Harry Lipkin, Private Eye: The Oldest Detective in the World by Barry Fantoni
|Harry Lipkin, Private Eye: The Oldest Detective in the World by Barry Fantoni|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: If you read only one book this year about an octogenarian private investigator with a spare set of dentures, this is the one. A comedic film noir pastiche (well... more film grey really) that leaves you wanting at least another 200 pages.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: June 2012|
|Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited|
Harry Lipkin may not be the fittest private investigator in Florida once you take into account his indigestion and his arthritis, but at 87 he's definitely the oldest. Despite this he still manages to make a steady living, picking up the little jobs that don't interest the police and Norma Weinberger's problem comes into that category. Small but expensive knick-knacks seem to be going missing from around the house so could it be a light-fingered member of staff? The suspects (the gardener, the butler, the maid and the chauffer) each have their own story and motive, leaving Harry to get the four down to a short list of one. A task that's perhaps a little harder than it sounds.
Barry Fantoni, one of the 1960's uber-coolisters, is comedy royalty. His name may not be at the forefront of your mind, but the milestones scattered along his career path would be. For starters he was a scriptwriter for That Was The Week That Was, the cutting edge weekly satire that launched a thousand copies and without which the alternative comedy movement of the 70s and 80s would be stuck for inspiration. (And something I remember well, being an annoyingly precocious 11 year old when the 60s finished.) More recently he's written and drawn for Private Eye, hence the ringing endorsement on the novel's cover from Private Eye's editor Ian Hislop, a man (in this instance) with excellent taste.
Fantoni has been faithful to the American PI style a la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as Harry sits down with us himself to recount the Weinberger case. As we slowly become acquainted we realise that, in some ways, there's nothing special about Harry; he dodders a bit, his memory may not be as it once was, and his house is in need of maintenance. He's an elderly person trying to survive but is quite relaxed about the ever increasing years stacking against him. In other ways, however, he's very special. He comes equipped with a Jewish sense of humour, philosophy and irony that can get him out of anything, be it a confrontation with a drug dealer or the effect of a house tile falling at speed. (No spoilers, but it's an original moment.) This isn't just Harry's story, though. Mrs Weinberger and each member of her household have a life and past that's slowly revealed, each providing a twist in the tale; quite a feat in such a short book.
Then of course, there are other things at which to marvel. As Exhibit 'A' I offer this description of Harry's attempted hand shake: I held out my hand. It waited. It got lonely. I took it back. Or Fantoni's ability to offer a world of description in a single line: The jacket could have been a size bigger, except they don't come a size bigger. It's not all laughs though. There's also a touching sense of humanity as Harry feels for the suspects in the same way as he does the victim, his age providing an extra layer of perspective and empathy. Having said that, even Fantoni's technique with poignancy is different; coming as it does, ambushing the reader out of a comedic landscape, it cuts like a sabre. It takes bravery for a writer to steer their readership away from the smiles to hear the story of an Ethiopian Jew whose family lived through that nation's genocide. In a few lines Fantoni educates, reinforces the sad truth about the repetition of history and still manages to drift back to humour without bad taste or the betrayal of any ethnicity's background, nor even losing the novel's pace for a second. As I said, writing royalty.
I left Harry reluctantly, hoping that I could visit again soon. May the octogenarian PI live to be 100, something that, by extension, I also wish for his originator.
I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.
If you enjoyed this and fancy another comedy crime book, then perhaps The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp.
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