★ ★ ★ ★
“The lamp by the bed said cheap hotel. The lamp was bright orange, which is not a good color if you drink. You wake up and your head’s a can of nails, you don’t want to see a lot of orange. You want to see a color like black.”
I found Barrett by way of reading his Hugo/Nebula novelette nominee, ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus.‘ Something about the tone, humor and nicely paced story intrigued me, and I found more of the same in Pink Vodka Blues. A solid mystery of the ‘find the missing item’ school, Russell Murray (‘not Murray Russell’) wakes from a bender in a motel room with a very attractive young woman. While he’s heaving up last night in the bathroom, two large men break into the motel room, shoot the girl and then spy him hiding in the bathroom. Within a flash, he’s on the run.
“I decided last week was the ideal time to leave town. That I really liked fishing a lot. That I could surely learn to like the local beer. As ever, good planning is the key.”
He’s pretty sure a drink will help him cope, but Chicago isn’t selling at this exact moment, so he makes his way to the Wisconsin border where they have early opening on Sundays.
“The sign at the Wisconsin border reads: ‘Warning! Wisconsin Arrests Drunken drivers!’ To help bring this about, an impressive number of taverns line the roads. Other states have Mom and Pop groceries… Wisconsin has Mom and Pop taverns – more taverns per capita, locals boast, than any other state.”
He buys a bottle and calls his friend and employer Tony Palmer, who seems excessively interested in where Russell is and what happened to a briefcase. Russell has no clue what Tony is referring so but starts to get worried, so he hangs up and takes to the road with his booze. You can tell its the late 80s, because the cop that picks him up leaves him at a rehab facility instead of jail. (Of course, Wisconsin still remains one of the best states to drive in while drunk, if by ‘best,’ one means no minimum sentence and it’ll take four OWI before you reach felony level offense). After a bit of hallucination and a missed urinal, he comes around to Sherry Lou Winn, fellow resident, staring him in the face. She’s well endowed in the financial sense and looks like a red-headed Cheryl Ladd, but even better, is a bit of a loose cannon.
“Sherry took a bite of dry toast. ‘Les doesn’t care for me a lot. He figures I’ll bring you down.’
‘You just might,’ I said. ‘I have no will of my own. I am easily led astray.’
‘I sure do admire that in a man,’ Sherry said.”
The two end up on the road, trying to figure out what is going on and clear Murray’s reputation. The danger eventually becomes quite real, as if Murray didn’t already know. There’s a lot of drinking, some intermittent research, and narrow escapes that all tie up in a solid, if somewhat confusing ending.
I found it highly enjoyable, a kind of perfect read for a not-too-serious mood. The banter was amusing and I particularly appreciated the dry wit punctuating Murray’s thoughts. Murray wrote for “The Literary Times,’ and more than one of his jokes draws on the literary (“my mouth was dry as a page of Henry James”). There’s a number of running jokes which amuse–particularly the ones relating to vocabulary–as well as a few absurdist images.
I half expected the staccato narrative style to grate, but strangely, I enjoyed it. I think Barrett kept the pace moving, and switched to a more descriptive style at appropriate moments. It might have also helped that I didn’t read this all at once, but more as a diversion. Characterization may seem a bit simple at first–Murray is a bit of a sweetly sincere and straight-forward drunk–but I thought there was a nice subtlety to how Sherry and Murray related, and how their relationship evolved through the strain of their search for the briefcase. It takes skill to weave the balance between humor and daring adventure, and this nicely navigated humor and suspense.
Note: although this is described sometimes as part of the ‘Wiley Moss series,’ it is no such thing. Apparently Barrett wrote four detective novels in a quick time frame, with similar style. This book is a stand-alone mystery.
“Drawing the covers around her neck, I slid quietly out of bed. I nearly made it to the chair. I eased onto the floor for a break. Travelers need to rest.””