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Onyx reviews: Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 3/18/2017

Old private detectives don't die, they just fail to...well, there's not much Charlie Bradshaw fails to do during his enforced retirement other than defy the instructions of the local authorities, with whom he once worked, after they revoke his PI license and expressly ban him from doing anything remotely like investigating a crime. They won't even let him get a license to carry a gun. Their biggest issue with Charlie isn't that he has stuck his nose in their cases in the past so much as the fact that in doing so he's made them look bad on a number of occasions.

When an acquaintance asks him to deliver the ransom in a horse-napping case—the latest in a rash of such incidents—Charlie is reluctant, but he claims he isn't investigating anything. He's simply helping someone out, for a nice little payoff. Of course, old habits die hard and he can't help himself from going above and beyond, following and attempting to identify the extortionist who has executed stolen horses in the past and delivered their heads to owners who refused to pay.

Similarly, when another figure from his past turns up murdered and mutilated on his front lawn, Charlie can't help but feel compelled to investigate. The dead man, Mickey Martin, a shady real estate agent and insurance broker best known for his offensive breath, was on his way to see Charlie, although the former detective has no idea why. He follows a trail of clues to other people who recently spoke to Martin. More murders occur, and Charlie worries that his off-the-books investigation is causing the killer to strike again.

The police turn up an unusual kill list consisting of paper effigies of the recent and, presumably, intended victims, one of which looks like Charlie. Thus begins a race against time to figure out who is on a vendetta to kill Charlie and other people he knows. Except it's a slow race, not a horse race. Weeks, even months pass with no progress, until the killer re-emerges and Charlie's heart is once again pushed to its limits.

This is Dobyns' eleventh Charlie Bradshaw novel, and the author has seen his protagonist into early albeit reluctant semi-retirement. Charlie is more or less happily married, has a teenage step-daughter who tolerates him and even helps out from time to time when he confronts technological challenges, and he's handy enough with tools that he can accomplish DIY projects around the family home, when he isn't being distracted by the overwhelming urge to solve a crime. 

However, in his own words, he's a professional Nosey Parker and a practiced meddler. He's intuitive and hunch-driven, more interested in process than in results, in questions than in answers, and the threat of being sent to jail for interfering in a criminal investigation isn't as big a deterrent as his nemesis, Lieutenant Hutchins of the Saratoga PD, would like. Though he shuns the symbolism of autumn with regards to his career and his life, he acknowledges that the highly modified shotgun he acquires via black market channels is meant to compensate for his growing sense of decrepitude.

Dobyns has also published books of poetry and darker crime novels (such as Boy in the Water and The Burn Palace), but he has a penchant for these witty, off-kilter books (most recently: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?) that showcase his literary chops and his mordant sense of humor. The Charlie Bradshaw books aren't precisely cozy mysteries—some of the more gruesome events take place off-screen, but they are gruesome all the same—but they are light-hearted and driven, as is Charlie, more by the process than the results.

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