Kansas City Mystery – "The Dead Man", by Joel Goldman

Last time I read a Joel Goldman mystery, I was more than mildly negative – “Really, this book is awful – execrable dialog with an implausible plot, and minority characters who are so shallow I would accuse the author of racism if he had demonstrated he could write believable characters of any ethnicity.” So I was surprised to receive a free review copy of his newest effort, “The Dead Man“, starring the same main character and also set in Kansas City.

Deja vu? Thank goodness, deja nope.

“The Dead Man” is a striking success. An alert reader stays one step ahead of Jack Davis most of the way through the book, and an alert Kansas Citian recognizes a few local characters along with the landmarks. I saw through the mystery early in the book, but the novel’s pleasure was watching the whole thing play out.

Without spilling any spoilers, the novel focuses on a string of deaths connected to The Harper Institute of the Mind, a fictional and repurposed version of the Stowers Insitute, with a CEO focused on Alzheimer’s instead of cancer. Jack Davis, a former FBI agent who retired under suspicious circumstances after his daughter escaped with $5 million and who suffers from a mysterious neurological disorder, gets hired to look into the deaths before the Institute gets sued.

This book excels in its use of flawed characters. Jack Davis is spastic, and his sidekick is a former cop who went crooked. It seems everyone connected to by the Institute carries more baggage than an overhead bin on a weekend flight to Vegas, and the FBI agents are single-minded dimwits. At the end, we have an octogenarian, a crooked cop and an incapacitated hero going to confront the villain. Sherlock Holmes and Miss Jane Marple would be appalled, but it’s a likable and believable outcome.

The problems I had with the first book are largely avoided in this one. He mostly sticks with educated, majority characters, so he (thank goodness) avoids presenting a suburbanite’s understanding of what a poor black kid must feel. His dialogue is still clipped and terse, but Goldman has either learned to control his tendency toward ludicrous quips, or a wise editor out there spared us from some of the cringe-worthy exchanges that deflated “Shake Down”. One last quibble – toward the end of the novel, a journalist claims she will be doing follow-up stories in 5 years, and asserts, “I’m not going anywhere.” Mr. Goldman obviously failed to check on the career confidence of print journalists.

That said, this is simply a darned fun read. It’s exciting, engaging, and well-crafted. The Kansas City references enliven the book for a local reader, but the book is not dependent on them. I came to this book expecting to find material to mock, but I wound up staying up late last night, turning pages and promising myself to quit after just one more chapter. When I turned the last page, I knew that Joel Goldman had written a fine example of the genre.

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