Alibi for a Dead Man is a paean to the pulp fiction noir genre, not just feeding on a love of the classic stories but also the stuff that has deservedly had it day too. Fans of pulp will find that an endearing aspect of the novel. There’s a lot to enjoy in the playful tones and witty but gentle spoof here. This is light-hearted fun that makes the most of its ironic language and alternate meanings. Of course, the fun isn’t enough on its own to sustain a whole novel and this story actually holds its own too, it’s intriguing and well thought out. This is not so much pastiche as homage to the hardboiled detective novel, switching out some of the hero-anti-hero virtues and skills for less sophisticated motives and bad attitudes, but not totally. Toney shoehorns a couple of modern sensibilities into the mix, and flips tropes left, right and centre. From page one when the fun starts there are plenty of laughs and knowing moments that entertain but the strong plot has a few hard edges too. Toney is very good at building a picture and drawing disparate story strands together. A likeable read becomes engaging as the story progresses.
It all began with the big bang, so Bug says, but maybe we should bring it forward 13.8 billion years or so. ‘Why would a dead man need an alibi?’ I can’t say, spoiler and all that, but I can tell you the HQ of the National Detective Agency in [REDACTED] is housed in a nondescript building, much like any other in the street – except for the bullet proof glass and the blast proof walls. Maybe the Agency has made some friends over the years but it’s made a lot more enemies. They’ve actually been in existence since long before bulletproof glass even existed, in those days most of the agents were middle-aged guys, now they have a more inclusive recruitment policy. But, it just so happens that this story is about three middle-aged agents. We’ll get back to them.
Let’s take a look at a few practical tips for bank robbers: Plan in advance, come while the bank is empty, of people not money (i.e. at night), check the security and the electronic gizmos, pick your partners well, pray for rain and, for goodness sake, make sure that your alibi is good and solid – then do it.
Joel Cready likes to think of himself as a helpful person, not exactly philanthropic more of an ambulance chaser really, but a helpful one and not everything he says is a lie, just most of it. A few drinks and a couple bucks gets the cops on side, they call him from burners, this isn’t amateur hour, when an accident occurs. Cready is often first on the scene explaining how the lawyers he works for, Feinstein and Gray, helped when the very same thing happened to him. For 40% of the pay-out they’ll be your best friend in a crisis. So on the night of the 15th Cready gets a call from Officer McNabb, a smash up on Higgins Lane, two dead, he’s in his car and on the way in no time.
A couple of days later Bug and Roche (that’s pronounced rock not roach) get called to the office. An investigative job for Feinstein and Gray. Their freelance contractor, Cready, is in trouble – an accident on the way to an accident. He T-boned a car on Lancaster, barely a scratch on him but the other guy, Butree, is dead. The police figure it was Cready’s fault and he wants Bug and Roach to prove otherwise. Cready says Butree was stone-cold dead when he hit him, which means he died a minimum of twelve long hours before the crash. When Bug and Roche investigate something is definitely off about this, not just the corpse. Coincidentally, not, that was the night the First National got knocked over.
Meanwhile, Agent Joe Starkey, is investigating the disappearance of United Transhipment overseas investment executive Chuck Gerson. He’s been gone a few days, his Swiss bank account recently expanded.
The National Detective Agency is no private sector FBI and the men aren’t exactly Sherlockian deducers but for a couple lots of money they can figure things out pretty well. The hardboiled passages mix with the witty flow nicely and the twisty plot is really clever. Watch out for the wisdom of Bug, he’s no Steven Hawkins but I’m sure there’s something to his musings.
A good way to spend a lazy afternoon reading. Incidentally, Toney has a claim to fame that is so tenuous it would defy seven degrees of separation let alone six.
Paul Burke 3½
Alibi for a Dead Man by Wilson Toney
Stark House Press 9781844520861 pbk Dec 2019