April 16, 2018
f you’re a fan of football and Frankie, doo-wop and detectives, and especially noir and New Jersey, then you’ll be happy to hear about New Jersey Noir by William Baer, a new murder mystery series featuring Jack Colt.
Jack Colt, like a character out of a Dashiell Hammett novel or any film noir ever, is the quintessential hard-boiled detective with the heart of gold, updated for the 21st century. He’s a private investigator who wears his Ray-Bans 24/7, sports Armani and Florsheims (apparently New Jersey’s equivalent of a trenchcoat), and describes himself as a “Jersey guy, a hard-ass, a wise-guy, a tough-guy.” And of course, like anyone who would go out of his way to be this tough, there’s plenty going on underneath. An orphan raised by his grand-uncle and a descendent of Samuel Colt of revolver fame, Jack was a philosophy and cinema major who also played middle-linebacker for Rutgers. He finds doo-wop “soft, powerful, almost sacred,” and he’s appointed himself knight in shining armor to his secretary, who is “even more beautiful than Audrey Hepburn.” Like his literary ancestors Philip Marlow, who enjoyed chess and poetry, and Robert B. Parker's Spenser, who could quote Frost with the best of them, Colt is a tough romantic loner, trying to figure out right from wrong in a troubled modern world.
The story, like a wound clock, doesn’t lose any time. Three pages in, you’re already shocked at the murder of Jack’s grand-uncle. After that the twists, turns, and bodies pile up. When the corpse of a young woman is found staring up from just below the surface of a lake, the police call in Jack to help investigate. The day’s office mail contains a box mailed to him by the frozen women hiring him to look into her death, as well as a mysterious Asbury Park postcard bearing a threat to kill him. Then in walks the femme fatale, a judge’s daughter wearing—what else—a stunning red dress, appreciating his New York Giants Crunch Bunch sports memorabilia and asking his help in finding her sister. Colt knows her from some work he did for her family a few years ago, but right now, he tells her he needs to focus on finding his uncle’s killer.
As Colt investigates his uncle’s death, the cases start to intertwine. All along the way, he is assisted by his beautiful secretary Roxy Faulkner, who prepares in-depth research that he listens to on his phone. Roxanne likes Colt, and he is drawn to her but nobly keeps his distance. With decades-old affairs, kidnappings, jealousy, and revenge, the plot rockets from one surprise to the next.
The story is interspersed with short chapters in which it’s not immediately evident who is speaking or when they are happening. In three separate chapters, a mysterious intruder watches a woman sleep. In three others, someone tells the heartbreaking story of a twin brother who falls in love with a beautiful California volleyball player, proposes to her, then has to stand by as, following a car accident, she gets amnesia and can’t remember her own fiancé. But Baer clears them up by the end of the book, in a way that makes you go back and read them again, wondering how you missed the clues the first time around.
Like all good noir detective fiction, there has to be a dark, dirty city, and in New Jersey Noir, that city is Paterson. Baer obviously loves the area and mixes in details of the geography, history, and people who’ve brought fame or notoriety to the city and state. Jack’s office is in downtown Paterson, and he investigates crime scenes at Paterson Falls and Packanack Lake. He also visits St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Hinchliffe Stadium, Cedar Lawn Cemetery, a list of local pizza joints, and of course the White Castle, where he loves to buy too many burgers, at least according to Roxy. A mobster’s limousine showroom, a boxing gym frequented by thugs, and a Catholic middle school—all show the various communities that make up Paterson. Colt occasionally travels beyond Paterson, to Wanaque, northern New Jersey, Princeton, and down to Beach Haven on the Jersey shore, but Paterson is the physical heart of the story.
Baer weaves the history of Paterson into the story of Jack Colt as well. Not long after the founding of the city, Jack’s ancestor Samuel Colt founded the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, maker of the Colt Peacemaker, the “gun that tamed the West,” and Jack’s weapon of choice. And while Jack Colt sees the “’ugly, more obvious Paterson,”—“like a Faulkner novel, it’s full of corruption, incest, and deceit”—he also sees “the exciting Paterson, the maelstrom, the melting pot.” He’s proud of the “distinguished offspring of Paterson,” including Lou Costello, comedian; Gerry Hobart, vice president of the United States; and Larry Doby, who broke the American League color line.
New Jersey Noir is an homage to Hammett, Chandler, McDonald, and other detective fiction writers, and it contains all the requisite characters. Its tough but ineffectual cops, profligate mobsters, down-on-their-luck boxers, and curvaceous broads for the most part manage to make the move to the 21st century successfully. There are only a few clangs and awkward moments, like when the judge’s daughter suddenly shows up and then goes out to dinner with Colt wearing a cheerleading outfit that belongs to the middle school squad she coaches.
The plot comes to a startling conclusion, connecting events over several decades. Some storylines are resolved, some are set in place as the plots for future Jack Colt adventures. With an intellectual tough guy knowledgeable about history, architecture, the Latin mass, sports, music, and Italian, as well as how to bring a suspect to his or her knees using only a pair of Ray-bans, Jack Colt will be a character to keep an eye on.