(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 11, 2000)
I picked up this book yesterday at a local book sale. I found it in the outside bins and started to read it while waiting for my number to be called to (joyfully) pick over the thousands of additional books inside. That it took an hour for my number to be called didn't matter. I was hooked on my first Carlotta Carlyle novel.
Carlotta Carlyle is a six-foot-one redhead, half Irish-half Jewish, independent private investigator, former Boston cop and sometimes cabbie. This woman has personality plus, only matched by the people she hangs with, such as her outrageous post-punk, artistic tenant Roz, who doubles as housekeeper, gopher and computer hacker.
After a morning game of pickup Volleyball at the Y, Carlotta is joined by team member, Gwen, at Dunkin' Donuts. Gwen, it seems, needs her help with one of the older people she home cares. She explains how Valentine Phipps is suddenly and unusually concerned about her own safety and wants a "professional", but not a cop, to help her out. Reluctantly, Carlotta agrees to go along. But, first it seems that there is a disturbance in the Dunkin' Donuts that is of personal interest to her -- she hears the voice of her Little Sister saying "Hey, pendejo! Leave us alone!" She's surprised to find Paolina, her Little Sister, with another young girl and a couple of "older" men and decides she better figure out why she's not in school and is "dressed like a five-dollar whore, smoking lipstick-stained cigarettes with a bad-news man." Paolina is only fourteen, but she's been Carlotta's Little Sister for the past seven years, maybe not blood, but close enough.
Carlotta brings Paolina along with her and Gwen to meet Valentine and after an interesting session with this strange lady, Carlotta agrees to install the locks the next day. But, before she has a chance to install the new locks, Valentine Phipps is dead. It would appear to be natural causes, she is old and appears to have been reaching for pills. However, what little Carlotta knows abut the Boston political real estate developments makes it a little too suspicious that the last tenant still under rent control should so conveniently die at this time. Especially since there was a bad scene with the landlord the day before. To complicate matters, it looks like Gwen is being accused of the crime - she's black and has priors.
I truly enjoyed this novel. Linda Barnes goes well beyond using the streets of Boston for her setting by weaving a story around the local politics and ethnic neighborhoods. Having lived the majority of my life an hour away from this city, I got a kick out of this. It's not that there aren't other Boston based sleuth stories -- Robert Parker is the most well known -- but Carlotta Carlyle is a sassy female. One technique Barnes employed, was to have Carlotta take note of the headlines in the paper at the start of the novel, and then twists these into a tight but unexpected plot.
If Linda Barnes has any weakness with this novel, it is with technology. Why doesn't Carlotta Carlisle have a cell phone? Even if it's a prepaid one it would be better than stopping and pumping quarters into pay phones while it rains. She does a similar trick as Patricia Cornwell when it comes to the computers and the Internet; she has another character be the hacker, and thus doesn't have to write the details of how Roz gathers the private information. Even at that, I'd like to see less of a leap of faith that Roz is a natural hacker by having an extra sentence or two talk about her computer equipment or make more of a reference to how Roz got the information. Dr. Scarpetta does stand over her niece's shoulder here and there giving us a feel of the techniques used. Carlotta Carlisle is every bit the equal of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. The advantage Grafton has with the technology issue is that Kinsey is still living in the early 80's thus she doesn't have to worry about using the latest gadgets. Linda Barnes should. After all, Boston is a very high tech town.
I'm looking forward to The Big Dig, a title I assume is appropriated from Boston's latest public embarrassment. I count Carlotta Carlyle as one of my new found "friends."
- Amazon reader rating: from 16 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Carlotta Carlyle series:
- A Trouble of Fools (1987)
- The Snake Tattoo (1989)
- Coyote (1990)
- Steel Guitar(1991)
- Snapshot (1993)
- Hardware (1995)
- Cold Case (1997)
- Flashpoint (1999)
- The Big Dig (2002)
- Deep Pockets (2004)
- Heart of the World (May 2006)
- Lie Down with the Devil ( August 2008)
Michael Spraggue series:
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- Official Linda Barnes web site
- BookLoons review of Flashpoint
- BookLoons review of Big Dig
- BookReporter.com review of Big Dig
- BookLoons review of Deep Pockets
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About the Author:
Linda Barnes was born and raised in Detroit, she graduated cum laude from Boston University's School of Fine and Applied Arts. She then went on to become a drama teacher and director at Chelmsford and Lexington, Massachusetts schools. While teaching drama, Barnes wrote two plays, the award winning "Wings" and "Prometheus."
Barnes won the Anthony Award and nominations for the Shamus Award and the American Mystery Award for Best Short Story in 1985 for "Lucky Penny." In 1987 she received the American Mystery Award for Best Private Eye Novel and nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus awards for A Trouble of Fools. The Snake Tattoo was named one of the outstanding books of 1990 by The London Times.
Linda Barnes lives near Boston with her husband and son.