(Fourth in the Carlotta Carlyle series)
Dell Publishing Company
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They say you meet all kinds when you're driving a hack. That's certainly the case for Boston PI Carlotta Carlyle, who gets an unexpected fare while moonlighting behind the wheel. It's singer Dee Willis, Carlotta's ex-friend and former band mate, who stole Carlotta's man before clawing her way up the charts.
Dee's made the leap from Southie's barrooms to the cover of People magazine, but now she's back in Carlotta's life, bringing with her a load of trouble. She hires Carlotta to track down a mutual friend who's fallen on hard times, but Carlotta soon finds that there's a far more menacing tune being played. Someone is blackmailing Dee, claiming she stole songwriting credits — and the money and fame that came with them. As the spotlight's glare turns as cold as the corpse that turns up in Dee's hotel room, Carlotta's past is about to catch up to her...with a vengeance.
Boston's P.I. Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot, redheaded ex-cop, still drives a cab when business is slow (Coyote, etc.). Her passenger one night is singer-guitarist Dee Willis, once a close friend in a turbulent period of Carlotta's life and the woman with whom Carlotta's ex-husband Cal had decamped. Dee, after years of career ups and downs, has had a blockbuster record, is in Boston for a sellout concert, and is about to sign with media mega-giant MGA. She's also in trouble. Davey Dunrobie, another figure from the past, is claiming, with a lawyer's letter, that Dee's songs were written by him, and he's demanding big bucks. Dee hires Carlotta to find Davey, but the death of Brenda, her bass player, puts everything else on hold. Is it suicide or murder? Other questions need answers too. What is mobster Mickey Mangenero doing at the fancy MGA bash for Dee? Who trashed Carlotta's house, leaving a
Back Off message on the bathroom mirror? And how does she really feel about Cal, no longer a druggie, who's discovered in her search for Davey while he's playing his bass in a seedy club? All of Carlotta's energies and resources are needed to find the answers, Davey Dunrobie, and a murderer to boot. Another of Barnes's superb mixes of warmth, enthusiasm, clever plotting, vivid characters, and overall brio.
Tall, red-haired private eye and part-time cab driver Carlotta Carlyle returns for her fourth, cleverly plotted and zestfully related adventure. in which she must deal with her past. Her former best friend, singer Dee Willis, in Boston to begin a tour, hires Carlotta to find a mutual friend, bass player Davey Dunrobie. Carlotta is suspicious — not, she tells herself, because Dee walked off with her husband Cal Therieux, but because Dee isn't the type to pay to have someone located for old time's sake. Dee finally admits that Davey has claimed that she stole his songs and owes him $300,000. The singer wants to talk to Davey, but when she finds the body of her current bass player in her hotel room, she begs Carlotta to stop the search. Intrigued by Dee's plea and angered by the ransacking of her own home, Carlotta decides to investigate. Barnes ( Coyote ) turns out a characteristically gripping tale, packed with taut, energy-charged images.
If the private eye V. I. Warshawski were married, what would she say to a shady character she'd just cornered? "Freeze! Oops ... never mind. I've got to dash home and truss the poularde pochee á courtbouillon for my hubby's dinner"?
It is the rare female sleuth who can make a go of being a happy homemaker. Mrs. Grace Latham? Conveniently, a widow. Nancy Drew? Perpetually under the age of consent. The typical distaff detective, however, from Miss Marple to Kinsey Millhone, is single by choice. (Even a married woman like Kate Fansler, with her cutie-pie Assistant D.A. husband, is created free of many of the traditional marital ties that bind; she is financially independent, fiercely liberated — and childless.)
Not only is the detective, for the most part, single; she is also single-minded. True, she can be disturbed by a sudden remembrance of things past, distracted by a pair of powerful pectorals, but to her, the outside world is only a momentary diversion. Like her male counterpart's, the female detective's true role is to restore equilibrium to a universe thrown out of balance by the flouting of its paramount law — the taboo against murder.
Well, Carlotta Carlyle, the dashing, 6-foot-I Boston shamus in "Steel Guitar," is indeed single, but the evidence in the novel would indicate her status is not exactly a matter of choice. Her husband, a bass player named Cal Therieux, loved cocaine more than he loved her. Actually, Carlotta does admit that there was another woman, too, but Cal didn't have to go. He was a gent with options: "He could stay with me, get clean, get a local job." Or he could leave, "play the music, stay stoned, and party. Uh-huh. Some choice."
Unlike so many of her colleagues, Carlotta is not single-minded. When her old friend, the great blues singer Dee Willis, comes back to town for a concert and asks Carlotta to find their old friend Davey, she accepts. But to be totally truthful, she is not such a dogged dame; a one-time rhythm guitarist and former cop, Carlotta is not plagued by monomania. She digresses. She meanders. She shops. She quips. Quite frankly, she schmoozes.
Because this relaxed tempo is so foreign to the relentless narrative thrust of the conventional whodunit it might at first seem that the author, Linda Barnes, who has written three previous Carlotta Carlyle mysteries, is being too indulgent with her protagonist. For example Carlotta discusses her boyfriend, Sam Gianelli, who does not even make an appearance in the novel: "I'm descended from cops; he's descended from robbers. . . . What Sam needs is a submissive Italian Catholic virgin, certified fertile. ... Half-Jewish divorcee that I am, if I did want to marry Sam, his father would probably have me garroted, shot for good measure, and dropped into Boston Harbor." She muses about the bizarre get-ups of her tenant and part-time employee, Roz, who looks
like Donna Reed on speed. She quotes her grandmother's Yiddish aphorisms and proclaims:
Guilt is the major motivating force in my life.
And of course Carlotta meditates on music and on precisely why Dee Willis — who, it turns out, was the Other Woman in Cal's life — is so eager to find Davey. Is it simply, as the singer claims, the desire to see a friendly face in the audience? And what about that other friendly face that reappears in Boston, Cal himself? Does he have anything to do with Dee and Davey? With the murder?
What murder? Linda Barnes's narrative is so leisurely as to seem, occasionally, almost Victorian;
Steel Guitar is a murder mystery that does not even have a dead body until Chapter 15. Only after Carlotta finishes reminiscing about the kite she bought for a young friend, and about finding two pairs of her hard-to-find size 11 shoes in Filene's Basement, does the reader discover that Dee's bassist, Brenda (a tough cookie if ever there was one), is dead of a not-so-accidental drug overdose.
But all these ruminations should not try the mystery lover's patience. On the contrary, the seemingly irrelevant details of Carlotta's history and life are brought together with skill and subtlety. This lady is not merely a feminized representative of the hard-boiled school, a P.I. with past and an attitude. Like the best of the new detectives, V. I. and Kinsey, she is a woman of wit and gravity, compassion and toughness, a heroine worth spending time with.
Perhaps some fans of the traditional detective novel will wish the author would get on with it. But the rest of us, who yearn for whodunits with character as well wrought as plot, can only thank Linda Barnes.
Steel Guitar may not go fast, but it goes deep.
— Susan Isaacs
Characters on the fringe — of life and of plot — are at the heart of mysteries by Linda Barnes. She's a terrific sketch artist, stronger on character than on plot, and her nervy outsiders propel her stories. There's some fine fringe in Barnes's fourth novel about Boston PI Carlotta Carlyle, a 6-foot-1, Scots-Irish-Jewish volley-ball player ("Anything unkosher is one of my favorite foods") and part-time cabbie. Two members of her regular oddball supporting cast are significant in this fast-lane ride of sex, drugs, bluesy rock and murder. There's Gloria, the no-bull, soft-hearted taxi dispatcher, and Roz, Carlotta's whiny but engaging postpunk tenant who dresses “like Donna Reed on speed” even when she's not going undercover as a groupie. The marginalia has some memorable newcomers, notably Stuart Lockwood, a cheap, discomfited lawyer big with "the avoid-a-subpoena crowd."
Carlotta is working for blues sensation Dee Willis, despite the fact that, years before, the singer waltzed off with her husband. Now Dee's being stung by another old pal who claims she plagiarized. Eventually, violence — which initially appears random — escalates into murder. Though “Steel Guitar” lacks the acuity of Barnes's "Coyote" (which dealt with imperiled Latina factory workers) and though the music-biz milieu was more vividly exploited in Liza Cody's “Under Contract,” it's compelling. Read it for the finely limned details. — Katrine Ames