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Harry Lipkin, Private Eye

Harry Lipkin is the genuine article – an 87-year-old gumshoe, sporting dentures.

August 4, 2012

Harry Lipkin, Private Eye By Barry Fantoni Knopf Doubleday 224 pp.

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By Katherine A. Powers, for The Barnes and Noble Review

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The arrival of Barry Fantoni's Harry Lipkin, Private Eye at my door caused me to reflect, as I so often do, on what used to be called mystery or detective novels. Once a variously populated genre, it has become a virtual phylum under which distinct, ever-proliferating classes, orders, and species continue to evolve. Two forms of relatively recent appearance are those with supernatural elements and those starring geriatric sleuths. Among the latter are Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit, Keith Thomson's Drummond Clark, and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander – though, to be sure, the inspector only achieved elderliness, and final dotage, in the course of his series, now kaput, thanks to his creator's apparent ill will. I suppose we could, retroactively, put Miss Marple in with these old boys, but I don't think she'd care for it; best leave the ancient maiden with the "cosies" – spelled thus out of respect for her unbending Englishness. But Harry Lipkin is the genuine article, his credentials impeccable: eighty-seven years old, prey to digestive complaints, sporting dentures.

Harry lives in Warmheart, a suburban development outside Miami that, among its other attractions, runs a free bus service for people over sixty. ("So that means everyone.") Still, Harry has wheels, a forty-year-old Chevy Impala with a Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 in the glove box ("under the truss I used before I had my hernia fixed"). He gave up his office in central Miami and now works from home. That's where we find him when Mrs. Norma Weinberger, a rich widow in her mid-seventies, shows up asking for professional assistance in discovering which member of her staff is stealing from her.

There are five suspects: an immense African-American chauffeur with fists the size of human skulls; an Asian butler, the very model of attentive reserve; a docile young Bolivian maid; a stoned gardener with an unfortunate disposition; and the cook, an Ethiopian Jew. Each has personal connections and private pursuits that might explain the continuing disappearance of Mrs. Weinberger's possessions. Harry digs into their lives and reports back to us in the sort of alienated, plank-stacking style with which Raymond Chandler infected thousands of writers: "I called directory assistance. The voice at the end of the line gave me the number of the Four Aces Casino and thanked me for using the service. I dialed what I had written down."

There's something a little odd about the world Harry lives in; it's one in which you can find a cell phone in a woman's handbag and yet pay just $3.40 for lunch for two at a deli (pastrami on rye, chicken liver, potato salad, and two lemon teas). Furthermore, the usual laws of physics don't seem to apply here, for try as I might – and I did – I could not reproduce this feat of mechanics: "I pushed the door shut but left a gap of a couple of inches between the frame and the edge of the door with the hinges." I suppose Harry means that he left the door ajar, but then why did he say he pushed it shut?

This, alas, is really the novel's greatest mystery, as the plot offers none. It's a straightforward exercise in eliminating suspects to home in on the culprit. But the identity of this light-fingered person was obvious to me one-third of the way through the novel, and I can't think that anyone with normal detective novel-reading skills would take much longer than that. On the other hand, there is, I'm happy to say, one violent calamity: a case of death by deferred maintenance. Moreover, old-guy jokes abound: Harry growls through his dentures, he can't hear his doorbell, he is slow of foot, and when attacked thinks of his body as the province of the medical profession: "…he pulled me from my seat and rammed something hard into the base of my spine. Just under the spot where I get the ache in the morning. The ache that doctors can't figure out."

Harry Lipkin's creator, Barry Fantoni, was, from 1963 to 2010, a cartoonist and joke maker for the British satiric magazine Private Eye, one of the world's great comic institutions. So, yes, he is funny. He is also the author of some earlier detective novels, now lost to history. Frankly, Harry Lipkin's prospects don't look much brighter. Whether he will survive will depend entirely on an indiscriminate appetite for geriatric gumshoes. "I might not be the best," he correctly points out, "but I am certainly the oldest."

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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