Author: Marshall Thornton
Cover Artist: Deana C. Jamroz
Publisher: MLR Press
Length: 56,000 words
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Lloyd A. Meeker
Review Summary: A skillfully crafted, engaging mystery in the classic PI style set in 1982 — and more.
In the fifth book of the award-winning Boystown mystery series, it’s fall 1982 and Chicago is gripped by panic after five people die from poisoned Tylenol capsules. Amid the chaos, the Bughouse Slasher takes his seventh victim, this time striking close to private investigator Nick Nowak. With the Chicago Police Department stretched to its limit, Nick takes matters into his own hands. But what will he do with the Bughouse Slasher once he finds him?
In 1982 Chicago, the Tylenol poisonings have dominated the headlines and consume Police Department resources.
Nick Nowak is a PI, working on a bankruptcy fraud case when his lover Bert Harker is murdered. Bert is a Chicago PD detective on disability leave. He’s sick–he has the disease recently named AIDS and knows he’ll die soon. While on active duty Harker, along with his partner Frank Connors, had been investigating the murder of six men at the hand of a serial killer dubbed the Bughouse Slasher, who has anal sex with his victims in the back of his van, then slits their throats as he pulls out.
Sick as he is, Bert can’t let go of the investigation. Connors supplies him with all the information the Chicago PD collects, and Harker compiles it into a highly organized “murder book”, along with notes of his own investigative activity. As he pursues his informal investigation, Bert Harker becomes the Bughouse Slasher’s seventh victim.
With captivating elegance and skill, author Marshall Thornton sets all this up in the first ten pages. The story takes off and never slows down. It’s an engaging classic PI tale with strong characters, a fascinating plot woven from several different threads, plenty of sleuthing, and outstanding writing.
Among the lively and well-orchestrated cast of characters are:
Bert Harker’s Czech mother, who hates Nick and blames him for her son’s depravity and by inference, his illness. She insists that her son’s police-hero funeral not be tainted by acknowledging Nick’s relationship with Bert, and in a heart-wrenching scene makes him sit persona non grata at the back of the chapel. Yet she is fully human, with hopes, fears and ambitions that may well surprise the reader as they did me.
Christian Baylor, a young, pretty, not-too-bright kid with unrealistic hopes of becoming a journalist for Chicago magazine. Christian cultivates his relationship with Harker as a way of getting access to the Bughouse Slasher story. Nowak suspects the relationship might have become romantic or perhaps even sexual.
Thornton paints Christian as an enigmatic and rather tragic figure, sincere, illogical and sexually careless, a prime candidate for the spreading plague. A poignant twist is that Christian is convinced that Harker, knowing that he would die soon, wanted him to become Nowak’s lover after Harker died. Nowak, on the other hand, is under no such impression.
And of course the Bughouse Slasher is a suitably horrifying villain — a clever and evasive, psychotic and frightening killer.
After Bert is found murdered, Connors warns Nick that the police will have to search the apartment that Nick and Bert shared, but gives Nick enough time to copy the binder of documents and information which Bert wasn’t supposed to have in the first place. Connors and Nick continue their cautious collaboration, first out of mutual respect for Bert, and gradually also for each other as well.
I indicated earlier that this book was more than a finely-crafted and satisfying PI mystery. It is also a haunting study in grief, and the suffocating paralysis of loss. Nowak struggles to remain functional while his search for the killer becomes an homage to his fallen lover. In fact, the investigation becomes a nostalgic last partnership between Nowak and Harker, for Harker has left behind clues that he knows only Nowak will see and understand.
Nowak’s character is compelling. Relentless in his pursuit of the killer, occasionally cruel in his grief and smoldering anger, and borderline dysfunctional, he staggers through the investigation like a wounded boar, only half in immediate reality, as dangerous to himself as he is to others.
I guess you can tell that I’m a fan of Thornton’s work. I think he’s got his hands completely around the PI genre, and brings the story to multi-dimensional life with originality, wit, and skill. Highly recommended!