Written by Sara Paretsky — The shell game goes back centuries. It’s that tricksy little number so beloved of magicians and roadside shysters, whereby a person is duped into betting on which cup/walnut shell/bottle top hides an item. There’s even an Hieronymus Bosch painting, entitled The Conjurer, which features the scam in progress. It’s also a neat title for a book in which very little is as it may seem. Welcome to the 19th appearance of private investigator VI Warshawski, a series which began with Indemnity Only.
After years of struggling to earn a crust, Chicago-based Vic finally has some regular, corporate clients who provide her with a steady income. No time to rest on her laurels though, and she finds herself caught between financial security and family loyalties when two unpaid cases come along at once.
The first involves Felix Herschel, great nephew of Vic’s mentor and friend Lotty Herschel. A man has been found murdered, his body stuffed upside down into a hollow tree in a forest preserve near to the city. There’s nothing to identify the dead man, other than a scrap of paper in his pocket bearing Felix’s name and phone number. Enough for the police to suspect the young engineering student of being involved in the death, though.
Vic is a qualified lawyer and she manages to spring Felix from custody for now, but it’s her deductive skills that will be brought into play if she’s to uncover any link between the young man and the dead man. Unfortunately, the more she learns, the less she seems to actually know. Felix is being very cagey about things and the dead man’s links to the local Syrian community also muddy the waters.
Meanwhile, there’s another family crisis to deal with. Harmony Seale is niece to Vic’s ex-husband, Dick, and Harmony’s sister Reno has gone missing. Can Vic find her? When was our heroine ever one to turn down a plea for help? Reno was working for a Chicago branch of Rest EZ, a payday loans company with some very suspect ways of snaring vulnerable customers. By all accounts she was doing well, and even got invited to attend a glitzy conference on a Caribbean island. It appears that when Reno returned from St Maartens her problems began. Has she left town of her own volition? Harmony is adamant that would never happen – so where is Reno?
The two investigations duck and dive like a punch drunk fighter, occasionally connecting but leading Vic a merry dance in the process. Paretsky has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this book, with Russian hoods, missing ancient Middle Eastern artefacts, dodgy financial dealings and even a spot of romance coming into play in a story that’s set squarely in Trump’s America. It’s all crammed in there like an overstuffed cushion, and there may well be times when your brain feels that way too. There are too many storylines, come of them pretty complex, and it makes the reading experience somewhat jerky and uneven.
It doesn’t help that both Felix and Harmony aren’t that likeable, with the latter proving particularly annoying. Poor Vic is run off her feet, battling the baddies like some cartoon superhero and running into one problematic situation after another. There’s pace to the narrative but sometimes it’s best to sit back and take stock before some vital snippet of information flies past unnoticed.
VI Warshawski is one of our all-time top private detectives and I’ve enjoyed this series for a number of years but this book doesn’t reach the high standards of some of the others. 2014’s Critical Mass was a cracker, for example. For much of Shell Game, Vic is complaining about aches and pains and feeling the passage of time. Maybe it’s time for her to take a step back?
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 3 Stars