes, reviewed here recently), this will seem pretty tame. Since the narrative voice is Dancy’s, we get no more than polite and sometimes winking references to intimacy between the two lovers. They have adjoining rooms in the Fifth Avenue Hotel and, shall we say, enjoy the proximity.

To readers of a certain age, Mrs. Barker may recall The Avengers’ Mrs. Peel. She has something of her nerve and intelligence. She happily learns to hold her own with an attacker and to both carry a gun and use it. Another writer might have thought twice about putting Mrs. Barker in harm’s way, as Best does, but she is not about to be left out of the action simply because of her gender.

Wrapping up. The novel is a briskly told addition to the Steve Dancy series. The plot is neatly contrived and there are developments and surprises that are hard to predict. Best’s characters, with their different personalities, make an entertaining team. It’s fun to eavesdrop as the four of them speculate with the evidence they’re collecting and deciding what to do with it. 

The professional detective among them, McAllen, is especially well defined. The knowledge and training he brings to his work often counter-balance the common sense approach of the others. The Return is currently available in paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Further reading:

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gregory Peck, Shoot Out (1971)


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