PI Willis Gidney resides in the grey area between decency and self-serving opportunism, his personality warped by Washington, DC’s child welfare system and its soul-killing institutions - sometimes a hustler, sometimes a moral man with good intentions. His small apartment and shabby office reinforce the down-and-out impression of a guy on the fringes, the kind who might be chosen for a shady assignment if the money’s right. No handsome charmer, Gidney is subtly marked by his childhood experiences, a preference for old clothes over new, contacts from his former days who come in handy in his work, and a self-image that undermines acknowledging the affection of a woman who sees him as he is and loves him anyway.
Chronically and constitutionally undeserving, Willis lumbers through the alleys of his life, his one redeeming grace - and appeal in this novel - an unflagging desire to adopt a two-year-old orphan he saved from harm while on a case. Trapped in the same bureaucracy that once housed Gidney, the fact that the baby is black and he is white only adds to Gidney’s dilemma in qualifying. A bachelor with a marginal existence, Gidney’s assault on the child welfare system is brought to an abrupt halt when he receives a case worker unsympathetic to his cause, an adversary Willis can’t seem to outwit, outsmart or outplay.
To appeal the court’s denial of his status, Willis needs a lawyer. That requires money - lots of it. Hence the acceptance of a job he would normally have rejected, a quick way to earn the funds for his lawyer. A less than savory character, client Rush Gemelli hires Gidney to break into a warehouse where movies are being bootlegged, get evidence of the crime for his father, Charles Gemelli, a lobbyist working on behalf of the industry and get a job for Gemelli Sr. Seems simple enough, albeit illegal.
But no sooner does Willis break into the warehouse than an assortment of bad actors appears to hassle him, not to mention competing DC gangs, a bizarre actress and her equally strange actor husband, a suspicious lobby group, a hostile ex-FBI agent, various thugs and crooks, a stubborn caseworker, a greedy lawyer, the threat of blackmail and an angry girlfriend. Kaufman mines them all - the colorful stereotypes of angry gangbangers, the seductive actress and a labyrinthine child welfare system.
All of this is familiar territory to a PI raised in dysfunction, Baby Sarah the one dim light at the end of the tunnel. Punching and kicking, Gidney makes his way through one complication and betrayal after another in a plot that often becomes tangled in details and motives in what seems like a cast of thousands. Reminds me a bit of Get Shorty. Since Kaufman is a director and cameraman, he covers all the angles in a quirky story, one eye not surprisingly on the big-screen potential.