In March of 2009, mystery author Stuart M. Kaminsky moved with his wife from his Sarasota home to St. Louis, Missouri, in order to wait for a liver transplant (he’d contracted hepatitis during service as a military medic in France in the late 1950s). Two days later he suffered a stroke, making him ineligible for the surgery, and he passed away the following October.
The online accounts of his death I’ve read give no hint how (or whether) Kaminsky’s health affected his writing plans. But these last two novels in his Lew Fonesca series (my favorite of his four detective series) possess an elegiac quality, as if the author was tying up loose ends.
I’ve told you about Lew Fonesca before. He’s a bald, skinny process server in Sarasota, Florida. During most of the series, he lives in the back room of his tiny office, next to a Dairy Queen. He gets around chiefly by bicycle. He doesn’t want to own anything, and he doesn’t want people in his life. He’s chronically depressed, overcome by the death of his wife, in a hit-and-run accident in Chicago a few years back. He drove south until his car broke down in Sarasota, and settled where he stopped.
And yet he doesn’t stay alone. Over the course of the books he acquires a staunch friend in the old cowboy Ames McKinney, who backs him up in tight spots. An old woman he once helped took in an unwed mother he rescued, and now he’s sort of an unofficial godfather to the baby. He has a girlfriend. There’s a “little brother” (who likes going around with him because shots tend to get fired). A therapist. And (in the final book) a Chinese man who sleeps on his floor, for reasons you’ll have to read the novels to learn.
You might think these books would be depressing. They’re not. In fact—it occurred to me while reading Bright Futures—they’re actually rather funny. Lew Fonesca, like some farcical Job, is the butt of a cosmic joke. The God in whom he claims not to believe (he’s a lapsed Episcopalian) seems to be playing games with him.
If I were ever to really believe in God (Fonesca muses in Bright Futures), a primary reason would be the existence of irony in my life. There had to be some irony in the possibility of my getting killed with a jar full of pennies.
There is a mischief in me, even with the coins of death over my head. Death wish? Maybe. Ann Hurwitz thought so. Now she thinks I may be getting over it…
Always Say Goodbye marks a turning point in Lew’s career. In a move heartily approved by his therapist, he returns to Chicago (“the last place I wanted to be”) to investigate his wife’s death. We get to meet his extended family, and some old friends. Plus some new enemies, chiefly an agoraphobic Greek hit man. Lew quickly becomes convinced that his wife’s death was not an accident—she was a county investigator, and had been working on something sensitive. But the real solution is stranger than he imagines.
Bright Futures, the last Lew Fonesca mystery, ties things up pretty well, and serves as a relatively (not perfectly) satisfying conclusion to Lew’s adventures. Although he has returned to Sarasota, everything has changed. The Dairy Queen is gone, as is his old office building. He has relocated to a genuine (though ramshackle) apartment. He acquires a car. He takes on Ames McKinney as a full investigating partner. His girlfriend tells him she’s moving away.
Two high school boys hire Lew to clear a friend of theirs, arrested for murdering one of the most unpopular men in Sarasota. The grandfather of one of the boys, a retired television infomercial pitch man, tries to persuade Lew to drop the case, then pays him to stay with it when he refuses to quit. Someone starts shooting a Lew—and others—with a pellet gun (and just as your mother warned you, somebody loses an eye). The plot gets kind of convoluted, and I have an idea at least one of the threads wasn’t properly tied off. But I didn’t really care. I was more interested in what was going on in Lew Fonesca’s soul.
At one point in the story, Lew encounters a radio preacher. A lesser author could have had great fun caricaturing such a personage, but Kaminsky looked closer. The preacher isn’t entirely sympathetic, and there’s a whiff of the huckster about him, but he is clearly presented as a man who believes what he says, and his dialogue is spot-on (something very rarely encountered in books by non-Christians). When Lew ponders the preacher’s message, it’s not with contempt, but with the kind of intelligent questions a thoughtful Jew like Kaminsky has to ask.
I have plenty of Kaminsky’s novels left to finish before I exhaust his prodigious product, but I miss him anyway. Never a blockbuster author, he chose (unlike many other mystery writers) not to go big and turn his whodunnits into thrillers, but to go deep and chart the dark and muddy passages of the human soul. This was a good man, engaged in exploring the mystery of goodness itself. I wish there were more like him.
Lars Walker can’t write mysteries. He is the author of several fantasy novels, the most recent of which is West Oversea.