Dirty Sally is dead, hacked into several pieces artfully distributed around Austin, Texas. Detective Joey Velez is dead, killed in the line of duty, leaving behind a less than grieving widow. Detective Dan Reles isnít dead, but between his personal feuds with other police, his enemies in Austinís nascent gang scene, and his growing immersion in the conspiracy surrounding ďDirty Sally,Ē he might be joining that club very soon.
A butchered woman and a possibly murdered police detective might be mystery enough for some, but author Michael Simon isnít about to let his detectives off that easily. Every piece of Dirty Sallyís story leads to another, larger crime, reaching from brothels to corporate boardrooms and finally to the state government. Simon makes even the grandest conspiracies not just believable but inevitable, and his villains are so much fun that it almost seems a shame when their plans are foiled. If Detective Relesí investigation didnít keep resulting in more dead civilians, it would be tempting to hope the crime would never be solved, letting Reles tour the darkly scenic Austin streets forever.
Michael Simonís version of Austin in the 1980s is almost tangibly real, built on the foundation of his own experience in the city. That very detail may make the city unrecognizable to anyone who spent much time living there. Simon did spend a few years as a probation officer in Austin, and it shows in his use of landmarks, the occasional neighborhood, and Austinís peculiar city street arrangement. But most of the familiar personalities and politics are missing, replaced by much darker alternatives. This is Austin noir, and even the dialect sounds more Sin City than Live Music Capital.
Given the general bleakness of the novel, itís odd that Simonís invented political conspiracy is nowhere near as corrupt or shameless as the average political news bite in the Austin Chronicle. Maybe Simon thought real politics were too unbelievable for a work of fiction. But even Austenites might enjoy a visit to this alternate version of their city, and anyone not intimately familiar with Austin can just revel at the exploration of a dirty, dangerous town that still looks good to most passerby.
Aside from issues of realism, Dirty Sally isnít without its flaws. The city police force is alternately comprised of devious schemers and incompetent bunglers, and theyíre too often the same character. The romance subplot never connects well with the main story. Villains suffer from an occasionally fatal case of Villainous Exposition, a dread disease that forces sufferers to recap the plot in detail for ostensible benefit of the hero. Detective Reles too often crosses the line from hard-boiled and suspicious into self-pitying and paranoid.
But the driving force of the plot carries Dirty Sally over the occasional cracks in the narrative. The conspiracies surrounding Detective Reles are elaborate and compelling, creating an absolute need to find out what happens next. Unraveling the mystery creates a sense of satisfaction as deep as a junkieís fix. As long as Michael Simon can deliver that payoff, his Austin will be a popular destination for mystery addicts everywhere.