"Death by the Book" by Lenny Bartulin
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 249 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
The setting is Sydney, Australia, and the author is, unsurprisingly, Australian.
Nevertheless, debut novelist Lenny Bartulin's mystery owes a deep, sweeping bow to American film noir-- to drippy winter weather reflective of the characters' moods;
To bare trees, casting their skeleton-like branches into eerie shadows;
To dead leaves shifting in the misty glow of a streetlight on a deserted street corner;
To characters who are out of their respective elements, thereby attracting one another as never would happen under ordinary circumstances, then attempting to manipulate one another toward a twisted end.
"Death by the Book" (first published in Australia as "A Deadly Business") involves a rare (read: used) books seller in a no-frills, walkdown shop in Sydney. He's not exactly rolling in dough, so when a megamillionaire summons Jack Susko to his manse, offering tempting sums to round up volumes by an obscure poet, Jack jumps over-- or, rather, into-- the candlestick.
What really seals the deal for him is the rich man's daughter, who looks like Lauren Bacall on the cover of Harper's Bazaar, circa 1943.
Ze French don't say, "Cherchez la femme!" for zed.
Jack sinks deeper and deeper into this well of wealth and beauty, caught up in the lives of the father, his daughter (and her daughter, as well), the daughter's estranged husband, the daughter's uncle and cousin, and one of the old man's array of ex-wives.
Homages to Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" abound, yet Bartulin's mystery triumphs on the merits of its fine descriptive stylistics and dialogue, which frequently snaps like a high-tension wire in a super-cell thunderstorm.
Another winning feature: Bartulin doesn't supply more book than story. He's always headed straight to the chase. In Jack Susko, he has developed a character of many possibilities. Jack's former-bookseller friend, Brendan MacAllister, and Jack's bookseller nemesis, Chester Sinclair, also possess plenty of potential.
Jack Susko's bookshop may be dreary, but his literary future looks bright.
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