After Grace Lane’s quiet antiquarian bookstore receives two unfamiliar visitors, she finds herself selling a mysterious book she doesn’t remember stocking. Grace, her sweetheart Detective Lou Smithers and her stalwart neighbors Milton, Ida, and Irene are drawn into a series of events surrounding the disappearance of this strange manuscript. What do a thug, an albino, and a slender European collector want with this book? And will they kill to get it?
Throughout this mystery, author Samuel Miles Morley does a stellar job creating the texture of life in 1920s Los Angeles. From the silent film star Alla Nazimova’s re-purposed dwelling, the Garden of Alla, to Jimmy, the bookstore assistant’s “black boxed calf uppers with double oak soles,” to the back story of Eternity Street, Morley has done his homework. This meticulous detail enriches a story set in a time and place now nearly 100 years in the past.
Better still are Morley’s characterizations. Lou Smithers and Grace Lane are witty, brave and engaging characters who happen to both be little people. Morley’s presentation of the accommodations needed and stereotyping engendered by their stature is cleanly present without being deeply relevant to plot or character. Just as satisfying are Grace’s aging housemates: the former race car driver Milton Abberley and the Dare Sisters. The bad guys too are opaque in their intent and properly menacing in that opacity.
Morley has a fine, cinematic sense of moment. Grace, Ida, and Irene follow sexagenarian Milton upstairs as he brandishes a pre-Civil War sword to protect them; a ghostly figure appears in a mansion window; a Los Angeles car chase features a very old race car called the Golden Submarine. In a genre where provision and withholding of detail requires finesse, Morley also has a knack for pacing and knowing just how much to share.
The main limitation in this gentle noir tale rests in the prose style. Morley sometimes leans heavily on weak verbs and tends to clutter his sentences. To be fair, he is working in a genre represented by some of America’s best prose stylists, so, he’s got stiff competition here.
Samuel Miles Morley’s second Lou Smithers mystery, FATHER CARDOSO’S MANUSCRIPT, is a solid, enjoyable, vintage detective story filled with memorable characters and well-visualized moments that seem to have dropped right out of a silent movie.
~Ellen Graham for IndieReader