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Baptism for the Dead (1988)
In case it's escaped your attention, we're living
in a theocracy.
I've long been of the opinion that the distinctive feature of the great hard-boiled private eye story is the hero's vulnerability. He's physically vulnerable because both the crooks and the cops distrust him. As a result of which, he frequently ends up being beaten and battered. He's emotionally vulnerable because he's alone and prey to falling in love with clients or other women he meets in the course of the case, or at least caring too much about the people whose lives he finds himself involved in. As a result of which, he frequently ends up heart broken. Such are the Quixote-like characteristics that have defined the genre.
Unfortunately, in recent years there's been a tendency on the part of authors to give their detectives permanent girlfriends and overeager allies in law enforcement, which serves to allay both vulnerabilities. Call it the Robert Parker effect. This trend has been so pervasive that only a very few really good writers have been able to buck it : Loren Estleman, Jonathan Valin, and a few others. Meanwhile, the most interesting new detective fiction has featured investigators in authoritarian countries, where their vulnerability is greatly magnified : Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series and Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series spring to mind, the one set in the USSR, the other in Nazi Germany.
Which brings us to what I think is one of the best, and most unusual, private eye series of the modern era. Robert Irvine managed to create a fairly traditional private eye, an ex-football player, ex-soldier, with the unlikely name of Moroni Traveler, and only gussy him up with a few emotional ties : a father who may not be his biological dad, and a couple of street characters for friends. Then he borrowed a page from Smith and Kerr and set the stories in Salt Lake City, where Moroni's investigations often run afoul of the Mormon Church, which essentially controls the state. In addition to providing dramatic tension, this setting in the land of the Latter Day Saints offers Irvine, himself of Mormon descent, an opportunity to work Mormon history and beliefs into the narrative.
The resulting books are really fascinating, though I find them a tad too anti-Mormon, and Moroni and his cronies are immensely likable. They aren't all still in print and, though I couldn't find much information online, I believe I recall reading that Irvine died a few years ago, but if you can find the books, they are terrific.
See also:Private Eyes
-Robert Irvine (Stop You're Killing Me)
-Moroni Traveler, Jr. : Created by Robert R. Irvine (Thrilling Detective)
-REVIEW : of Gone to Glory (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Gone to Glory (Mystery Guide)
-REVIEW : of The Spoken Word (NY Times Book Review)
Moroni Traveler mysteries by Robert Irvine :