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Street Level

Bob Truluck

Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin's Minotaur

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-26626-X

Publication Date: September, 2000

218 Pages; $22.95

Date Reviewed: June 26, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003




In 1999, 'Street Level', then titled 'Street Legal' and unpublished, won Best First Private Eye novel in a contest sponsored by PWA (Private Eye Writers of America) and St. Martin's Press. Published in 2000, PWA once again lauded it with their 2001 Shamus Award for best first private eye novel. It was also nominated for a 2001 Anthony Award (named after mystery critic Anthony Boucher) as best first novel. Pretty heady resume for a first time author and his first book. I, of course, had no choice but to buy it and, belatedly for sure, read it. I wish I hadn't waited so long.

Truluck's got the private eye elements down pat. Duncan Sloan is a wise-cracking, fast talking private detective, with a purebred gumshoe ideology that favors doing the right thing over doing the legal one, action over contemplation, and a bribe 'em, scare 'em or shoot 'em toughness blended with just a touch of heart. Sloan is definitely not one of those broody, moody detectives prone to morose pondering, nor is he a highfalutin' heavyweight. He's just a "street-level" guy. After serving two years in prison for refusing to identify some New Jersey wise guys, he now detects in Orlando, unlicensed but for hire.

Sloan is hired by Isaac Pike, the wealthy black-sheep son of a powerful tycoon, to track down...his semen. Pike is gay, but desperately wants to father a child, and has deposited his semen with a sperm bank in hopes of finding a suitable surrogate mother. Pike's sperm is stolen by an unscrupulous clinic worker and used to impregnate a trailer-trash teenage girl, who is being held for ransom. It's ante up or we abort the child. Mom-to-be is on the run, the sperm thief and his nasty buddies are hot on her trail, and Duncan Sloan's to the rescue. The story is unusual and unique, and it unfolds at breakneck speed.

Sloan is aided by a cast of supporting characters, each well drawn and memorable. Mose Booker, a black Lt. Detective with the Orange County police and Raleigh Lightstep, a ex-drug squad detective, wounded in action and now relegated to a desk job, both have an edgy love-hate relationship with Sloan. Paulie Mops, an unscrupulous trial lawyer, provides Sloan useful insider information. And Red, a dimwitted darling who's married to the surrogate mom's look-alike sister, also pregnant, delivers old-fashioned white knight heroism. If there's a fault here, it's with the thin, stereotyped female characters - the convenient ex-girlfriend and the redheaded hooker - but it's a failing that's often par-for-the-genre. Lest the foregoing mislead you, there's next to no sex in this book. Too bad - I suspect Sloan would be just as good in a sexy scene as he is in a shoot-out.

Truluck's writing is energetic and original. His dialogue is snappy, filled with slangy, witty, profane banter and his analogies, canny and biting, rank among the best in a genre that sets a stratospheric standard for clever comparisons. The skillful writing makes up for some deficiencies. A few unlikely coincidences and reality-stretches are noticeable but not bothersome. The minimal description leads to a complete lack of atmosphere or sense of place. The story's set in Orlando, but it could be just about anywhere with trailer-trash and sunshine. The pace is frenetic, as if Truluck's writing with a stopwatch. It makes for a fast, fun read, but slights the detail and dimension that would make this book truly memorable. Truluck writes too well to write so short. For a first novel, 'Street Level's a first rate keeper, and strong enough to put Truluck on my "must buy" and "must read immediately" list.