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Hell Up in Houston (The Drifter Detective) (Volume 2) Paperback – February 10, 2015
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Laramie is still somewhat of a shadowy figure, as Elliott avoids gumming up his narrative with excessive backstory. However, like most fictional PI's of the era, he's a tough guy with a sense of morals. He's also living on the edge financially, dragging his life's possessions around with him in a horse trailer he tows behind his car as he goes from town to town and case to case. Unlike most detectives of the era, he's very much of a thinking man (he likes to work on chess problems) and has a finely honed sense of self-preservation, looking to maintain a low profile and avoid trouble (from both sides of the law) whenever possible. However, despite his best efforts, he just seems to stumble into messy situations.
In "Hell," Laramie finds himself stuck in Houston for a few days when his car breaks down. He'd been warned to stay away from Houston, for reasons never disclosed, by a powerful local mobster, so he just wants to lay low until the car is fixed. However, when the car repairs prove more costly than he originally anticipated, Laramie agrees to serve as a replacement house detective for a few days at the hotel where he's staying, while the regular detective goes on vacation (the most unusual sort of vacation I've ever heard of, as readers will discover).
Laramie figures, wrongly, that this will be an easy gig since the hotel, although not the city's best, is reasonably respectable. Unfortunately, during the course of one week, he again runs afoul of the same mob boss he offended earlier and then tries to help out a wealthy socialite who's trying to go through cold turkey rehab in the hotel's "presidential suite." Elliott writes with the same eye for detail and crisp style in "Hell" that he showed in his first Laramie story, creating a hotel setting that's somewhere between flophouse and penthouse and similarly gray characters. The most memorable characters in "Hell" are the detective Laramie replaces and the "doctor" who requests Laramie's help in finding out who's been surreptitiously sabotaging the socialite's rehab efforts by supplying her with drugs.
Frankly, the first two thirds of "Hell" struck me as competent but not compelling. Readers, myself included, will probably think that the rehab case will occupy the bulk of the story, but Laramie solves it quickly and without a whole lot of investigating when the prime suspect tries to beat him up the moment the two first meet. The quick resolution of what seemed to be the major story line of "Hell" had me feeling a bit disappointed, but, then, Elliott wraps up his novelette in fine fashion with a slam bang third act. It seems that the hotel detective hadn't been completely aboveboard with Jack (no surprise there) and had gotten himself involved in some blackmail involving some compromising photos of a very powerful person who'd had a brief dalliance at the hotel. Now, a very unsavory guy wants the photos and negatives back, and Jack again has to scramble to save his own skin.
The last third of the book elevated my grade from a competent, workmanlike three stars to a much more entertaining four stars. By the time, "Hell" ends, I realized that Elliott had rather cleverly introduced some bits of plot that seemed superfluous at the time but wound up figuring heavily in the story's final resolution as Jack has to figure out a way to save his skin while literally on the run. The way he does so is highly enjoyable and helps define his character far better than would merely adding more details about his life story (as many authors would do).
I continue to be impressed by Elliott's style and the way he could manipulate his plot and readers' expectations to maximum advantage, creating a powerful finale out of what seemed to be thin air in a manner that had me shaking my head. Jack Laramie is a rather atypical hardboiled eye who uses his head more than his fists (although he puts them to good use as well). After reading two decent length stories about Laramie, I realized that I knew both a lot and surprisingly little about the man, meaning there's plenty of room to develop the character further and a whole lot more of Texas within which Laramie can find more trouble. With a writer like Elliott, I'm sure Houston won't be the only place that Laramie finds hellish.
It's a hardboiled tale told in plain speaking Texas talk. Jack can't stay out of trouble whether it's with the local boss, grifters, heiresses, crooked hotel staff, GI men, pimps, and bouncers.
The story is a novellete, not a full-bore novel and its quite compelling and hard to put down.
It's a hard-drinking, fists-flying, guns blazing kind of tale. Good stuff.
This is the second in the Drifter Detective short story series . You don't need to read the stories in order. In fact, I have only read the fourth story before this one. This story is by a different author than the one I read earlier. The two authors have a slightly different take on Jack. (It is like watching two James Bond movies with different actors playing James. They are the same character but have slightly different interpretations.)
The story was fine but had a couple of drawbacks for me. It felt a little scattered with the multiple things happening. Also, the whole blackmail plot seemed a little vague. I'm pretty sure I know who is supposedly being blackmailed but not completely certain. Also, not that certain why it would have been worth blackmailing him anyway. I would have liked Jack to seem a little more tough.
The hotel dick sells the gig as easy-breezy, but of course it turns out to be anything but. This novella reads like a collection of shorts, as Jack moves between multiple, related crimes. No matter what happens, he can't avoid headaches or his nemesis, big-time detective/Houston kingpin Lameaux.
This is highly entertaining stuff. Jack Laramie's a clever, likeable detective surrounded by thugs, morons, and losers. Watching him negotiate the corners of this greasy, convict-filled world is a joy. I'll be digging to other entries in the series soon.
The author does a great job of creating sharply drawn characters and sleazy atmosphere, all in the hardboiled vein, with a Texas twist.
Highly recommended. I really look forward to more stories in this series.