Madame Caroline Case runs a houseboat brothel that operates up and down the Wabash River, where people who call themselves “river rats” make their living trawling for catfish and transporting bootleg liquor. When one of her river rat friends turns up dead, the police write it off as an accidental death, but Caroline is not so sure. Aided by her “girls”, an adventurous teenage boy and the alluring stranger, Hannibal, who has his own reasons for getting involved, Caroline sets out to solve the murder herself and see that justice is done.
THE RIVER RAT MURDERS is a novel written in the form of a journal, specifically Caroline’s journal, which she began keeping shortly after the first body turned up on the Wabash. The format is intriguing, and it definitely keeps up the pace of the book. It also excuses why a non-professional writer like Caroline would be putting her experiences on paper, as well as excuse some of her literary eccentricities and occasional asides. Despite taking place over the course of years, the novel seems to slide by.
Unfortunately, that pace seems to come at the cost of deeply drawn characters and a thoroughly described environment. Gertcher prefers to build the book’s world with information, and it’s clear he’s researched the period. Historical characters like Al Capone are felt less by their physical presence and more by a rap sheet of shadowy information, while local characters are sketched into familiar roles.
Notably, a lot of the action happens somewhere else, allowing more focus to go toward Caroline’s daily life, which includes a blossoming interest in her mysterious ally, Hannibal. The novel ends up having more in common with romance pulps than detective thrillers. Still, readers get a good glimpse at the crime solving tech of the day, and they are invited to be amazed with Caroline at the wonders of newfangled cameras, as well as have fun with old fashioned techniques like eavesdropping at the town speakeasy.
THE RIVER RAT MURDERS has the strength of a lot colorful information. Unfortunately, that never quite translates into colorful action or characterizations. However, anyone looking for a period romance with a murder or three in the background will get one at a breakneck pace.
Frank L. Gertcher’s historical crime novel is interesting, well researched and fast moving, but it’s sometimes at the cost of deeply drawn characters and a thoroughly described environment.
~Colin Newton for IndieReader