****Swann’s Down

Written by Charles Salzberg – Henry Swann’s Manhattan business is a murky one that only a big city, with all its ragged fringes, could support. He’s mainly a skip tracer, someone whose true skill is in finding people and sometimes things—lost, runaway, hiding—and a good guide to the dark corners that would never appear in a tourist’s Top Ten.

His self-described partner Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. How little he actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help with a personal problem involving Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel: “You… You’ve been married?” Three times, in fact.

Rachel is a little spacey, a little too trusting, and a fake psychic has bilked her out of some $75,000. Goldblatt wants Swann to find this psychic. And get the money back, if he can. Delving into the world of the con, Swann interacts with some real New York characters, brimming with a lively mix of attitude, insights, and venality.

Thankfully, a paying client turns up as well. Swann is asked to find a missing witness who supposedly can alibi her truculent boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, a notorious hitman who claims he’s innocent in this case. He’s bad news and Swann is reluctant to help him out.

Why did the girlfriend disappear? Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because she was afraid, would she return at all? The case is full of such quandaries, but Diamond’s lawyer finally talks Swann into pursuing it, and Swann applies one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid, what do I care?”

Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. His self-deprecating narration and wry humor are charming, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan hit home, and the issues that raise Swann’s curiosity interested me too.

Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. This is the fifth Swann book—and Salzberg says the last. Whether he can really leave Swann behind or not, I’ll be on the lookout for those previous four books!

Photo: krazydad / jbum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

****The Kennedy Connection

Kennedy half-dollar

photo: Eric Golub, creative commons license

By R.G. BelskyAuthor Belsky was most recently managing editor of news for NBCNews.com and is a former managing editor for the New York Daily News, among other journalistic posts. He has ample experience to write authoritatively about his main character and first-person narrator, Gil Malloy, a down-on-his luck Daily News reporter, and about the book’s Manhattan setting. The Kennedy Connection is the first in the Gil Malloy series and takes place in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches.

When we meet Malloy, he’s been disgraced after a serious breach of journalistic ethics. Though he kept his job, he’s assigned to the newsroom dregs, while he watches another young reporter, Carrie Bratten, acquire the mantle of up-and-comer that he once wore. Frustrated with his second-class citizenship, he’s a little too quick to latch onto a story he thinks will redeem him.

Meanwhile, his former agent asks him to help her get publicity for a new book. The hook? The author claims to be Lee Harvey Oswald, Jr., illegitimate son of Kennedy’s assassin. Oswald, Jr.,  believes the book will clear his father’s name.

And a police buddy asks him to investigate the death of a young ex-gang member from the South Bronx, Victor Reyes. Reyes was shot 15 years earlier, left a paraplegic, and finally died when the bullet lodged in his spine worked loose and traveled to his heart. The unknown malefactor who shot him is now a murderer. Malloy’s friend is killed by a drunk driver before the reporter can do more than conduct a few initial interviews with family and cops on that case. Now one is a serious drunk and another’s a deputy police commissioner.

These distractions are soon cut short when a series of murders begins, each with a Kennedy half-dollar left at the scene. These deaths seem too much of a coincidence, taking into account the revelations of the new book by Oswald, Jr., especially when someone sends Malloy a letter promising more mayhem. In the envelope, a Kennedy half-dollar.

Malloy is teamed up with Bratten to cover this high-profile story and again riding high in his journalistic world. Author Belsky does a good job making Malloy a likeable character who could use a little more personal insight. The other newsroom characters are also well drawn, and there’s some engaging banter.

Just like Jake Epping in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the character of Oswald, Jr., is trying to rewrite the history of JFK’s assassination and, like Jake, ends up having second thoughts about meddling with the past. Efforts to deconstruct what Malloy calls “the greatest murder mystery in history” have a substantial literary pedigree, from King’s work to Don DeLillo’s Libra, to James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, to Tim Baker’s Fever City. Belsky has made an engaging contribution to this lineage.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.