Everybody loves a scrappy hero, and heroes don’t come much scrappier than Max Dexter, Canadian Army veteran with a blown-out knee and a “don’t mess with me” attitude. A Private Man opens in 1947. Max is back in Hamilton, Ontario, determined to make a go of his newly acquired one-man detective agency.
Job #1, however, is to hire an assistant, which begins with a couple of false starts: Miss Higgins, with her grey hair “so closely cropped it conformed to her head like a pewter helmet,” and sweet-16 Linda Jaworski who pronounces high school an “utter waste of time”. Then Max gets luck when red-haired, green-eyed Isabel O’Brien strides into his life. Her class, sophistication, and accountant’s organized mind perfectly balance his street smarts and rough edges. He hires her on the spot, and the fun begins.
It’s a match made in heaven – or Hamilton. Max and Isabel (aka “Iz”) are an impressive team, she with her disarming good looks, charm, and determination to learn the business, he with his get-down-to-brass-tacks manner. Together they suss out the motives of a mysterious client, the truth behind accusations of embezzlement, a motive for a murder or two, and even a scheme for capitalizing on works of art looted by Nazis. It may seem like a lot to pack into a 290-page book, but it’s post-WWII Southern Ontario, after all, and the story clicks along smoothly and convincingly.
A big part of the reason for the book’s authentic feel is that its author, Chris Laing, is a native of Hamilton and grew up more or less in the era about which he writes. The locale rings true, as do its subplots. For example, there really was a femme fatale named Evelyn Dick who was tried for murdering her husband and about whom Hamiltonians famously joked, “How could you, Missus Dick?” Laing weaves her real story into his fictional one almost seamlessly.
I say “almost seamlessly” because his first full-length novel is not without flaws. Laing readily admits that the most challenging part of a story, especially a detective story, is the ending. A Private Man rushes headlong to a close with a whirlwind of activity that includes an explosion, a trip to Niagara Falls, capture, an amazing rescue and escape, a car chase, and (spoiler alert!) a happy ending. And there are a few minor flaws overlooked by an otherwise conscientious editor – for example, a legless veteran named Bob whose sister Aggie is referred to at one point as his wife.
But this is small stuff in a book filled with such three-dimensional people that to read them is to feel like you know them. Laing’s character development is rich and vivid, and his dialogue rings true. It’s easy to imagine Max, his knee wrecked by shrapnel, limping determinedly to his next meeting; equally easy to gauge by Isabel’s words her integrity and single-mindedness. Ultimately, Laing has created characters with whom a reader connects. I found myself wanting to know more about legless Bob, Max’s irascible journalist uncle Scotty, his police friend Frank, and of course the main characters themselves.
A Private Man is a complete and self-contained book with a satisfying ending. But it will be a rare reader who closes the book at the end and doesn’t wonder what will happen next in the lives of Max Dexter and Isabel O’Brien.
Liz Mackay Wickham writes humorous essays, restaurant reviews and a home repair column in the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives with her husband, three dogs, and assorted tools and kitchen utensils.
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