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    Hard-boiled and on target


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    Is it just me, or have others noticed that fictional private eyes have been getting softer and more sensitive over the last few years? Let's face it, most contemporary practitioners of the PI yarn have about as much in common with Hammett and Chandler -- the rightfully revered progenitors of the form -- as Mary Higgins Clark has with Mickey Spillane.

    With the publication of Street Level, a debut novel by Orlando author Bob Truluck, those who lament this depressing trend have cause to rejoice. Duncan Sloan is tough, cynical and profane enough to delight all who hunger for barking roscoes, ambiguous Janes and rye straight up. More significantly, in Sloane the author has crafted a character whose fealty to the salient conventions of the hard-boiled detective story is nearly total, but who never seems anachronistic or derivative. This is no mean feat. This is art.

    Ike Pike has more than a couple of problems. As the gay son of a megamillionaire whose politics are not much more than 7 or 8 degrees to the right of Savonarola, he learned rejection early. As a New Age kind of guy, he wants to make it right, at least in his own mind, by becoming a father himself, the indulgent bafflement of his muscle-boy lover notwithstanding.

    Thing is, a gang of lowlifes has copped Ike's, er, legacy from the sperm bank and now a 19-year-old lap dancer -- "What you'd get if you dragged a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park" -- is strutting her stuff with Ike's kid inside her. And she's gone missing.

    Well, maybe. It could be a scam, but bodies with large, jagged holes in them are piling up like cordwood, all of them linked to the missing stripper, and Duncan Sloane thinks not. The plot of Street Level is uncomplicated to the point of thinness -- it's a find-the-girl case -- but the dialogue and characterizations are merable enough to more than make up for that. Duncan Sloane -- fundamentally lazy, deeply suspicious and as casually offensive as the bouncer at an Orange Blossom Trail redneck bar -- is a terrific addition to the PI canon. His helpmates -- including two disenchanted (read: vicious) black cops and a "Hey, Dude" teenager who might tie his sneakers if he could only read the instruction manual -- are almost as much fun.

    In an essay on the detective story, Raymond Chandler opined that a successful novel was no more than a series of good scenes. With Street Level, Bob Truluck has shown the wisdom of that observation. With blistering dialogue, memorable -- if not particularly likable -- characters, and an unerring eye for the low-rent side of Florida, he has delivered a first novel whose stunning, mesmerizing power is undiminished by its straightforward plot. It's a skillful act, performed very much above street level.

    Paul A. Bergin is a writer who lives in Sarasota.

    Street Level

    By Bob Truluck

    St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95

    Meet the author

    216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

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