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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Honestly Dearest, You're Dead, by Jack Fredrickson (hardcover, $24.95)

With all due respect for how difficult it is to title a book and design a cover, and as clever as both of the above are in this case, they are mismatched to the content. Both indicate a cutesy type of soft-boiled mystery. Wrong.

Dek Elstrom is a dysfunctional tough-but-tender guy in the best private eye tradition, and he stars in a compelling and thoughtful book. Dek is very human: stubborn, fallible, loyal to a fault, with a thorough knowledge of his shortcomings but without the wherewithal to do anything about them.

In the first book in the series, A Safe Place for Dying (which I haven't yet read -- soon to be remedied), Dek apparently suffered a fall from grace. He has gone from a successful job to unemployment, celebrity to disgrace, and marriage to divorce. He has been exiled to the dying industrial town of his youth, to a turret (yes, as in what you find in a castle) an eccentric progenitor created with the thought that the rest of the castle couldn't be far behind. When hard times hit, all that was left was the turret and a sense of loss.

On the perpetual brink of poverty and depression these days, Dek receives a call from a lawyer. A mysterious client has named Dek to be the executor of her estate. The problem? Dek has never heard of her, has never set foot in the tiny town she lived in, and foul play is suspected in her disappearance and presumed death. This is like the horror movies where the unwitting (as in "no wits") heroine opens the door, walks up or down the stairs in the dark, and ignores the spooky music pouring from the soundtrack, despite having several indications that a serial killer lies in wait. Run, Dek. Say no, Dek.

I tried.

Instead, Dek drives to the town, pokes around, and discovers first to his amusement and then to his puzzlement that Louise Thomas, the presumptive deceased, was the advice columnist "Honestly, Dearest." She was also, as far as he can determine, a recluse with no past and a dismal future. Her house (not a home) is spare and utilitarian, with the exception of an old-fashioned doorstopper of a typewriter. The typewriter triggers memories from Dek's past, so part of the book proceeds to deal with the unresolved loss of Dek's first great love when he was a teenager.

Dek tries to unravel why Louise Thomas was on the run and to deal for the first time with feelings he has long repressed. The combination closes Dek off to those closest to him: his ex-wife Amanda and his best friend Leo. I love how Fredrickson deals with their convoluted relationships. (And I especially love "Ma," Leo's mother. She appears off-stage, but notably so.)

I also love Fredrickson's similes. Here's one: "I was up on the ladder, swaying like long johns on a clothesline…" The humor speckles the story, but mostly in the beginning, as the story progressively gets darker and deeper and there's not much room for humor in the end.

Run (to get the book), people. Say yes, people. You've been warned.

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