Review: The Big Brush-Off by Michael Murphy

Review: The Big Brush-Off by Michael MurphyThe Big Brush-off by Michael Murphy
Formats available: ebook
Series: Jake & Laura #4
Pages: 228
Published by Alibi on February 9th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

The irresistible Jake & Laura return in Michael Murphy's witty, fast-paced mystery series—perfect for readers of Dorothy Cannell and Christopher Fowler. In The Big Brush-off, the charming and indomitable duo heads to the Midwest to solve a chilling cold case of a young girl's murder.
Blackie Doyle is dying. That's what Jake Donovan's literary agent tells him. Sales are falling, and the rough draft of Jake's latest Blackie novel doesn't look promising. Maybe Jake has been distracted by a recent barrage of real-life homicides, or by his marriage to the beautiful up-and-coming actress Laura Wilson, now slated for a part opposite Clark Gable himself. Whatever the reason, Jake decides to return to his roots. Which is why he and Laura hop the next train to the small town in Pennsylvania where Jake once worked as a Pinkerton detective.
Ten years ago, the murder of a teenage girl interrupted life in quiet, God-fearing Hanover. The unsolved case has always gnawed at Jake, and it seems no coincidence that as soon as he starts digging up old ghosts, he's once again writing like a dervish. Nor is it surprising that some townfolk would rather see the truth stay buried—and maybe even Jake and Laura with it. But the glamorous crime-solving pair refuse to leave before sorting through a bevy of suspects—and at long last nailing the one who almost got away with the not-so-perfect crime.

My Review:

By this point in Jake and Laura’s life, and the Jake and Laura mystery series, our heroes have come a long way from their hard-knocks childhoods in Queens.

And while the fame and fortune is wonderful, it unfortunately also means that Jake Donovan seems to have lost his ability to channel Blackie Doyle, the struggling private eye who is the hero of his best-selling mystery series.

At the beginning, Jake was Blackie, a former cop and former Pinkerton detective who did his best to get justice, or at least closure, for clients who were every bit as down on their luck as Blackie. And Jake.

But now that Jake’s wife Laura is a Hollywood star, Jake and Laura are living the high life. And Jake has been too caught up in taking care of Laura to take care of his own career.

It takes a wake-up visit to his literary agent to make Jake see that something has to change. He either needs to find Blackie again, or give up his career and settle for a well-heeled life as “Mr. Wilson”. Jake loves his wife, and he is pretty understanding that her Hollywood career, while it lasts, will make her much more famous than his literary career ever will him. But he’s not willing to go through life as just her appendage, either.

So, Jake (and Blackie) do what so many struggling detectives do when they can’t get back on track. Jake and Laura return to the small town in Pennsylvania where Jake worked his last case as a Pinkerton. A case that he spectacularly failed to solve.

Jake’s life took a different track after leaving Hanover, Pennsylvania, and leaving Mary Caldwell in the lurch over the murder of her teenaged daughter. Now Mary is dying, and Jake needs a place to find Blackie again. What Jake isn’t willing to admit is that he needs to close that case to get Blackie back on track.

As Jake gets reacquainted with the town, and Laura pokes her nose into the town’s gossip circuit, too many people attempt to run them out of town, with or without a rail. In the intervening 10 years, the former suspects have become the mainstays of the struggling town, and no one wants to see their gravy train disrupted.

Can Jake and Laura figure out who the killer is before someone kills them by mistake?

yankee club by michael murphyEscape Rating B+: This entry in the series is every bit as much fun as the previous books (start with The Yankee Club to get the flavor of where Jake and Laura began). But The Big Brush-Off is a bit different. In the earlier books, especially All the Glitters and Wings in the Dark, the author inserts real historical personages and events into the mystery in order to cement the 1930s setting.

The Big Brush-Off takes place almost entirely in Hanover. The most famous person in Hanover is Laura. So in this case the author uses telegrams from Hollywood and discussions of Laura’s next film, (possibly co-starring with Clark Gable!), as a way of establishing the period. And it works.

This story is in one of the classic detective genre tropes. The detective goes back to solve the case that got away. He thinks he’s providing closure to someone else, but in reality he is redeeming himself. Jake needs to find the killer to move on with his own life. It’s an added benefit that Mary gets to see her daughter’s killer brought to justice before she herself dies, and that the innocent suspects see the cloud of suspicion removed from their lives.

Because Jake and Laura have done well financially, the Depression hasn’t affected them much. Part of the way that the author establishes the setting in The Big Brush-Off is that Jake sees just how much the Depression has taken away from what he remembered as a lovely and prosperous little town.

It’s terrific to see the way that Jake and Laura work together. He lays most of the groundwork, but Laura is the one who gets closest to figuring out who the killer is. And even then, she’s just slightly off target.

Speaking of Jake and Laura working together, one of the things that is very well done is the way that Jake expresses his need to have a career of his own without resorting to stereotypes, sexist or otherwise. His worthfulness, or worthlessness, is never dependent on Laura or her career. At the same time he supports her absolutely. and never tries to cut her down to make himself feel better. While that attitude may be more 21st century than early 20th, it still felt good.

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