RARA-AVIS: DEAD LETTER by Jonathan Valin

From: James R. Winter ( winter_writes@earthlink.net)
Date: 04 Jun 2005

Never sleep with someone who has more problems than you. Well, the way I heard it originally was never sleep with someone more screwed up than you. (Explains my love life in my early twenties. Or lack thereof.) In FINAL NOTICE, Harry Stoner seemed to learn that lesson. Unfortunately, his girlfriend moved to California while Jon Valin wasn't looking. Instead, he ends up with Sarah Lovingwell, the daughter of his client, Professor Daryl Lovingwell. Prof. Lovingwell teaches physics at the University of Cincinnati (before Bob Huggins took over) and works at a nearby partical accelerator. Daryl wants Harry to find a letter of his that was stolen from his safe. He says even his daughter, who has fallen in communists, is a suspect. You have to remember the book came out in 1981, as the Cold War started careening toward its eventual end. Professor Lovingwell is killed shortly thereafter.

Sarah at first resists having Stoner look into his death, then asks him to press on. The suspects are many. A coworker who may or may not work for the Soviets. Several of Sarah's radical friends, including a disgruntled ex-boyfriend. A local drug dealer. The killer, it turns out, is under Harry's nose.

Harry has to kill in this one. In the previous two novels, he shot in self-defense. This time, he shoots one of the thugs using Sarah's radical group as a front on a corner of William Howard Taft, one of the busiest streets in Cincinnati. The shooting is in cold blood this time. You can't argue with Harry's reasons, but the only thing letting him get away with it is the man killed a cop.

Of the first three novels, DEAD LETTER is probably the most violent. Even the police get in on the act and smack Harry around in an interrogation. When the Homicide sergeant is done, he tells Harry it's just business. (And here you thought on the mob said that.)

Valin has also eased up on his habit of rearranging Cincinnati into his own image. In THE LIME PIT, it drove me insane that he put the bus terminal on the opposite side of downtown (where the convention center is) or moved a building I used to work in (and still visit frequently) one block north. In DEAD LETTER, he only takes liberties with neigboring Clermont County, placing the particle accelerator on a wooded hill that sits right about where my wife works. At the time, Clermont was a blank canvass, very little development, the boonies. Now, you have small towns like Williamsburg and Mt. Orab wondering when they'll inevitably get sucked into Cincinnati's mass of suburbs.

Throughout the late eighties and early nineties, Valin was a go-to guy for PI fiction. This novel, I believe, is where he got his cred as a crime writer. Certainly, his first two books were very good, but he hit his stride in DEAD LETTER.

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 04 Jun 2005 EDT