Book: A Smile on the Face of the Tiger

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A Smile on the Face of the Tiger: An Amos Walker Mystery

Author: Loren D. Estleman
Publisher: Mysterious Press

The blonde wore a red slip and held a broken bottle in her hand. The man wore a trench coat and a fedora, and through the window flames were burning in the night….The paperback novel Walker carried in his pocket was fifty years old and-from its tawdry cover to its fiery prose-still red hot. A fictionalized tale of a real-life Detroit race riot in 1943, Paradise Valley was written by a man named Eugene Booth. With a New York publisher dying to reprint Booth’s pulp-fiction classic, Booth’s disappearance didn’t make any sense. At least not yet. While hunting down Booth, Walker finds this peaceful missing-person case developing into something much more deadly. For a notorious New York mob hit man, one in protective custody and promoting his own bestselling, tell-all book, is also trailing Booth, and a half-century-old murder is coming back to light. Between that killing and the story told in Booth’s Paradise Valley, Walker is sure Booth has good reasons to want to disappear, and some people have good reasons to see him dead. For Walker, it’s a question of separating fiction from fact, and keeping the key players alive long enough to know the truth. And that includes himself.

In A Smile on the Face of the Tiger, Loren D. Estleman spins a vivid, gritty noir mystery. At the same time he pays homage to-and has some serious fun with-the classic American art form of pulp fiction, where passion, lies, truth, and murder are a way of life, and Amos Walker would be right at home….”


Amos Walker has a sharp eye and a sharper sense of the absurd. Pair these with a dry wit and a fondness for Scotch and you’ve got Detroit’s answer to Philip Marlowe. Just trade the fedora for a Tigers’ baseball cap. Loren Estleman’s acerbically philosophical PI has been going strong for 13 novels and shows no sign of slowing down. In a funky, meta-textual noir riff, A Smile on the Face of the Tiger immerses Walker in the world of ‘40s and ‘50s American pulp fiction, where men clench lantern jaws and women (sorry, dames) wear silk stockings and cause trouble.

When a New York publisher asks Walker to track down author Eugene Booth, who’s refusing to allow his classic Paradise Valley to be reissued, Walker’s first instinct is to say no. But Booth’s novel, about a Detroit race riot in 1943, fascinates Walker, especially after he finds Booth’s dictation tapes. Booth has “a low fuzzy bass that might once have been rich and pleasant before too much whiskey, too many cigarettes, and three or more trips too many around a rundown block had hammered it into that dull monotone you hear at last call and over the loudspeaker in the eleventh inning of a pitchers’ duel.” Walker discovers that it’s not just whiskey and cigarettes that have affected the author. His wife was murdered 50 years ago to prevent Booth from spilling the truth about the events he fictionalized.

Walker traces Booth to a rundown motel on the shores of Lake Huron. His presence there is no surprise, given his fondness for solitude and fish. But why is mobster Glad Eddie Cypress, who should be gearing up for a big book tour, holed up at the same motel? When Walker finds Booth swinging from the rafters, he decides to find out. When the number of people who wanted Booth dead starts multiplying, and a 50-year-old race riot and murder move back into the spotlight, Walker is hard-pressed to keep himself from becoming history.

Estleman’s sardonic prose (the Detroit River is “the only spot on the North American continent where you could look across at a foreign country without seeing either wilderness or tattoo parlors”) makes A Smile on the Face of the Tiger move energetically along. This noir veteran, never content to rest on his laurels, has produced another gritty winner. —Kelly Flynn

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The Haunting Past

Loren Estleman’s protagonist Amos Walker has long been a cornerstone of modern-day private eye literature. Estleman’s latest effort, A Smile on the Face of the Tiger (the 14th in the series), is filled with all the wry charm and expert insight we’ve come to expect from Estleman’s controlled fusion of wit and wisdom. The author always gives his novels an extra dose of genuinely moving humanity, featuring honest character motivation and a gripping, energetic first-person narrative.

This time out, P.I. Amos Walker is hired by a New York publisher to hunt down the vanished pulp author Eugene Booth, a onetime acclaimed writer of noir crime novels who stopped writing four decades earlier. Booth was never able to recapture the respect and celebrity he had with his most famous novel, Paradise Valley, the fictionalized account of an actual 1943 race riot in Detroit. Though the publisher was set to reprint Paradise Valley, Booth inexplicably returned his advance, broke the contract, and abandoned his home. Now it’s up to Walker to find out exactly why.

Eventually Walker tracks Booth to a desolate cabin near the Canadian border; in the older man Walker discovers a like-minded individual who has a real need to dig to the heart of the truth no matter what the price. Booth doesn’t want Paradise Valley reprinted because he’s rewriting his masterwork and making an effort to tell the real story behind the race riot, including the brutal fact that the police allowed several lynchings to occur for fear of their own safety. Though Booth tried to investigate the case nearly 50 years ago, it cost him greatly when his wife was murdered. Now, when it appears that Booth is being spied on, Walker goes into action to try to reveal events covered up over a half century ago but which still have deadly ramifications even today.

With his tight and pointed prose, Loren D. Estleman is highly capable of providing the reader with an engaging novel concerning racism, police conspiracy, and the haunting past that one can never let go of. Estleman’s writing is so sharp and detailed that there is always a supple but convincing underpinning of deeper issues roiling beneath the moment. A Smile on the Face of the Tiger offers us a poetic voice of subtle yet resonating themes relating to loss, audacity, and the hope for redemption.

The author has a real respect and deference for the hard-boiled and noir authors who came long before him. The subject of a mostly forgotten pulp writer is handled with great admiration and affection. Beneath the guise of Booth are his real-life counterparts Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Horace McCoy, and dozens of other suspense authors lost in the recesses of time. That sense of fondness is what makes A Smile on the Face of the Tiger a standout in the Walker canon—evocative, elaborate, and yet always endearing. The complexity of character detail, the cohesive story structure, and the poignant writing prove once again just what a superior stylist and master craftsman Estleman remains.

The natural fluidity of protagonist and plot is what holds the center of this tightly woven novel together. Walker is an Everyman, a private eye who not merely does his job but is his job. There are no superman elements here, but rather an honesty and humor that prevails through the investigation at hand. The mystery itself is well wrought and engaging, with Walker slowly moving over the same terrain as he rereads novels and studies crime reports and newspaper articles to discover what lies at the core of a long-forgotten writer’s life. Walker’s persona remains wonderfully balanced between the drive for justice and the humble need for acerbic, self-effacing humor. The author never fails to earn our confidence that the next Amos Walker novel will be of the same distinguished high quality as all the rest. —Tom Piccirilli

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