by Robert C. Hahn
The publicity mills of publishing love nothing more than genre writers (romance, science fiction, crime fiction, etc.) who can be relied on to produce one, or more, series entries every year. It is a well-worn path to building an audience of eager buyers that hopefully will grow with each new volume.
But sometimes authors may tire of a character, or feel that they’ve done everything they can with him (or her); or may just want to explore other possibilities. And sometimes, after a long time has passed, they may get the urge to revisit a retired character—reanimate them, so to speak, and see if the old magic is still there.
For Margaret Maron, Jerome Charyn, David Housewright, and Stephen Dobyns the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
Maron found gold with her twenty-volume series featuring Judge Deborah Knott and her huge extended North Carolina family, which ended with Long Upon the Land in 2015. But the author had also written eight mysteries featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald and even, by ignoring different time lines, brought her together with Knott in two of Knott’s latter cases (Three-Day Town and The Buzzard Table).
Harald who debuted in One Coffee With (1981) had not starred in her own series since Fugitive Colors in 1995. Maron told me that resurrecting her for the Knott mysteries in 2011 and 2012 had reawakened her interest in her. She also realized that some issues in Harald’s life had not been resolved, and so she decided that another book was necessary to answer those questions.
The result is Take Out (Grand Central, $27), which is both a continuation of the Harald series and also Maron’s last novel. She’s resolved to write only short stories rather than be tied to the contracts and deadlines that novels seem to require. Here Harald handles the suspicious poisoning deaths of two men on a park bench. A witness comes forward and explains that she would often place food she and her employer hadn’t eaten on the park bench and “someone always takes it.” In fact, she identified one of the dead men as Matty Mutone, once a good friend of her employer, Mrs. Benito DelVecchio, but Mutone had a drug problem.
Police canvassing reveals another near neighbor, aging opera star Charlotte Randolph, who is able to identify the second victim as Jack Bloss, a former backstage worker at the Met. To solve the crime, Harald must figure out which man was the intended victim and sort out unexpected connections between Randolph and DelVecchio.
Meanwhile, her personal life is complicated when Vincent Haas appears and claims to be the natural son of her deceased lover Oscar Nauman. It is his appearance and claim that Maron uses to answer lingering questions about Oscar’s death and the cache of paintings hidden in a NYC house.
Maron, awarded the MWA Grand Master award in 2013, goes out on top with her last two novels providing fitting closure to her two award winning series.
Jerome Charyn created Isaac Sidel in 1975’s Blue Eyes, where he was a minor character, but the character progressed from a NYPD police inspector to mayor of NYC to vice presidential candidate in Citizen Sidel in 1999, which seemed to end the series at ten volumes. But the surprising Vice President Sidel is back in Winter Warning (Pegasus, $25.95) after an absence of nineteen years, and now, in 1988, is president, after president-elect J. Michael Storm, “a serial philanderer and a thief,” was forced to resign.
Sidel quickly finds himself hamstrung despite the presidency, or because of it. The Democratic National Committee thrusts chief of staff Ramona Dazzle on him, and she not only schedules everything for him but hires and fires staff as well. And Sidel’s vice president, Bull Latham, is a former FBI director just waiting for his chance to move up to the presidency. As if that wasn’t trouble enough, Sidel learns that there is an international bankers lottery betting on his death.
But Sidel, always a maverick, finds ways to cope. He refuses to stop carrying the Glock, which has become a trademark; he continues to dress in the same worn suits and shirts he has always worn; and he tries, with mixed success, to carve out his own path. For instance, Sidel arranges a trip to Prague because he wants to see the house where Kafka was born, and he ends up trying to rescue the Czechoslovak president from his own people.
Sidel has allies or makes allies out of an eclectic group as he tries to survive the politicians of both parties who don’t trust an honest man and the international cabal that would prefer a more tractable president in the White House. Helicopter pilot and Squadron One commander Stefan Oliver becomes his confidant; Lieutenant Sarah Rogers, actually a captain of Naval Intelligence, is gradually won over to Sidel’s side, and a mysterious and powerful Russian tattoo artist Viktor Danzig seems both ally and enemy.
Charyn’s Sidel is a brilliant creation—a man who Viktor says is an “accidental president. You can’t be manipulated or massaged. You’re not interested in money and power—you’re a very dangerous man.”
David Housewright, who has concentrated on his series featuring Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie for the past fourteen years, is another author who has resumed an old series after a long hiatus. Dearly Departed (1999) seemed to be the last outing for St. Paul private eye Holland Taylor, but in Darkness, Sing Me A Song (Minotaur, $25.99), the ex-cop finds himself involved with the Twin Cities’ “crime of the century” when his client is arrested for murder.
Wealthy socialite Eleanor Barrington hired Holland to check out Emily Denys, a woman who was loved by Eleanor’s son Joel Barrington. All Holland had discovered, before she was murdered, was that Emily apparently didn’t exist—none of the information they had about her had any basis in fact. Not only was it known that Eleanor had threatened to kill Emily, but Emily’s neighbor Alexandra Campbell, claims she witnessed Eleanor shoot Emily.
Before Holland even gets started looking for answers, he is warned off the case by Ramsey County Attorney Marianne Haukass, who threatens his P.I. license if he persists. The case gets even more complicated when Joel Barrington accuses his mother of the killing and provides a shocking rationale for the murder.
When Holland discovers an unlikely and surprising connection between Emily’s death and that of the unsolved murder of nearby Arona Mayor Todd Franson some thirteen months earlier, he also discovers a whole new list of suspects linked to a fracking dispute between U.S. Sand and the right-wing group Red Stone Patriots.
Housewright’s ability to create snappy dialogue and colorful characters is constant regardless of which series he features, but it’s good to see Holland Taylor again after such a long absence. His fans will hope that he won’t wait so long before his next case.
Joining the list of authors returning to a favorite character is noted poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns, who wrote ten mysteries featuring Charlie Bradshaw, a racing enthusiast and former police officer between 1976 when Saratoga Longshot appeared and 1998 when Saratoga Strongbox seemed to cap the series. Dobyns revived the series with a much older Charlie Bradshaw in 2017 when he solved a case involving kidnapped horses in Saratoga Payback, reviewed in the Mar/Apr, 2017 issue of AHMM.