If Ed Gorman were a different type of writer, I’d call this a two-fisted collection, but Gorman’s not that kinda guy. Oh, he’ll sock it to you, all right, but you’ll never see it coming. Let’s face it. Any lout in a bar can spit in your face, punch you in the gut, or kick you in the, uh, guts, but it takes a real master to look you straight in the eye and KO you before you even know you’re in a fight.
This collection rounds up two of Gorman’s better novels, both of which aptly demonstrate the author’s long-recognized ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
The Autumn Dead (1987) was Gorman’s fourth novel to feature Jack Dwyer, a private eye in a thinly disguised version of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A former cop who developed a taste for acting, he quit the force, figuring being a gumshoe would give him more time to pursue his passion.
But Marlowe he’s not, and he soon takes a job with a security firm to keep the wolf from the door. And then Karen Lane, a high school sweetheart, waltzes back into his life, asking him to recover a suitcase she’d left with a previous lover, figuring the now middle-aged Jack—despite being in a solid relationship—won’t be able to resist her still considerable charms. And he can’t. At least at first. But the suitcase isn’t where it’s supposed to be, and Karen hasn’t exactly been telling him the whole truth.
There’s a solid mystery here, full of murder, rape, blackmail and old secrets, but the real mysteries lie within the complicated relationships between men and women, between past and present, between what we want and what we have. Through it all, Jack displays considerable empathy and a gentle humor as he plies his trade, and brings things to a emotionally satisfying ending.
But as satisfying as that one is, it’s The Night Remembers that’s the real treasure here, a cold and bloody hallelujah tempered by Gorman’s warmth and compassion. Sixty-four years old, recently retired from the sheriff’s office, Jack Walsh is an apartment house manager who does a little private eyeing on the side, while pursuing a relationship with Faith, a much younger woman who claims her young son is his. Yet one more case of the past calling dibs on the present—a frequent theme of Gorman’s.
But the big call from the past comes in the form of a visit from the wife of George Pennyfeather, a man Jack helped send to prison on a murder rap years ago. Lisa Pennyfeather still believes her husband is innocent, and now that he’s been released, wants Walsh to clear his name. Not surprisingly, Walsh is hesitant, but when a woman is killed behind the Pennyfeather’s house and all fingers point to George as the culprit, Jack begins to have doubts and starts to poke around. It does not go well.
Gorman’s work has always had a deep and heartfelt sense of tenderness and abiding humanity in it, and if you ask me, this is his masterpiece, a quietly powerful gem of a novel, full of real people living real lives, trying desperately to hang on to the little they have, and living with real hurt. Like much of Gorman’s work, it’s drenched in nostalgia and tinged with noir, a brooding contemplation of this train wreck of existence. But the delicate fragility of life is beautifully woven into a brooding, almost Leonard Cohen-esque song of lust, violence, regret, and redemption, all minor chords and major lifts.
If this one doesn’t move you, I’m sorry, but you just ain’t human.