I’ve been a customer of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore since it first opened in Toronto on Bayview Avenue and I’ve followed it through four moves to its present location on Millwood Road.
I started out reading the classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham) but quickly gravitated to darker crime fiction, which remains my strong favorite. So on J. D. Singh’s recommendation, I tried the Harry Stoner series by Jonathan Valin and quickly became a fan.
Like most enduring PI heroes, Harry Stoner hides his human side and lives to deliver justice for his disempowered clients – through violence, what else? His city is Cincinnati (Sin City?), a dark gritty place ruled by grifters and gangsters thriving in the worst sin: snuff films, pornography, pedophilia…you know the list.
In the 1980’s, PI novels had far more rigid conventions than today. The Stoner series checks everything off the list: Stoner is a (Viet Nam) war vet. He bears mental and physical scars (he looks like a broken Roman statue). He’s big and strong and lethal with his fists. His PI office lies in a funky old building. He drives a wreck of a car – a (mercifully) non-flaming Pinto. He’s constantly short of cash. He lives on a diet of alcohol, steak and coffee – and survives more physical abuse than is humanly possible (beaten up, shot, etc.) He also gets a ton of sex.
On re-reading, The Lime Pit, the first book in the series, the limited roles of the women characters really got to me. They were straight out of a 1950s Mickey Spillane adventure. Good girls or bad, they only existed to have sex with Stoner. Their defining characteristics: compliant and horny.
So what was Valin’s appeal for me? His writing! It’s breathtakingly vivid, visceral and cinematic – just the way I like it. Here’s an example:
“Morris Rich was a sly, sentimental man of about fifty…but he was first and foremost a thief. He was a short man with a smooth, hairless head, the exact size of a schoolyard kickball and the bright, famished eyes and tiny upturned mouth of a rat.”
From 1980 to 1995, Valin wrote 11 novels in the Harry Stoner series of which I own the first eight. A TV movie was made of Final Notice, the second book in the series, starring actor Gil Gerard with Cincinnati played by Toronto (really??). The film didn’t catch on, which often as not happens with crime series: witness the failure to translate Louise Penny’s terrific Gamache novels to the screen.
Maybe that’s why after 11 books and 14 years of hard work, Valin switched to editing Fi, a music review magazine and left crime writing behind.
Valin won the prestigious Shamus Award in 1989 for his 8th Stoner novel, Extenuating Circumstances. He was nominated again in 1991 for Second Chance. Previously in 1986, Life’s Work was a runner-up for the Anthony award.
Distinguished author and screenwriter, Stuart Kaminsky wrote this about Valin’s writing and I can’t help but agree: “All [his novel] are gems. They never caught on, never got an audience, while far lesser talents became best sellers… I would read them all again and recommend them to all lovers of hard-boiled mysteries.”
My friend, Sam Wiebe, who was recently listed for the both Shamus and Hammett awards, shares the same hope – as do I – that in the end quality is what matters – and endures.
BOTTOM LINE: What are my paperback copies worth?
The low end is disappointing for books of this quality but that’s the marketplace. The lofty numbers are seller-specific. In other words, like Terry (Mr. Brainwash) in the documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, ask $500 for a ratty 1970s T-shirt and some mark might bite!
DECISION: Sell as a set for $25US
|TITLE||ABE BOOKS – $US||E BAY -$US|
|The Lime Pit||$4 to $39.99|
|Final Notice||$1.50 to $39.99|
|Dead Letter||$3.34 to $44.59||$20.95|
|Day of Wrath||$2.95 to $39.99|
|Natural Causes||$2.99 to $39.99||$3.32|
|Life’s Work||$2.99 to $13.14||
|Fire Lake||$1.11 to $43.39||$7.93|
|Extenuating Circumstances||$1.00 to $42.20||$1.31|