Book review: Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns
Dobyns, an award-winning poet and distinguished novelist praised by the likes of Stephen King, has been penning acclaimed crime fiction for more than 40 years. Saratoga Payback, his latest novel, is the dryly amusing eleventh book in his long-running mystery series set in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Charlie Bradshaw, who first appeared in print in 1975, is now aged 67 and married with a teenage stepdaughter. Having had his private investigator’s licence and gun permit revoked by the police chief, ‘with the help of the district attorney,’ nowadays much of his time is consumed with chores around the house.
However, he still occupies his second-floor office above a used bookstore, and still carries a business card, albeit one designed by his stepdaughter bearing the dubious label: ‘Consultant, Legal or Otherwise.’
His slow, monotonous life takes a dramatic turn early one morning when he carries out the garbage and discovers the butchered corpse of Mickey Martin, a neighbourhood acquaintance, in an untidy heap on the pavement outside his home.
Mickey, a small insurance and realty business owner with ‘urinous breath’ who specialises in ‘gossip, slander and scandal, as well as back biting and stabbing,’ has had his throat slit and tongue removed.
Charlie’s curiosity is sufficiently piqued by the grisliness of the murder and the possibility that Mickey was coming to see him at the time of his death, and starts ‘sticking his nose’ into the homicide investigation, much to Lieutenant Frank Hutchins’ annoyance.
Hutchins, despite his dozen years in the FBI before arriving in Saratoga, is a fairly run-of-the-mill police officer. He views Charlie, a retired policeman of 20 years, as a ‘cop hobbyist, an amateur,’ and warns him to ‘leave the case alone or go to jail.’
All his warning does is to encourage Charlie to dig deeper. Before long, Charlie is breaking into the apartment of a shady ex-con with a close connection to Mickey, wielding an illegally modified 12-guage semi-automatic shotgun, and stumbling onto more corpses with severed throats and missing body parts.
He is also on the trail of highly dangerous horse thieves. Apparently, there has been a spate of recent horse-nappings and on the three occasions that the horse owners got the police involved, it resulted in severed horses’ heads turning up in a car, a baby’s crib and mounted on a flagpole.
Fearing contacting the police, Fletcher Campbell, a thoroughbred trainer Charlie has known for ten years, hires him to deliver $100,000 in ransom money to the kidnappers of his stolen prize stallion, Bengal Lancer.
‘Born nosy,’ Charlie is never one to simply make the drop and walk quietly away. And unfortunately he is oblivious to the danger closing in on him.
It seems the police have found a set of ‘canning jars’ in a motel closet, filled with alcohol and containing a nose, a pair of ears and Mickey’s tongue floating ‘like some kind of pink fish.’ They have also discovered seven six-inch figurines fashioned to resemble the murder victims and the next intended targets. The overweight doll with ‘a little plaid hat’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie, leading everyone to believe his life is in grave danger.
The meagre police protection provided for him doesn’t fill him with much hope. He knows it’s up to him to protect his family and friends and find the murderer before the killer’s knife finds his neck, and one of his body parts ends up floating in a jar.
With its winning mix of mystery and humour, strong bursts of suspenseful action, and a likeable if ham-fisted hero at the reins, Saratoga Payback is a constantly engaging, sure-footed experience. Let’s hope Charlie Bradshaw will be back on the crime scene sooner rather than later.
(Blue Rider Press, hardback, £22)