“The Dollar-a-Year Detective” (Permanent Press), by William Wells
Jack Starkey was a Chicago police detective until he got shot, took his disability pension and moved to Fort Myers Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There, he bought a bar called the Drunken Parrot and set up housekeeping in a houseboat that is in no way seaworthy.
Jack spends some of his time editing best-selling novels written by an old friend in Chicago. The books are loosely based on Jack’s big-city exploits — the hero engaging in derring-do that the real Jack is too level-headed to contemplate.
But Jack misses the action, so when Cubby Cullen, the police chief in sleepy Fort Myers Beach, needs a hand with something big, Jack pitches in, accepting a dollar as his fee.
In “The Dollar-a-Year Detective,” the second book in this series by William Wells, the something big is the murder of a bank executive and his wife, found shot on a drifting yacht.
By the time Jack finishes muddling through the case, it swells to include bank fraud, a Russian oil magnate, embezzlement at an Indian casino, political corruption and several more dead bodies.
Wells’ yarn contains none of the swashbuckling heroism common in detective fiction. The violence all occurs offstage, and Jack spends most of his time wandering around, hoping something will turn up.
As he puts it, “An ace detective like me has to at least look busy interviewing people and poking around for clues until a snitch comes forward and tells me who did it.”
Wells laces his story with humor, but not the wise-cracking kind typical of much detective fiction. Jack rarely makes a joke with his colleagues, reserving his gentle humor for the reader in his first-person narration.
As a result, the book is a detective story with the sensibility of a cozy, somewhat reminiscent of the fine Mario Balzic series by reclusive novelist K.C. Constantine.
“The Dollar-a-Year Detective” represents a major improvement over the first novel in this series, 2016’s “Detective Fiction,” which exhibited some rookie writing problems. It’s an entertaining, well-written read that’s well worth the time.
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”