Fantoni, Barry - 'Harry Lipkin PI' (Illustrations by Andrew Aarons)
The woman looked at me the way they do these days. A private investigator? At your age? A retired rabbi, maybe. But a flatfoot? You got to be kidding.
Florida PI Harry Lipkin is out in his yard, when the phone extension on the wall rings. He picks up the phone and Mrs Weinberger asks him if he's deaf. She's been pressing the front doorbell for ages and now she has had to call him on her cell phone to tell him that she has arrived for her appointment. Harry hangs up the yard phone and goes through to the front door. Just under four minutes, pretty good. Harry says that at eighty-seven he "mostly deals with the sort of cases the cops don't want." That means no serial homicides. When Mrs Weinberger, a wealthy widow in her seventies, asks Harry to investigate the theft of a porcelain pillbox he takes on the job. Norma Weinberger is upset and convinced that a member of her house staff must be the culprit - cook, chauffeur, butler, maid or gardener. How can he resist a woman who in her youth must have looked like Doris Day with dark hair? He agrees to come to her home, Coral Gables, to interview the staff. Harry Lipkin is a man who does it by the book, no fancy forensics for him. All he needs is his notebook and his contacts. Fifty years in the business means a lot of contacts and for this case he will need them. As more thefts occur at Coral Gables Harry’s investigations take him into the worlds of racing, prize-fighting, drug-dealing and elderly rabbis. Slow but sure is Harry's motto. At his age how can he be anything else?
One could be fooled into thinking that HARRY LIPKIN PI is writer, musician and cartoonist Barry Fantoni's first foray into detective fiction. But the 1980s saw the publication of two books by Fantoni featuring "Mike Dime", a 1940s Philadelphia private eye who travelled Chandler's "mean streets" with, by all accounts, a sharp wit and a neat turn of phrase. Now Fantoni has retired from his own Private Eye work as cartoonist, satirist and as poetical obituary writer E J Thrib, and gives us his new creation - the "soon to be 88 years old" Florida private eye, Harry Lipkin. Fantoni himself describes Lipkin as…"the world's oldest detective who is old and useless and talks about his illnesses." Lipkin may be a martyr to acid reflux, or rather would be so if he were not by nature a stoic rather than a martyr, but I don't think that Harry is that useless. He is a delightful creation - Philip Marlowe in his late eighties, should he have ever reached them, channelled through Walter Matthau with a touch of George Burns. Yes he is slow and methodical, interviewing suspects armed with a biro and a notepad, but he has a working lifetime of shrewd observation behind him not to mention the contacts that have seen generations come and go in his Miami stomping ground. Besides he keeps a gun and bullets in his desk drawer and he can think on his feet, even if he prefers a chair if the going gets tough. What would you do if there was a dead gangster on your doorstep and the police sirens sounding in the street? Harry manages splendidly, he just forgot that fingerprint thing.
I loved this book. Funny, elegant, with each chapter headed with Andrew Aarons' simple illustrations - a hat, a building, a gun. HARRY LIPKIN PI is a book marinated in a dry wit. Gentle - well there is a gun or two and some violence - but you have to have some of the ingredients for a private eye story don't you? The worldly wise Lipkin provides a sharp tongue, some old world manners, and even a touch of tenderness despite having been around the block a few times. As the book draws to an end and Harry once more ponders his aches, pains, and acid reflux, I just hope that he can summon up his energies and dentures and shuffle on out there onto the streets of Warmheart, Florida for another case.
Lynn Harvey, England
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