Book: Done for a Dime

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Done for a Dime: A Novel

Author: David Corbett
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Back in the day, Raymond “Strong” Carlisle made his mark as an ace sideman blowing baritone sax alongside all the biggest names in R&B. Now he lies in the grass outside his home, shot dead from behind and pelted by the heedless rain that mingles with his own blood. He is the first official casualty of a dirty war being lethally waged for control of Rio Mirada: a low-rent, “city in transition” of clashing subcultures at the northern tip of the San Francisco Bay, beset by drug dealers, arsonists, squatters…and now murder.

Detective Dennis Murchison–white, weary, home-grown–has two possible perps: Arlie Thigpen, a teenage lieutenant in the crack-and-smack army of a local dealer; Toby Marchand, a straight-arrow, old-school, jazz horn player with some big shoes to fill: those of his father, Strong Carlisle. The smart money says the shooter is Arlie, a two-time loser who tangled with Carlisle the day he died, is the shooter. But too many things about Toby–his shaky alibi, suspicion that he’s not really who he claims to be, the fact that his girlfriend witnessed the killing but can’t remember it–have Murch doing a double take.

They say there are three sides to the truth. But in Rio Mirada, honesty is in short supply. What’s plentiful are people with angles, hidden agendas, and all the reasons in the world to make sure the murder of Strong Carlisle remains a mystery. And the harder Murchison pushes for answers, the clearer it becomes that this single, brutal homicide is just the tip of an inverted iceberg, casting its massive shadow over a town where small-time crime and big-time corruption are about to collide…with explosive consequences.

A harrowing, heartbreaking portrait of life on both sides of the law–and the grey place in between–Done for a Dime pays off powerfully on the promise of David Corbett as a writer to watch.


Satisfaction is a commodity in short supply for the myriad characters populating Done for a Dime, private eye-turned-author David Corbett’s affecting follow-up to his debut novel, The Devil’s Redhead. Among the significantly short-changed is Raymond “Strong” Carlisle, an irascible black saxophonist who used to play with the giants of blues music, but now does only about four gigs a year, “if he’s lucky, with a bunch of sorry old men the business forgot long ago.” When Carlisle is shot dead at his home in Rio Mirada, an increasingly crime-plagued burg north of San Francisco, the cops, including lead detective Dennis Murchison and his racist partner, Jerry Stluka, figure it’s the tragic result of a nightclub fight he’d provoked the evening before. Their two prime suspects: Arlie Thigpen, a gang tough employed by a local drug dealer; and Toby Marchand, Carlisle’s musician son, who’d chafed under his elder’s incessant tauntings, and whose white teenage lover, Nadya Lazarenko, witnessed the homicide—but is too traumatized to remember anything about it. However, Carlisle’s death is merely a harbinger of worse troubles to come, among them a neighborhood-destroying fire engineered by greedy developers.

Regrettably, that cinematic hillside conflagration diverts attention from Corbett’s more interesting study of people trying to cope with the inequitable vicissitudes of life. Murchison, for instance, comes off as a conflicted mix of determination and desperation, a man terminally unable to fulfill the expectations of his wife and parents. For Marchand, the challenge is to reject his late father’s cynicism and find hope in Nadya’s embrace, even as she refuses to trust in something so ephemeral as happiness. Other well-formed players here—from a suspect’s strong-willed mother, to a smart and fetching lawyer who confuses Murchison’s heart, to a cop-turned-hired killer who isn’t so transparently evil as he initially appears—struggle to achieve their own forms of justice in an unjust world. Corbett has a sharp ear for street dialogue and an even sharper understanding of human emotion and pain. For a book that’s all about dissatisfaction, Done for a Dime is decidedly satisfying. —J. Kingston Pierce

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