Sam Spade on Steroids

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is
Monday, January 5, 2009


A Jackson Steeg Novel

By Ira Berkowitz

Three Rivers. 275 pp. Paperback, $12.95

Most of the novels reviewed here are some variation on the police procedural, in which someone -- most often a cop, private eye or reporter -- is out to solve a mystery. This genre has an honorable tradition, from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to John D. MacDonald and Ed McBain to current, well-established writers like Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and others. At best, these writers find ingenious ways to breathe life into the old formula, and it's a delight when they do, because we like to see mysteries solved and wrongs put right. But there are hundreds and hundreds of books being published, and for every one that delights, there are many that disappoint.

Ira Berkowitz's "Old Flame" is not without its virtues. It's his second novel, and the first, "Family Matters," won some good reviews and a prize. "Old Flame" moves along fast and offers some vivid writing. But it's more annoying than pleasing. The problems include too many wisecracks, too much profanity, too many "colorful" characters and a general feeling that the author is trying too hard.

Jackson Steeg is an ex-cop in New York. He killed a man in the line of duty, was seriously wounded himself and was given a pension. Trouble, inevitably, keeps coming his way. At the outset: "Jeanmarie Doyle, my ex-mother-in-law, loathed me in a biblical way, had poisoned my marriage, and now sat at my kitchen table smiling sweetly, coiled to strike again. . . . The same feral madness still bubbled in her eyes." The mother-in-law from hell is there to report that someone is threatening to kill Steeg's ex-wife's new husband, who is black, much to the distaste of the mother-in-law and her own husband, who are bigots. Very soon, the black husband, who worked for a city civil-rights bureau, is beaten to death, and Steeg, his juices a-bubble, jumps on the case.

Even as Steeg investigates the murder, a friend of his runs afoul of a ruthless Jewish gangster, and Steeg intervenes. All this is complicated by the fact that Steeg's own brother is a ruthless Irish gangster, who threatens to chop people's heads off and strangle them with their own intestines. Of the Jewish gangster, two characters intone the identical phrase, "The guy's got razor wire in his head." Clearly, these two gangsters are going to collide, like Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, and I knew from the start which one I'd bet on.

As Steeg pinballs around town, we see that he is one tough dude, who relishes a good brawl. ("The snakes in my head grew giddy with anticipation.") Time after time, he takes on various skinheads and hoodlums, who are soon horizontal or in flight. Thus, "as of its own volition, my hand grabbed a mug and drove it up into his face. I heard the crunch of his nose flattening against his skull." And "I hit him in the mouth with the iron. In a spray of blood and teeth, Big Tiny fell in sections."

We meet Steeg's various sidekicks. His girlfriend Allie is a hip advertising executive who is first glimpsed wearing a "Surrounded by Morons" T-shirt and next a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt. They exchange cool dialogue like "Have you no shame?" "Nope." "Another reason why I'm attracted to you." In one scene, "her eyebrow rose fetchingly," and a moment later her "eyebrow arched." Elsewhere, she declares, "We've set the bar too high. Sex can't always be this good. It's not normal!" Steeg's best friend is his ex-partner, Luce, a Louisiana-born black lesbian who declares that he would be her man if she liked men and says things like, "So, some whitey fat cats are [expletive] my people over again. What a surprise! Martin Luther King must be spinning in his grave."

The plot leads to a corrupt city councilman who is raking in millions from construction companies. When the councilman invites Steeg to a party he replies, "Thanks, but I have a high colonic scheduled." His gangster brother warns him, "Jake, you're in over your head here, and I don't know that I'll be able to protect you." To which the fearless ex-cop replies, "We all choose the hills we want to die on." Steeg declares of one character, "Noonan seemed to take a special delight in strewing sarcasm like a demented Johnny Appleseed." That seemed to me to apply to Steeg as well. There is a tradition of wisecracks and overwriting in private-eye novels. It goes back to Raymond Chandler, but he compensated with loads of wonderful writing. Berkowitz doesn't compensate. His souped-up prose, to borrow one of Steeg's pet phrases, makes my head hurt.

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