No fan of the private detective novel should miss the “John March mysteries.” Author Peter Spiegelman just keeps getting better with each outing.
Spiegelman introduced John March, a Manhattan-based private eye, in Black Maps. In that book, March’s client was a wealthy investment banker threatened by blackmail. March survived that case and reappeared in Death’s Little Helpers for a more challenging assignment – and with a new girlfriend. Now March is back in Red Cat, this time with his unbeloved brother David as the client in what sets up as another extortion scheme. The girlfriend is gone, replaced with a part-time lover whose needs are more compatible with March’s.
The melancholy March fits right in with his noirish New York. “Everyone was in a bad mood,” opens Black Maps. “It was a palpable thing in midtown, pungent as the bus exhaust on the cold evening air and as loud as the traffic.” The air in the first sentence of Death’s Little Helpers is just as toxic: “’As a husband, he was a lying, selfish prick,’ Nina Sachs said, and lit yet another cigarette.” No carcinogens pollute the atmosphere in the first lines of Red Cat, and it’s just as well: the tension in the air between John and David March is enough to cause cancer.
March’s siblings entered the family’s lucrative boutique merchant banking firm, and they all seem to resent John’s decision to stay away. It’s not so much that John opted for the life of a rural deputy sheriff – a decision which ended in a personal tragedy that left deep emotional scars – but that he turned his back on the family business which has driven a wedge between them. None seems to resent John more than David and his wife, but necessity has forced them together. An ill-advised extramarital tryst is about to blow up in David’s face, and he needs a discreet private investigator. David is one of those rich people who thinks money obviates the need for charm. “You’re at least a sleazebag I know,” he tells John. “You’re the lesser evil.”
The possible extortion plot has some early echoes from Spiegelman’s debut, but the second act jags off in a different direction that raises the stakes for everyone involved.
To not spoil the reader’s pleasure, I’ll simply observe that Spiegelman is terrific with plot and he kept me guessing all the way to the surprising yet perfectly plausible ending about how the mystery was going to turn out.
One element of that narrative that Spiegelman deftly crafts is the parallel strains in his family, in Wren’s, and in that of John’s part-time lover. He never says anything about this similarity, and it isn’t clear if March even registers it, but the connections gradually dawn on the reader. And by the third act, the author has a character from each family give voice to how money has corrupted their relationships.
David’s wife tells John, “[O]ne day you realize your husband doesn’t really like you. Later on, you find you don’t like him much…. [B]ut with each new disappointment, with each hope you abandon, you strike a new bargain with yourself.” She consoles herself with the possibility of a new apartment, perhaps in a better building; or maybe a new beach house, or a longer vacation in the islands. “In the end it comes down to money, I guess, and that leaving is so expensive and complicated.”
Five pages later, having gleaned how the married get on, John finally asks his friend-with-benefits about her marriage, a subject he previously saw no point in broaching. “‘Staying was easy,’ she said. ‘It was the path of least resistance…. And the perks didn’t hurt either – the real estate and the vacations and the rest.’” How noir is this story? These two couples are luckier, in the end, than the couples in Wren’s family.
But it is not his skill at narrative that elevates Spiegelman above so many other writers in the PI genre: it’s how he handles many of the little things.
What I like best is the way Spiegelman develops character, showing, not telling, how damaged and tightly-wound John March is. For example, March doesn’t try to drown his angst in booze – he tried that when his wife was killed, and it ruined his career in law enforcement – but is particularly abstemious. March is not only not an alcoholic PI, but he is so emotionally-taunt that he never seems in peril of falling off the wagon. Spiegelman doesn’t belabor this point: he simply dispatches these PI clichés by having John choose ginger ale when others opt for the heavier stuff.
Likewise, March runs – a lot – but Spiegelman doesn’t explain why his character is so avid about exercise.
March pursues this asceticsim even in his dining habits. Home alone, he tends to eat oatmeal, PB&J or tuna sandwiches, or yogurt or soup from a can. These simple meals are both comfort foods and relatively healthy. If his lady friend comes over, she’ll sometimes bring in Thai or Chinese take-out: not as healthy, but a little more sociable. When they’re out and about, the diet goes to hell and they’re as likely to get a burger as anything else. If we are what we eat, with this subtle layering of March’s character Spiegelman never has to say anything about March’s diet for us to register that he’s an efficent yet adaptive man.
We learn a little bit more about March’s character with each novel. I eagerly await the fourth book in the series.