Loren D. Estleman’s short story collection, Detroit Is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen, skillfully captures the hard boiled vibe of some of the best detective fiction of the 1940s. It is a quite impressive tour de force.
Set in Detroit during the Second World War, the stories center on a racket squad of four detectives in a draft-depleted department, whose main concern is supposedly war-related: Nazi sympathizers, black market operators, and the like, but they manage to get involved in all sorts of other criminal activities.
One story has them helping an FBI agent with a German agent, another sets them as body guards for Frank Sinatra. Other stories have the detectives trying to get a jumper off a building ledge, keeping a feisty trumpet player out of trouble, and helping an elderly elevator operator recover some stock certificates.
The Four Horsemen, as the newspapers have dubbed them are led by Lieutenant Max Zagreb, a veteran cop who doesn’t mind bending the rules to get the job done. Second in command is the physically massive Sergeant Starvo Canal. Detective “Burksie” Burke and the rookie Detective, the prematurely balding, Dan McReary round out the crew. Except for the rookie, they are hard drinking trash talkers who know their way around the city, as quick with their fists as they are with their wisecracks, and each and every one of them willing to flaunt the political powers that be. They are very much the models of the hard boiled cops of forties fiction.
Estleman is adept at recreating the historical period through topical allusions. A sob sister who works for a Hearst paper drives a Hudson. Sinatra’s swooning young fans are dressed “identically in letter sweaters, A-line skirts, saddle shoes and bobby sox.” A local band closes its set with “Let Me Off Uptown.” Names from the past are abundant: Ish Kabibble, Dan Duyea, Baby Snooks, Walter Winchell, and Joe E. Lewis, to name a few. They use candle stick telephones and fat fountain pens. The older detectives prefer Bing Crosby to the teen idol, Sinatra. The stories are carefully crafted portraits of a time long gone.
Moreover, Estleman has a fine ear for lively descriptive language. Burke in a white undershirt looks like “a grizzly wearing a white vest.” A pulled nose hair is replaced by a new one “like paper towels in a men’s room.” The sob sister is tired of writing stories about “kittens and Christmas Eve car crashes and one legged prom queens.” Estleman has a knack for finding just the right epithet to make his point.
Not only are the stories in Detroit Is Our Beat well written, they will keep you guessing and often surprise you at the end.
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