Hard-nosed, relentless, a force to be reckoned with - these words aptly describe both
the ex-cop detective hero of Where the Dead Lay, Frank Behr, and the edgy noir style of author David Levien. The first novel in the Frank Behr series, City of the Sun, met critical acclaim, and this latest book shouldnít do anything but add to the accolades Levien richly deserves for his terse dialogue and suspenseful storylines. Where the Dead Lay proves that David Levien belongs in the ranks of some of todayís best mystery authors, like Lee Child, James Patterson, and Robert Crais, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes the mystery/thriller genre.
In this outing, Behr relentlessly tracks down clues and witnesses to try to learn who murdered his jiu-jitsu instructor, Aurelio Santos, and also locate two detectives gone missing from an exclusive private investigation firm. He gets involved with the Indianapolis criminal underworld and has to figure out what gambling rings that operate out of ďpea-shakeĒ houses have to do with the detectivesí disappearance. He eventually finds that what heíd thought were two completely separate cases are inexorably intertwined into one. If he can discover who murdered his friend and mentor Santos, he will also discover what happened to the two detectives. But, he has to ask himself, is his single-minded pursuit of Santosís killers worth the possibility of losing a chance at having a happy relationship with his pregnant girlfriend?
Indianapolis isnít exactly the first major city one thinks of when coming up with a list of cities with high crime rates, but it has a seamy underbelly that just might make it as notorious for its literary crime figures if not its actual ones, as Laura Lippman has done for Baltimore. Before reading Where the Dead Lay, I confess I had never heard of a pea-shake house. Even if Iíd known what it was, Iíd probably never have considered Indianapolis to be the gambling hotbed that Levienís novel depicts it to be. Itís also not the first place that I think of when I think of martial arts, but itís a city that has more than its share of superb martial arts schools and instructors.
The book opens with Frank headed to an early morning private lesson with Aurelios. He likes the personal, one-on-one aspect of these lessons, and Frankís such a big, strong guy that he has inadvertently injured the people heís sparred with in the past. Training with one of the top Brazilian jiu-jitsu teachers helps to insure that such accidents will be kept to a minimum. When he arrives at the Academy, he sees a pair of patrol cars and an ambulance with its flashers on: Aurelio has been killed by a shotgun blast under his palate thatís blown most of his head off. There are indications that he fought with whoever did it to him:
It came together in an instinctive rush in his mind: Aurelio had been shotgunned
under the palate. It had been an interrogation finished by an execution, but not before
a struggle. No two men heíd ever met couldíve held Aurelio down. A gun changed the
equation, to be sure, but Behrís gut reaction was that there had to be three, at least.
The body had been dragged a distance, but then abandoned.
Aurelioís death hits Behr personally, and he vows to himself to bring Santosís killers to justice. Aurelio wasnít a close friend, not someone with whom Frank hung around much outside of the gym; but thereís a closeness and a deep respect that comes from training with oneís martial arts instructor that transcends most ideas of friendship, and Behr decides to put everything else on the backburner until heís solved the case. A man of few words at the best of times, itís difficult for him to express his feelings, even to his girlfriend. She doesnít know if dealing with a person who puts his single-minded drive for justice above all else is worth staying in a relationship with, and she keeps the knowledge of her pregnancy away from Frank for awhile before finally telling him - not that when he knows, it stops him from bulling forward with his investigation.
He doesnít want to slow or hinder his search for Santosís killers for any reason, so when heís approached to look into the whereabouts of the two missing detectives, at first he turns the offer down. He eventually Ė reluctantly - takes the case, though, and learns that somebody - or group of somebodies - are beating up, intimidating, and brutally murdering the people who run pea-shake houses. Pea-shake houses are a type of lottery or numbers racket, and though the numbers that its players bet on were originally written on dried-up peas, now little plastic balls are used. People are seduced by it in droves, flocking to the houses for the small chance that they might be one of the lucky ones to hit it big. Some lose their entire paychecks to this addiction, much like people do at casinos or with state lotteries.
Thereís an entire family behind the city-wide intimidation of pea-shop operators, and their plan is to force the shops to close down, take them over for themselves, make them profitable again and sell out to some big crime syndicate. The tense, action-filled encounters Behr has with the father and sons of this family, who all know jiu-jitsu and use weapons like baseball bats as well, are some of the highlights of the novel, as is the dichotomy that the author sets up between Behr and Terry Schlegel, the patriarch of the crime family. Behr has a difficult time forming and keeping personal relationships, while Schlegel - vicious, cold-blooded murderer though he may be - has a close and seemingly loving relationship with his family. In this respect, one can almost identify with the killers more than with Behr, and it makes the Schlegels more three-dimensional and realistic.
Where the Dead Lay makes for a great, edge-of-your-seat read that easily stands on its own as a good, brooding, crime novel. If you havenít read City of the Sun, I also highly recommend that, but reading it isnít at all necessary to thoroughly enjoy reading the second Frank Behr novel. I look forward to reading more from David Levien in the future, and to seeing what the next case that Frank Behr obsesses over to keep me up late into the night again, myself obsessed with one of the best new mystery writers of today.