LOST AND FOUND IN HARLEM begins with the kind of dark, bleak, urban scenario readers expect in noir mysteries. It’s set in Harlem’s Morningside Park neighborhood around 2006 as gentrification begins unsettling locals.
Shelby Rook, an Iraq War vet with a Texas drawl and severe limp, tells the story in prose that is spare yet colorful. As it opens, he watches fire destroy the Auberge Rouge, a decrepit no-tell hotel where he lived because rent was cheap and he “craved privacy more than decency.” Although cynical about police, Rook seeks justice. He wonders whether the hotel’s owner set the fire to cash in on insurance. The fire destroys Rook’s meager possessions including the barber kit for his unlicensed (and therefore illegal) work clipping stylish haircuts on the street. Now he’s homeless, unemployed, and down to pocket change. But even worse, are the deaths — prostitutes who befriended Rook when he was new to the city.
The novel’s ambiance is spot-on, murky noir. However, Rook is far from the genre’s classic, world-weary fatalist; a tender heart beats beneath his exotically handsome yet tough exterior. And his lady love, Brina Ross, although beautiful and cagey, is not a femme fatale. This aspect of playing against type along with the story’s cautiously upbeat ending qualify it as “noir lite.” Questing for an answer to the fire, Rook chances into a quirky job as a private investigator with Brina and her father, Norment, at the Ross Agency. They handle jobs police won’t touch, including rescuing runaway pets (a randy tomcat named Peaches is crucial to the plotline). Rook’s pay includes a place to sleep — the office couch — and requires him to accept the Ross’s viewpoint that community is valuable, and no job or life is too small to be important.
LOST AND FOUND IN HARLEM is the first mystery in the Ross Agency series. Although it would have profited from greater length and deeper characterization of Norment and Brina, those are minor flaws in a serial novel that leaves the reader wanting more.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader