‘Joker Poker,’ by Richard Helms

Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Philip Marlowe notwithstanding, you don’t ship one off to that undiscovered land from whose bourne no traveler returns without paying the freight in sleepless nights.

Pat Gallegher is a big Irishman who plays jazz cornet in a seedy New Orleans bar. Once, long ago, he studied for the priesthood, until he lost his faith. Then he got his doctorate in psychology and became a forensic psychologist and then a college professor. Those jobs didn’t work out for him. Eventually he floated into the Big Easy and gave free exercise to his gambling addiction, until he joined Gamblers Anonymous. But a local loan shark still holds his note. To pay it off (which isn’t likely to happen in this lifetime) the shark sends him out now and then as a collector.

Pat doesn’t like being a collector, and so he does the occasional “favor” for friends. These favors generally involve recovering lost property or scaring off dangerous people. Pat feels these actions help balance out his karma.

All the above is not the plot of Richard Helms’s Joker Poker, just the back story. We’re talking dense back story here. Which all adds to a solid quality I appreciated in this book.

Doing a favor is how Pat’s lawyer comes to bring Clancey Vancouer, a wealthy society lady, to see him. Clancey has been having an affair, and her lover has disappeared. She wants to know that he’s alive and all right. Pat warns her that the guy was probably just a gigolo, but she doesn’t care.

Pat agrees to look into it, but has trouble seeing the point. His interest acquires fresh urgency, however, when he is set up for a murder, and has to figure out who among a large group of suspects (including a leggy redhead, a friend of Clancey’s, with whom he has an affair) is the real culprit. The climax will be explosive, shattering for some, and deadly for others.

I loved this book. I read it with a sense of homecoming, of old comforts. It occurred to me that this book (first published just before the turn of the millennium) represents a lost style of writing. In today’s books, even in the hard-boiled genre, political correctness has infected everything. The characters in Joker Poker use offensive language. There isn’t a kick-butt female sidekick in sight. And men are permitted to protect women.

Lots of cautions are in order for language and disturbing material, but I highly recommend Joker Poker to fans of the genre. I can’t understand why this series isn’t famous, and author Helms isn’t better known. The prose is vivid and original. The ambience is thick as New Orleans humidity. There are whiffs of all the old great hard-boiled writers in evidence, but I was particularly reminded of John D. MacDonald.

One thought on “‘Joker Poker,’ by Richard Helms”

  1. With a title like that I was expecting a quote like this:

    “If the police expect to play against the Joker, they had best be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck!”

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