When the "Ten Best" lists come out after the first of the year,
fans of hard-boiled fiction will almost certainly have a space
saved for DUTCH UNCLE by Peter Pavia. DUTCH UNCLE is Pavia's first
work of fiction; this is somewhat hard to believe, as this assured,
steady tale of Miami Beach losers and bottom feeders contains the
best elements of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and Richard Stark
while still possessing and maintaining its unique voice.
Pavia's protagonist is Harry Healy, a career criminal who has been
on a downward trajectory almost from the day he was born. When we
meet Healy he is on parole from the latest of a series of
incarcerations. He is almost immediately set to get in trouble
again, putting his freedom on the line when he is recruited to
deliver a "package" of dubious legality for the grand fee of $200.
The deal immediately turns south; Healy is almost ripped off when
he delivers the package and later finds his employer, Manfred
Pfiser --- the Dutch uncle of the tale --- murdered.
As a result, Healy assumes another identity and takes work as a
nightclub bouncer in a seedy but popular bar in nearby Fort
Lauderdale. A fringe benefit of Healy's job, and a potential
turning point in his life, presents itself when he meets Aggie St.
Denis, a bartender who is a straight shooter and appears to care
for him. Healy, of course, remains true to form and unceremoniously
dumps her, fleeing home to New York City while on the verge of
again beginning the cycle of repeating his past mistakes.
Pavia does a masterful job here of introducing his readers to two
members of Healy's family: his father, a once-famous jazz musician
who revels in the memory of the old days, and his wildly successful
brother, a famous financial analyst who is one of the major
surprises of the book. Healy's trip to New York also provides an
unexpected revelation concerning his immediate difficulties.
Ultimately, however, Healy realizes that his major problems arise
from within, and if he is to change his luck and circumstances, he
must first change himself. It appears though that once again his
past mistakes will catch up with him before he can undergo any
Pavia has an extremely impressive debut here --- one more reason
why Hard Case Crime is an imprint to continue watching --- as he
deftly combines elements of dark humor, violence, and mystery into
a modern morality tale with bits of subtlety and unexpected
optimism. You couldn't ask for better, and even if you did, you'd
probably never find it. DUTCH UNCLE (and Pavia) needs to be on your
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011