Stuart M. Kaminsky has been one of the hardest working writers in the mystery field for many years. And he is also one the best. Author of 50 novels, he is the recipient of the 2006 Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America, joining such illustrious past winners as Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard and Mary Higgins Clark.
Kaminsky has created four mystery series. TERROR TOWN is the ninth featuring Chicago police detective Abe Lieberman. And for both longtime readers of the series and newcomers, it will not disappoint.
Sergeant Lieberman is about as far from a superhero as you can find. A storeowner in need of police help describes Abe as a "thin old man with white hair and matching mustache. The man was not impressive. He looked like a sad baggy eyed spaniel."
What Lieberman lacks in physical stature, he more than makes up for with his head and heart. But most importantly, he is a moral man, not afraid of putting the need for justice ahead of the letter of the law when necessary.
Helping him is his longtime partner, Bill Hanrahan, nine years removed from the plunge into the bottle that cost him his family. Now sober, Bill is trying to make a go of it with his new wife, Iris, who is expecting their first child.
Together, this odd couple of cops is known as "the Rabbi and Father Murph."
In TERROR TOWN, these moral men face a world of random violence and madness, a world no longer safe. An insane homeless man attacks the former star first baseman of the Chicago Cubs with a Coke bottle in a restaurant. Then when released, the attacker begins stalking both the player and the cop who arrested him. A bald giant wanders the streets extorting money from storeowners and terrifying people in the name of God, claiming he was chosen to lead a new Crusade.
Then there is the gang-controlled ghetto called Terror Town. Kaminsky is able to paint a picture with words of a real noir world. "The police enter the streets of Terror Town with the same foreboding as Marines in Baghdad. Police have been ambushed and gunned down in this city within a city." And in this "border town surrounded by a city" a young mother is robbed and shot dead coming out of a bank with her infant child in her arms, which Kaminsky describes in chilling detail.
Much like another Grand Master Award Winner, Ed McBain, Kaminsky weaves together different plot lines effortlessly throughout the book. And like McBain, who virtually created the American police procedural with his 87th Precinct books, Kaminsky makes these cops human, taking us into their homes and lives.
Kaminsky can write hard-boiled with the best of them. But it is the humanity of his characters, especially Abe, that makes this series so rewarding and memorable. We visit the T&L deli, which is owned by Abe's brother, Maish, who burdens Abe with yet another problem when he suffers a heart attack. At the T&L we find the "alter cockers" at their familiar table by the window; these old, retired men have nothing better to do than to enjoy their own company all day and solve the problems of the world. Isn't there a table of "alter cockers" at every deli and café in the world, bothering the waitress for endless refills of coffee or tea?
On the home front, Abe and his loving wife, Bess, have to raise their two teenage grandchildren. Bess worries about Abe's cholesterol count and eating habits, while Abe wonders why his only daughter has always been angry with him. He suffers from insomnia; he notes that this is a curse in that he is always tired, but a blessing in that he gets to watch old movies and learn interesting facts from the History Channel.
But it is the complexity of TERROR TOWN and this entire series that puts it firmly in the noir tradition. Lieberman's investigation into the murder of the mother will take him high up into the world of money and political power in Chicago, where the rich and connected receive awards while others die senselessly on the streets.
When the law and justice don't coincide, Lieberman has to make some tough choices to set things right. As in earlier books in the series, Lieberman is willing to enter without question into an uneasy alliance with a mad killer called El Perro, leader of the Tentaculos street gang, to protect people he loves.
The Rabbi and Father Murph are hardworking cops willing to do what needs to be done, but only for the most righteous of reasons. They wield sometimes life and death power not to enrich or corrupt or oppress, but to further the greater cause of justice.
In TERROR TOWN, Kaminsky takes readers on a great ride with some genuinely surprising twists. Sometimes mysteries don't have perfect or conventional endings simply because life itself doesn't. This is the work of a grand master. Read it and enjoy.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011