Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Red Cent: Review

Jack Hatch, Robert Campbell's railroad detective in Red Cent (1989), is detailed to meet the Burlington Northern at Osceola. Millionaire Harold Chaney who has been a frequent passenger from Chicago to points west has been shot while seated in the dining car. When Hatch reaches Osceola, a group of young Native Americans have already been taken into custody for getting drunk and riding out in pickup trucks to "kill the Iron Horse." The local authorities seem to be satisfied that it was just an unlucky shot that killed Chaney instead of the train and there's no reason for Hatch to dispute that--after all he's just supposed to be representing the train company to be sure no one will be trying to hold Burlington Northern accountable. But there are too many little pieces that just don't seem to fit into the big pictures. And when he starts nosing around on his own, he finds that there are several people who might have wanted Chaney dead from a current business partner or a current wife to an ex-mistress or an ex-partner. And there's someone playing musical cells with the six young men in custody, as if they want to keep the waters so muddy that no one will notice the barracuda about to get away with murder.

Hatch comes across as detective cast in the traditional tough-guy mold, but he is also determined to get at the truth despite there being no fee involved. He is honest and amiable and sprinkles his narrative with homespun stories and brief asides that give us a peek at his life philosophy. He enjoys the job which allows him to ride the rails as he pretends to be a regular passenger while he scopes out the cars looking for pickpockets, con artists, and other bad guys. It is his honest determination to see justice done that brings the crime home to the proper villain--although villain may be a bit strong once you know the circumstances. The motive is perhaps understandable and the killer not completely evil.

This novel was, in many ways, a nice surprise. Hatch speaks directly to the reader in a first person narrative that works really well (and you all know how I like to complain about the first person POV). It's a shame that Campbell wrote only two novels starring Hatch, because he's detective I would have enjoyed following through several cases. And even though it is written in a more hard-boiled style, it really is an old-fashioned mystery with a solid cast of characters. The one item that keeps the book from rising above the ★★ rating is the handling of Hatch's love life. He follows in the footsteps of many a private eye by having a lady friend in nearly every station town. That's not the problem--the problem is that this is 80s and AIDS is on the rise and every single one of his lady loves are cutting him off. At. The. Same. Time. Yes, I understand that the promiscuous life-style needed to come to a halt--or at least be reevaluated. But I find it hard to believe that all the ladies would decide during the same three-day period that this was a crisis. Campbell tries a little to hard to drive that point home in my opinion and repeats it once (or twice) too many times.

Overall, a solid mystery outing which fulfills the "Mode of Transportation" square on the Vintage Silver Bingo card.

[Oh...and one other thing. That cover picture is way too tame for what actually happened to Chaney. Not that I want to see a gory picture on the cover....]


J F Norris said...

I have this book and I started to read it several year ago and then put it down, and it "disappeared". I'm sure it's in one of the many boxes or bags or books I was forced to take out of the living room and store in our "warehouse" (AKA the 2nd bedroom which hasn't used as a bedroom since we bought this place). I found both RED CENT along with the PLUGGED NICKEL, the first book with Hatch, in a used book shop right around the time I had read another book about a railway detective. I was on a train mystery kick for a while. Good to see that it was worthwhile reading, despite the AIDS phobia of the characters. Now I'll have to go digging for it!

fredamans said...

Appreciate the great review but not sure this is for me.

Bev Hankins said...

John: the AIDS phobia was a major distraction. It really would have been quite good without it.

Ryan said...

I love mysteries on trains, but the AIDS thing would bug me.