Swann’s Down

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Swann's Down, Charles Salzberg

Written by Charles Salzberg — This is the fifth Henry Swann book by Charles Salzberg and we’ve previously reviewed Swann’s Way Out. The author says Swann’s Down is the detective’s last investigation and if it turns out he can really leave Henry Swann behind, he is at least ending strong. This is the only book in the series I’ve read, and I enjoyed its easy style so much, I’d like to scout out the others.

Narrator Henry Swann has reluctantly taken on a partner in his Manhattan business, which is a murky one that only a big city, with all its ragged fringes, could support. Because he’s not a licensed private investigator, Swann must operate a little differently than the typical detective, and he really knows how to work the system. He describes himself as mainly a skip tracer, someone whose true skill is in finding people and sometimes things. Lost, runaway, hiding. He’s a good guide to a lot of interesting places that would never appear on a tourist’s Top Ten.

His self-described partner Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. Swann’s mystification about Goldblatt and his usefulness is a running joke – good-natured, mostly – that lets you see Swann’s own blind spots. How little he actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help with a personal problem. Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel (“You… You’ve been married?” Three times, it turns out.) is a little spacey, a little too trusting. A fake psychic has bilked her out of most of her life savings – some $75,000. Goldblatt wants Swann to find this psychic. And get Rachel’s money back, if he can.

Swann doesn’t expect to be paid for this ‘favour’ except in any information he can wriggle out of Rachel about his partner’s mysterious past. To find the psychic, he delves into the world of con artists and interviews some real New York characters, brimming with attitude, venality and insight.

Thankfully, a paying client turns up as well. A criminal lawyer Swann has worked for in the past wants him to find a witness who’s gone missing. She’s supposedly able to provide an alibi for her boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, who at the moment is sitting in the Riker’s Island jail awaiting trial. Swann visits him: “It wasn’t my first trip out to Rikers, but I never stop hoping it will be my last.” The truculent boyfriend is a notorious hitman who claims he’s innocent in this case, and cooperates with Swann with exceedingly bad grace.

Why did the girlfriend disappear? Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because she was afraid, would she return at all? If she did, would she testify? And how would anyone know whether she’s telling the truth?

The whole case is full of questions and quandaries, but the lawyer finally talks him into pursuing it, and Swann applies one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid, what do I care?”

Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. Throughout, his self-deprecating narration and wry humour keep you charmed, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan are persuasive, and the things Swann is curious about become matters of interest to you as well.

Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. We’ll see whether he can really leave Swann behind. In Swann, perhaps, he found an irresistible alter ego.

Down & Out Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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