Unlike more leisurely traditional mysteries, Jonathan Valin’s hard-hitting mystery-adventure stories do not begin with the exploration of character or the creation of atmosphere. Instead, they jump into action almost immediately when private investigator Harry Stoner is hired for a specific task, usually finding a missing person or investigating a death.
Although Stoner accepts whatever case is offered, he is often suspicious of the person who hired him, and his suspicions often prove to be justified. In The Lime Pit, for example, Hugo Cratz telephones to ask Stoner to look for his little girl. Charitably, Stoner agrees, but instead of a child, the missing girl proves to be a prostitute with dangerous associates. In Final Notice, Dead Letter, Natural Causes, and Life’s Work, it is prosperous, respectable individuals who hire Stoner: a librarian, a scientist, a corporate representative, and a professional football executive. As Stoner soon discovers, however, none of these clients has told him the complete truth; one, the scientist in Dead Letter, is a Machiavellian villain who intends to use Stoner to cover up past misdeeds and to facilitate future murders.
Realizing that even his employers have not leveled with him, Stoner remains skeptical of everyone he interviews, because he is intent on deducing the truth and because his own survival depends on it. If he trusts the wrong person, he may be led into a trap. In Fire Lake (1987), Stoner trusts and helps a former college roommate, Lonnie “Jack” Jackowski—now a psychologically unstable drug addict, with criminal connections—and nearly loses his life.
In all Valin’s mysteries, his detective’s relationship with a woman helps build and sustain suspense. By nature, Stoner is chivalrous. Sometimes he is called a male chauvinist by liberated women such as young Kate Davis (Final Notice), who eventually must admit that she can use Stoner’s help and that her brown belt in karate may not be enough to protect her from a well-armed psychopathic killer. Stoner worries about her, and he worries even more because she is impulsive, inexperienced, and unlikely to spot a trap. In Dead Letter, much of the suspense involves Sarah Lovingwell, whose insistence that her scientist father is a murderer naturally arouses Stoner’s protective instincts. However, he cannot believe both Sarah’s story and the well-respected professor’s plausible account of Sarah’s emotional instability. To arrive at the truth, Stoner must suppress his own chivalric instincts. At the end of the book, although he has exposed the villainous professor, Stonger has lingering doubts about Sarah—he is certain she outsmarted him.
Valin’s readers and critics praise the realism of his settings. Although all of his novels are set partially or wholly in Cincinnati, in each Valin creates a different environment, varying from the library setting of Final Notice and the football locker rooms and bars of Life’s Work to the sordid haunts of pimps, prostitutes, and addicts in The Lime Pit and Fire Lake.
When Valin takes his detective from the slums to the luxurious homes and offices of his employers and their friends, the description of setting becomes ironic, since some of the rich and powerful are deeply involved in criminal activities, often drug related. The furniture may be different, but the corruption is the same. To discover the secret of that corruption and with it the secret of the murder, Stoner must resist the trappings of wealth, just as he must resist the blandishments of beautiful but evil women.
Though Stoner is a large, imposing specimen, there is a David-and-Goliath element in all his adventures: He must always face superior forces—officials, police officers, businessmen, drug lords, and their minions. When such Goliaths arrange the elimination of the little people who get in their way, Stoner must avenge the victims. In The Lime Pit, it is a young girl casually killed in a sexual orgy; in Natural Causes, it is a Mexican mother and child tortured and knifed. Whenever someone defenseless suffers, Stoner becomes a killing machine.
Most of Valin’s characters, however, are ordinary people, neither all good nor all bad. Although Jackowski of Fire Lake is a junkie and a thief, even the wife who kicked him out knows that he is too gentle to have committed murder. In Life’s Work, a hostile,...
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