She was about my age, early forties, though I had to look at her hands to tell it. She was good-looking, too. Good-looking is putting it mildly, maybe. I looked around vaguely for a priest to strangle. She was tall and lean, with the kind of green eyes a lazy novelist would describe as "piercing." Her copper hair was pulled back from her face with a strip of brown cloth. I imagined that its more honest self was touched here and there with gray, but that was just a guess. . . . I put down the picture. She looked at me and it and frowned the kind of desperate, exhausted frown that turns the room upside down and shakes the sympathy from its pockets.
Yeah, the spirit of Raymond Chandler is alive and well in the Midwest.
I first heard about Jason Miller through this episode of Mysterypod and thought his conversation with Steve Usery was fascinating. I finally got the chance to read his first book this week -- We spend the first 3 and change pages with Slim in a coal mine in Little Egypt, Illinois. There were so many things in those pages I just didn't understand -- but somehow, Miller still created a fantastic sense of place. Claustrophobic, dark, dirty, and dangerous. I was hooked almost immediately. Then we started meeting people -- and it got better.
Slim works in the Knight Hawk -- one of the remaining coal mines in the area -- he's known for tracking down a couple of people that no one else seemed capable of finding, and was willing (and able) to get violent as necessary. More importantly, Slim's a single father to a 12 year-old named Anci. He's dating a teacher and has a best friend named Jeep, who's sort of a Joe Pike-figure.
Matthew Luster is the owner of the Knight Hawk -- and probably just as ethical as you'd expect. Just as rich, too -- at least by small-town standards (and then some). He talks Slim into looking for a newspaper photographer who went missing about the same time as the reporter he worked with was found dead inside the mine. Roy Beckett, the photographer, is married to Luster's daughter -- and it doesn't really seem like they're really close. Why Luster wants him found is a bit murky, too -- primarily, he seems curious about the story that Beckett and the photographer are working on.
The top contender is a blossoming meth trade in Knight Hawk and another mine in the area. But there's an environmental group making noise, too. Throw in Beckett's reputation as a womanizer, and you have any number of potential reasons why he's scarce. Slim makes a token effort in tracking him down -- when bodies start piling up, and bullets fly near Slim, his girlfriend and daughter. Which just makes him buckle down and get to work.
Overall, it's a pretty standard PI tale from this point out. Entertaining enough in and of itself, a solid story that will keep mystery fans reading. But what makes this book shine and stand out is Slim and his perspective -- like any good PI novel, it's about the narrator primarily. And Slim is, right out of the gate, right up there with Spenser, Walt Longmire, Patrick Kenzie, and so on. Right there, Miller's given people a reason to enjoy this book and come back for a sequel or three.
But it gets better -- the way most of these people talk. I loved it -- I'm not saying Little Egypt is full of Boyd Crowders, but it's close. A ritzy-subdivision's security guard, one of Beckett's mistresses, Slim, and others -- I made notes to quote them all, but I won't -- just a sample of the dialogue (and narration, which is pretty much just internal dialogue):
That old man is so bad, they'll have to come up with a new definition of the term just so ordinary bad men won't get all full of false piety.
You ever see one of these Taurus Raging Judge Magnum things? . . . I know it sounds like a gas station prophylactic, but let me tell you, it's enough gun to kill the Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.
...the public defender system is a good thing--but you got the feeling that, in this guy's hands, you could walk into to donate to the policeman's fund and end up tied to a metal table.
Anci, I have to say, is the coolest kid in Crime Fiction today -- that's not saying a whole lot, I grant you. But she is. I like Maddie Bosch, but she's no Anci (and outside of Bernie Little's and Andy Carpenter's sons are okay, too -- but we don't get that much time with them). She's smart, she's brave, she's vulnerable, funny, well-read . . . and more mature than Flavia de Luce (and doesn't seem to go looking for trouble). All without being too cute and therefore annoying -- she's a kid, but an important part of Team Slim.
The novel ends making it clear that there are more stories about Anci and Slim to tell. There's another novel and a short story in this series -- hopefully with more to come. I had so much fun reading this and totally dug this one and can't wait to read the others. Give this a shot, folks.