Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Book You Have to Read:
“Life’s Work,” by Jonathan Valin

(Editor’s note: This is the 123rd installment of our ongoing blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s contribution comes from Boston author Linda Barnes, the Edgar and Anthony award-winning creator of series private eye Carlotta Carlyle [last seen in 2008’s Lie Down with the Devil]. Barnes’ standalone novel, The Perfect Ghost, is being officially released today by Minotaur Books.)

He showed up as soon as I heard the topic, Forgotten Crime Classics: Harry Stoner, Jonathan Valin’s tough-guy detective, charging through a book called Life’s Work. It starts out as a missing-persons case. All-Pro nose guard Billy Parks is gone.

I haven’t got much street cred as a football fan. It’s not my game. I follow the Red Sox when I follow anybody, and I resent following them. Why should I care about a bunch of spoiled pro gunslingers who migrate easily from city to city, get paid like movie stars, and behave like animals? (Excuse the generalization; yeah, I know all writers aren’t drunks.) And yet. I cheer when David Ortiz hits a fat one. I watch the Sox spool out the innings on long summer nights. I watch the Pats so I can chat with my son. I even watch the Super Bowl.

Fans are happier than other people. I read that in The New York Times.

“Hugh Petrie didn’t have the sort of office that an executive of the Cincinnati Cougars should have had.” The year was 1986. Valin had already published five Stoners, all set in Cincinnati, Ohio. In Life’s Work, Petrie hires Stoner to find a top-level player, a mean son of a bitch who walked out of training camp a month before the season opener. Petrie, on the defensive, says, “No matter what you hear about how unfairly we treat them, these guys are the lucky ones. They were lucky from the start.”

Just how lucky is what Stoner, and the reader, will find out. A middle-aged knight in damaged armor, Stoner’s a guy who’s been around the block. He’s played some college ball and done a stint as an investigator with the local D.A.’s office. He begins his quest here by locating Bill’s best friend on the team, 11-year veteran Otto Bluerock, angry, overweight, and cut by the Cougars that very morning.

“I didn’t find Bluerock inside--just a desk and a chair and a little piece of sunlight that had fallen through an open window and flattened itself on the concrete floor.” I fell for that sentence, first-person narration at its Chandleresque best.

Bluerock defends the missing player and declares that Bill must have had a good reason for going AWOL. Bluerock and Bill are tight, two of a kind. Bluerock says that Bill doesn’t just play football; he is the football, a dumb guy getting played, a man who devoted his life to being the toughest and meanest player in the league. So what if he uses a little flake to gain an edge? So what if he beats up a woman or two? If Bill can’t keep all that meanness trapped in between the white lines during game time, well, who could?

Stoner and Bluerock team up to carve a path through the local bars, gyms, and jailhouses, raising the kind of ethical questions that rear their ugly heads every time a new Lance Armstrong scandal breaks loose. Valin seems prescient about the use of anabolic steroids in sports. (Remember, it’s 1986 here and Jose Canseco’s Juiced didn’t make the scene till 2005.) Stoner finds that a court case pending against Bill is based on evidence that won’t stand up. Was the case trumped up by an overzealous cop? Is Bill being pressured to testify before a grand jury?

The two words of Valin’s title, Life’s Work, echo and re-echo, used by football execs to talk about what the players will do when their brief glory days are behind them, used by players, too, wondering what kind of life’s work their playing days could possibly prepare them to do. “Time to get on with my life’s work,” says Bluerock, before heading off to another bar brawl. What constitutes a life’s work for desperate guys who get one shot at the brass ring, guys with no back-up plans that don’t involve a lottery ticket?

This novel would have made a good movie. Stoner follows a path studded with illicit drugs, violence, murder, and old-time religion. He goes by “the code,” but he’s modern enough to question that code. “If you think too much about your loyalties you can think yourself out of them,” he says.

I don’t give this book a free pass. It contains scenes that are overly talky. It could use more of a sense of humor. It’s very much--maybe too much--of its time, with television references that won’t make sense to future readers. Unanswered phone calls play a big role, and kids today don’t know from unanswered phones. Bill’s girl turns up dead; most of the women in these pages tend toward victimhood. And yes, that girl who sleeps with Stoner is not long for this world either.

Maybe Harry Stoner is too compassionate for his own good. But I liked him. I miss him. I enjoyed reading him again.

READ MORE:The Please-Come-Back Kids,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(The Rap Sheet).

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