A private investigator named Carlotta? Unusual, perhaps, but Boston P.I. Carlotta Carlyle is every bit as feisty as Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone. If you like Kinsey, you'll enjoy Carlotta. But you kinda have to love anyone who'd list her home phone under her cat's name — Thomas C. (as in Cat) Carlyle, to discourage the kind of crank calls women living alone tend to get.
A TROUBLE OF FOOLS
The Village Voice, December 15, 1997
There are still a few areas in writing dominated almost entirely by men, literary tree houses where hardly any girls are allowed. No prominent female sportswriter, for example, springs to mind. Television may have given us Cagney and Lacey, but most of the show's writers are men, and detective literature remains a decidedly masculine affair. It's no accident they call them dick novels.
It doesn't have to be that way; the detective genre is ripe for desegregation. Linda Barnes is one writer pointing the way. Barnes has written the successful "Michael Spraggue' mysteries; her new book, A Trouble of fools, introduces Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot-one-inch Boston ex-cop, fired from the force for telling off a superior. Carlotta is divorced, her parrot is named after Emma Goldman, and her cat ascribed to Mother Jones. In this well-plotted story, Barnes combines the conventions of the hard-boiled form with a feminist perspective.
Set in and around Boston, A Trouble of Fools passes a tough test of the detective novel: it evokes a strong sense of place. To anyone who has been stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive, or witnessed the mingling of preppies and punks in Harvard Square, Barnes's rendition rings true. Healthily skeptical about the putrification of her city, Carlotta is not afraid to name names behind the Boston-based ice cream scandal: "Herrell is really Steve, see. He opened this place called Steve's years ago in Davis Square, Somerville. . . . Then he retired and sold his successful empire, a chain of stores by then, to a guy named Joey, so Joey owned Steve's. But then Steve decided to make a comeback, except he'd sold his first name to Joey. So Steve's is Joey's and Herrell's is Steve's."
The book's plot is a direct outgrowth of its Beantown setting. While investigating a missing-person case, Carlotta stumbles on a gunrunning scheme. Turns out not all the change collected in coffee cans in bars with names like The Rebellion goes to the Jimmy Fund. The over-50 drivers at the Green and White Cab Company, the ones who worked there before the Haitians, and Jamaicans, and the Africans . . . and see themselves as the last American cabbies," have been rounding up the cash for the Irish Republican Army.
These nationalists take their cue from the Irish Bard, as does Barnes. The book's title is from Yeat's "Three Marching Songs," and Yeat's poems, with their ambivalence toward violence, provide a subtext for the novel. When Carlotta finally assembles the cab drivers-cum-gunrunners to rebuke them for their complicity with terrorists, it's Yeat's who provides the words: "taught to ignorant men most violent ways,/ Or hurled the little streets upon the great,/ Had they but courage equal to desire?' Carlotta, while sympathizing with the cab drivers and their ideal of a free Ireland, knows that their romantic nationalism, often manipulated by cynics, can kill innocent people. She captures Yates' view of the "terrible-beauty" or violence in Irish politics in a modern, transplanted setting.
These literary preoccupations aside, Barnes evokes the law enforcement vacuum that makes private eyes necessary in the fist place. The cops are oblivious to the gunrunning and just about everything else. They seem most adept at blaming promoters for their own shortcomings. The only thing that unites Boston's best is a chance to screw the FBI. Which the FBI dutiful provides, mistaking Carlotta's cat for the head of a survivalist network.
But the novel's real strength is its humanist, unpretentious voice. There is a sensitivity to crime and its victims that is absent from harder-boiled works. Instead of a heavy-drinking cop or a slimy street informer, Carlotta's best friend is Paolina, her 10-year-old "Little Sister." Carlotta's concern that Paolina might be using crack provides a key twist in the story.
Carlotta also has her eye on the bigger picture. As she hits the pubs for clues on the case, she longs for the day when "unescorted women will walk into bars without getting the glad eyeball from every guy who can still lift his face from his beer... I'm not bitter,... I just hate feeling like I have a price tag on my ass." And having carefully schemed out the final stakeout, Carlotta undermines the macho sleuth ethos with this classic deflating line: "Damn. I hoped the deal wouldn't go down in the men's room. I hadn't thought of that. Christ, you can't think of everything." For those turned off by the smugness of Robert Parker and Raymond Chandler, Barnes is a welcome antidote.
Boston-based private eye Carlotta Carlyle is the newest creation of the author of the lively Michael Sprague mysteries. In addition to being red-haired, 6'1" tall, a former cabbie and an ex-cop, Carlotta is the sort of storyteller capable of enlisting readers' sympathies at the very outset. Her first adventure involves a missing person. An elderly Irish woman hires her to find her brother, Eugene, who has vanished from their home, leaving behind a mysterious cache of $13,000. Eugene's cronies, who, like himself, are drivers for a taxi fleet and secret sympathizers with the Irish cause, seem to be involved with a scheme in support of the IRA. Having once worked for the cab company herself, Carlotta hires on again to monitor their activities, an action that eventually sets her at odds with a major drug ring, the FBI and a certain Mafia-connected former lover. All of the above learn that it's not wise to step on the toes of someone who wears size 11 shoes. Carlotta first made a brief appearance in a prize-winning short story called
Moving from the popular Michael Spraggue series, Barnes has created Carlotta Carlyle, ex-cabbie, ex-policewoman, now private investigator. While looking for a missing cab driver, Carlyle stumbles upon some strange goings on at the taxi company. From the trashing of her client's house to a strange scam involving large sums of money, Carlyle moves through Boston until the threatening violence explodes when least expected. Barnes uses all of her finely honed technique to deliver an exciting book.
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