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Friday, April 9, 2010

Sick Like That, by Norman Green (hardcover, $25.99)

Norman Green is probably the best author you've never heard of. Until this book, his novels have been standalones. How to classify his work? Noir-ish perhaps, with a big nod to redemption as a theme. It's never too late in Green's world for his characters to salvage some grace before they bite the big one.

With Sick Like That, Green takes a walk down the bumpy road of series work. This is the follow-up to 2009's The Last Gig. Alessandra Martillo is the amazing character whose story Green continues. ("MAR-TEE-YO," her incapacitated boss hollers down the hall of his care facility after she has done her best to irritate him.) "Al" does a great job following in the footsteps of other ornery, pathologically antisocial female characters – like Stieg Larsson's memorable Lisbeth Salander, Carol O'Connell's Mallory, Charlie Newton's Patti Black. It's easy to overdo this sort of characterization, but I think Green is spot on. There's enough show-stopping martial arts and brainpower on display, but she's not infallible and perfect. (Well, maybe just a little infallible. Is that like being a little bit pregnant?)

Marty Stiles, P.I., is the incapacitated boss, and while the boss is away, the cats will … carry on the business. Al and Sarah Waters, the woman Marty hired to replace Al in "The Last Gig," have been become de facto partners, an uneasy relationship at first because Al just isn't the warm, confiding type, but it grows into a mutual respect. Legally, they shouldn't be in the P.I. business, because neither one has a license, but their ingenuity allows them to skate by that issue. A lot of the charm of Green's book is in showing us how Al and Sarah solve their everyday problems.

A well-to-do woman who is dying of cancer wants to reconcile with her stepson. He has been missing for a few years, having fled home after being suspected of killing his father. If Al and Sarah can find him, it would go a long way towards paying their bills. In the meantime, however, Sarah's ex-husband, Frank, goes missing. He's a jerk, but he's Sarah's jerk, and she hasn't quite resolved their love-hate relationship. Al and her boyfriend are in attendance the night Frank disappears. There's definitely something rotten in the state of New York with Frank's new job working for a wine importer, whose credentials may be spotless but whose actions are a whole lot of suspicious. It falls to Al to take this more dangerous gratis assignment and find the father of Sarah's young son. There's definitely more than meets the eye in both cases.

Green has some great characters with which to establish a long-running series, but I hope he will occasionally write more of the powerful dark stories he has mastered.

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