Wednesday, February 15, 2017


The Dark RoomThe Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”’You’d remember, if you saw her?’

‘I’d probably remember.’

‘Because she’s a knockout, right?’

The mayor glanced at the photograph. Cain wasn’t sure if he nodded or not.

‘She looks like one of those old film stars,’ Cain said. ’Lana Turner maybe.’

‘You got it mixed up,’ Castelli said. ’It’s Lauren Bacall you’re thinking of. She looks like Bacall.’

The Big Sleep--that was her?’

‘Bacall and Bogart,’ Castelli said. ’Yeah.’

‘One of your favorites?’

‘It was okay.’

‘I mean Bacall.’

‘Bacall?’ the mayor asked. He took another drink.’She was before my time.’

‘Way before mine,’ Cain said. ’But you see her on the screen, and it doesn’t really matter.’

‘Maybe for some guys.’”

Inspector Gavin Cain of the SFPD is interviewing San Francisco Mayor Harry Castelli about a packet of blackmail photographs that he received that date back to the 1980s. The girl in the photographs is who they are discussing. Now the interesting thing about this interview is that Cain is playing dumb on purpose. He knows the girl looks like Bacall, but he throws Lana Turner out there to make Castelli correct him. There is no way that anyone would confuse Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall. Bacall is about as distinctive of a woman to ever grace the silver screen. The only woman I’ve ever seen on film who looks even vaguely like her is Lisbeth Scott, who I always refer to as the poor director’s Lauren Bacall. If you can’t afford Bacall, you get Scott.

Now me, I’d be very leery of Cain at this point. He’s playing a bit of the Columbo, but Castelli has been drinking like a fish, not plowed, but as foggy as the streets of San Francisco. He isn’t quite tracking. If I were his handler, I’d have put the cops off until I had a chance to sober him up or at least have the cops talk to him first thing in the morning while he was hung over, but not yet starting his daily backstroke in a bourbon bath.

Castelli does the right thing calling the cops in, and Cain catches the case because he has the most seniority. He has other cases that he’d rather be working on, but a high profile case like this takes priority over everything else.

The blackmailer promises more photographs.

But doesn’t this feel like the type of thing a guy like Castelli would handle on his own? Powerful men and blackmailers go together like vodka and cunning eyed blondes. You pay off blackmailers or call in a favor to make them go away. The fact that Castelli calls the cops, instead of say a Philip Marlowe type, is interesting, maybe even puzzling.

Of course, there is always the possibility that he is innocent...naw can’t be that. The question is more about how guilty is he.

Cain goes to talk to Castelli’s wife and daughter, which if I wasn’t already having some Big Sleep flashbacks, I am now. If you remember from the book or the movie of The Big Sleep, there is the Sternwood mansion with one member of the family as crazy or crazier than the last one. Bogie spends most of the movie trying to figure out what is going on from people who haven’t had their feet planted on the real terra firma in a long time. Alexa Castelli is the daughter, and she is an IA investigation waiting to happen. She is comfortable with her body and doesn’t mind sharing it with everyone, including an unsuspecting police officer by the name of Cain. The mother is waiting for Cain with a pitcher of martinis, her eyes floating with gin dreams. Her engagement with reality is just a broken string of half thoughts and lost memories weighed down by a melancholy future.

Power and money do not make you happy. You still have to like yourself to be happy.

Cain has an interesting back story. He is involved with a piano teacher named Lucy, who has an anxiety order similar to agoraphobia. Jonathan Moore does a wonderful job giving us just enough about the source of a problem without actually revealing the story to us. He puts us on high alert for the rest of the book, looking for the clues that will reveal those missing pieces. So while we are trying to figure out the blackmailing story, we are puzzling over another case that may connect to the blackmailing case involving an exhumed casket, we fret over the backstory on Lucy, and of course, we are looking for any information that Moore wishes to breadcrumb to us regarding the mysterious Inspector Gavin Cain.

I love the way Moore sprinkles CSI stuff in that is, frankly, fascinating.

”She pulled his bottom lip out, and ran her gloved finger over the broken teeth. ‘You see that, this kind of suicide. End of a pistol’s barrel has a raised sight. It’ll crack the hell out of your teeth when the gun kicks.’

‘The bottom teeth?’ Grassley asked. ‘The sight’s on top.’

‘Most of your gun-in-the mouth guys,’ she said, ‘they put it in upside down. What else are they going to do---pull the trigger with their thumbs? So when it kicks, the sight knocks out their bottom teeth.’”

The case is strange, but becomes more twisted and sinister as more is revealed. As Cain and his partner close in on the perpetrators, the hunters become the hunted. Cain finds himself in a nightmare where he has seconds to be there in time, but is long minutes away. The conclusions will leave your heart pounding and sweat trickling down your neck. Readers who like the references reminiscent of the days of Philip Marlowe will love those subtle undertones, but those just looking for a great thriller will also be equally satisfied. The San Francisco backdrop again proves a fertile ground for Jonathan Moore. I’ve heard there is a third book already in the can. Sign me up.

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