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Leonard, Peter - 'Voices of the Dead'
Paperback: 336 pages (June 2012) Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571271502

Judy pulled the sheet back and Harry saw the lifeless face of someone, a girl with dark brown hair, but unrecognizable, the left side crushed.
"Is this your daughter, Mr Levin?"
Harry nodded, picturing her the last time he'd seen her, the day she moved into the teacher's townhouse. "You've got the best luck of anyone I know," he'd said.
"The world's my oyster, Pops."

Detroit, Michigan, 1971. Harry Levin is driving back to his scrap dealership with fifty thousand in cash and is pulled to a stop by a turning truck when two black punks get into the car. One, the junkie, holds a carving knife to his jugular. Give us your wallet, they say. Harry throws it on the floor. The junkie scrabbles for the wallet and Harry pulls out his Colt. The punks change their tune. They hit the street, but not before Harry has their wallets too. At his scrap dealership there is an IRS auditor waiting. Just a random check he says. Harry doubts that. He has been in the business since he was seventeen. After he and his scale operator load the boxes of records into the auditor's car Harry heads for home: a steak, a beer and a baseball game.

In Washington a man called Hess finds the woman's house and rings the bell. My car is on the fritz he says. Can I come in and use the phone? The man who answers the door is uncertain but lets Hess in. However when the man and the woman see the Luger it causes some alarm. What do you want? The pleasure of your company, says Hess. Afterwards Hess drives to a club. A private dance and some company from one of the hostesses. All is going well until the woman runs her hand down his leg and finds the blood he has missed. He gets out of there quick, drives away. Drunk and high on adrenaline, he fumbles his lit cigarette and drops in into his lap. He is looking for it when he shoots the lights. Bam! His car smashes into another car crossing the junction.

Back in Detroit Harry gets an early morning call that tells him that his student daughter, Sara, has been killed in a car accident. Harry catches the 6.30 a.m. flight out of Detroit to Washington and identifies his daughter. He asks the detective what happened. Can't believe it when he is told the drunk at the wheel of the other car cannot be prosecuted: a German national, a foreign diplomat, connected. Nothing they can do.

VOICES OF THE DEAD sees Harry Levin, a German-born Jew living in 1970s Detroit revisiting his wartime trauma as a Holocaust survivor. The tragic loss of his only daughter in a traffic accident and his fury at the knowledge that the perpetrator will not face charges due to diplomatic immunity, sets him hunting her drunken killer's identity and in turn back to his own childhood in Munich. There Harry’s path crosses that of Cordell Sims, a black ex-GI from Harry's own home turf of Detroit. Together they embark on danger-fraught skirmishes with neo-Nazis and a "road trip" that echoes and is worthy of Elmore Leonard, Peter's father. (It is impossible to write about Peter Leonard's work without mentioning that he is the son of venerable crime writer Elmore Leonard, so here it is – mentioned.)

Peter Leonard's writing is stripped down for speed; it seems that every paragraph starts with Harry does this... Harry does that... action, action. Yet there is a humanity, dry humour and particularity in the writing which stops it overloading on machismo. As the story criss-crosses between the US and Germany, and between 1971 and 1940s, the sense of being at the centre of the book's pace and action never flags, which is no mean feat. My only regret is that I found some of the breadth of characterisation and narrative sacrificed, towards the end of the story, for the sake of the pace and suspense. Compared to Leonard's empathic writing earlier in the book the relentless progress of the killer became a distancing element for me as he discards one life after another and the story drives on to its conclusion. But it is a terrific story and I thoroughly recommend it. VOICES OF THE DEAD is Peter Leonard's fourth book but the first to feature Harry Levin. The good news is that there is more from Harry in Leonard's fifth book BACK FROM THE DEAD to be published in 2013.

Read another review of VOICES OF THE DEAD.

Lynn Harvey, England
January 2013

Lynn blogs at Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 26/01/2013 11:34