I'll make my confession up front: I am not a fan of the gimmicky mystery. I don't like kitty sleuths or recipes in the text, and I really don't like endless punnery (unless I'm doing it). So naturally I approached Tim Cockey's "Hearse" series with trepidation. Here are mysteries with an awkwardly named but winsome undertaker, Hitchcock Sewell, with dopey titles unconnected to the story, and set in Baltimore, territory well mined in David Simon's Homicide and the television series based on the book. And yet, Cockey succeeds in creating the basis for a formidable and engaging series despite these obstacles.
Cockey introduces his hero with the unlikely name in The Hearse You Came in On, a breezy, easy mystery involving police corruption, blackmail, political ambition and a bizarre production of Our Town. In HYCO, Cockey appears to be more interested in showing off his neighborhood than really creating a compelling amateur detective story. This makes for an engaging tour but places Hitchcock Sewell oddly away from the action. Most of the legwork is done by, or in connection with, another character, Kate Zabriskie. Worse, the actual mystery seems secondary to the back-story and local color.
After the re-hearse-al (how could I resist?) of HYCO, Cockey settles in for the real work of crafting a mystery in his second novel featuring Hitch, Hearse of a Different Color. Gone is the occasionally lazy, almost always chatty narrative. Instead, Hitch, this time, is at the heart of the action, poking into places he doesn't belong and prodding witnesses for information. In other words, Hitch detects. The novel begins with a dead body. Dropped at the front door of Sewell & Sons Family Funeral Home during the funeral of a prominent heart surgeon. It is up to Sewell to make the connections, piss off the right people, and balance his devotion to a beautiful and ambitious meteorologist, his flamboyant ex-wife and the decedent's sister.
In HDC, Hitch keeps his smart mouth and most of the supporting players from the first novel return, but they are not the center of the story. While in the first novel, they overpowered the story; here they enhance it. The Baltimore of HDC is also more complex and less colorful. It is as if Cockey understands that the true subject of the modern mystery is the city -- the powerful urban leveling process that exposes hidden connections between all its classes, and the ability of the most modest inhabitant to impact its most powerful.
While the "Hearse" series may be stuck with some gimmicks it may want to outgrow (how many hearse/horse puns can the series and its readers bear?), the jump in quality between the first two novels is an encouraging sign. I hope Cockey's next undertaking might be even more ambitious, again turning toward the city or inward, confronting Hitch's close proximity to death. Either way, Hitchcock Sewell should be filling coffins for a long, long time.