Meet Oscar Jade - a club-footed, Jim Beam-swigging, smart-dressing private investigator from Miami.
He drives a cream-colored 1935 Ford roadster convertible, where he keeps a half pint of whiskey under the seat - for occasional needed jolts of courage - and conceals his gun in a hidden side panel in the door, just in case. But, since it's 1941 and Miami is being hit with mob crime, Oscar can get away with these less-than-law-abiding behaviors.
Mark Loeffelhol of Springfield is the author of "Blood and Ashes." He decided to write a novel after a 2007 conversation with his father, who had just finished reading Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury." His father said, "They don't write books like that anymore, and people still want to read them." That launched Loeffelholz into research, choosing Miami as his setting and creating Oscar Jade as the main character. Loeffelholz claims Oscar will return in another book.
Oscar Jade lives above the Pelican, a beachfront bar and grill owned and operated by Claude Applegate. One early December morning, a stranger confronts Oscar, comments on his bad foot and stomps on it, tips his hat to Claude and the woman Oscar had been talking to and takes off. Oscar quickly follows, wrestling the man to the ground, and discovers he's hoodlum Nino Valletti.
Valletti had been tailing the woman Oscar just met. She is Myrna Mallory, and she hires Oscar to protect her from her husband, Horace. She wants to know why Horace has changed his behavior and is always broke, even though he makes a lot of money managing the Caribbean Hotel. But her biggest concern is that she has discovered that Horace has taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy on her.
Oscar accepts, although a bit reluctantly, and immediately gets spun into a web of intrigue. The typical crime-novel scenes of brawls, shoot-outs and underhanded activities in the underworld fill the pages of Loeffelholz's first novel. Oscar hides Myrna, enlists the help of Claude in several exploits, follows Myrna's new boyfriend, Peter La Forno, and later must confront Myrna about the truth of who this suave guy really is. One can probably guess that La Forno is involved in the intrigue and has an ulterior motive for befriending Myrna.
Oscar Jade can create a story that sounds plausible - and he does so to get past a hotel's guards so he can case out the hidden gambling room on an upper level. He can become a tough guy when necessary - and does just that with a hungry alligator snapping at two captured hoodlums who easily spill the truth about their boss. He can be the hero - and does so by saving Myrna from a drive-by shooting. He can also play superhero, driving his roadster at breakneck speed while simultaneously timing it perfectly to lob a grenade behind him into the car of gangsters on his tail.
Loeffelholz weaves together a good plot. The action tends to follow the typical mobster-themed book or movie reminiscent of the '40s, but it often takes a reference to a certain type of car or world event to be reminded that the action is supposed to be occurring in 1941. It is obvious that Loeffelholz did research on Miami with the inclusion of street names and neighborhoods, but he writes in his author's acknowledgement that he has taken liberties in creating most of the places, the events in the area in 1941, and even the name of a Bing Crosby song that plays while Oscar and Claude defend themselves and the Pelican Bar and Grill from the gangsters who have come to kill.
Characters are somewhat stock, but a few stand out. Oscar, for sure, with his distinctive walk; Claude for his fear of nothing.
As for Myrna, one wonders why Loeffelholz chose the same name as the female character in Spillane's "I, the Jury." Maybe this is his tribute to his father's urging him to write a private eye novel.
Dialogue, though, stands out in the novel. "Blood and Ashes" includes quite a bit of dialogue that is believable and smoothly written.
Oscar eventually wins the day, and who would expect otherwise? It's a thriller, after all. But winning the day doesn't mean all turns out for the best.
The one nice part of the ending is that Loeffelholz has brought Oscar and Myrna together, but not as a couple. That would be a typical sappy ending that just doesn't fit with crime novels - or with a guy like Oscar Jade, who is too smart to be hoodwinked.
Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )