"Jelly's Gold" by David Housewright
Minotaur, 295 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Rushmore McKenzie-- one of P.I. lit's smoothest talkers-- literally goes for the gold in Edgar Award-winning author David Housewright's sixth novel featuring St. Paul, Minnesota's wealthiest ex-cop.
The beauty of McKenzie's life is that he can pretty well do as he pleases, but mostly he's in the business of helping out pals, usually with some assistance from his waning friends at the city P.D., where he worked 11 years before retiring, in order to accept a multimillion-dollar reward from an insurance company, grateful that he had uncovered an embezzler.
As the story opens, McKenzie is intrigued by a "friend-girl"-- his girlfriend, Nina Truhler, owns a jazz and supper club-- and her boyfriend's plot to uncover gangster Frank "Jelly" Nash's cache of 32 gold-bullion bars, stolen from a Huron, South Dakota, bank 75 years ago and quickly passed to a "fence" before Nash had to skip town in a hurry.
Within a few days, Nash was apprehended by FBI agents in Hot Springs, Arkansas, then murdered in the fabled Kansas City Massacre, while he was being transported to Leavenworth Prison.
Housewright supplies bountiful historical nuggets concerning St. Paul's criminal past, how the city became one of the most corrupt in the nation from the turn of the 20th century into the 1930s, owing to public officials' and businessmen's fondness for bribes, kickbacks, and skimming the cream off all the gangsters' cash cows.
The 1920s really roared in St. Paul, with the city's elite-- many of whom resided in grandiose mansions along Summit Avenue, stretching more than four miles up from the Mississippi River-- partying at the Boulevards of Paris nightclub alongside the U.S.'s most infamous criminals, or gambling with them as such establishments as the Hollyhocks Casino.
Picking up the flavor of the era, Housewright delivers an unlikely band of gold diggers (including McKenzie, who's in it to help his "friend-girl" and for the overall thrill of the chase) who are seeking Jelly's Gold, not unlike the odd group pursuing "The Black Bird" in Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon."
Speaking of Hammett, Housewright's dialogue is reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles, of cigarettes extracted from gold cases and martinis served in crystal stemware off silver trays to men in dinner jackets and women in shimmering, backless evening gowns.
Housewright obviously enjoys writing in this "past meets present" milieu, and McKenzie continues to shine in each volume, thus emerging as one of P.I. lit's brightest stars.
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