A bookstore is the best place to be lost. There’s always a volume to grab, and inside there may be pleasures awaiting, wisdom to be gained, or at least something to make you mad. If you’re mad, you know you’re alive, which is a good thing to know from time to time.
I’d heard of James Scott Bell (he used to write the monthly fiction column for Writer’s Digest). I had an idea he was a Christian. I also had a vague idea I’d tried one of his books and didn’t care for it. But now I don’t think I did, because I’m suddenly a fan.
I’ll admit I was skeptical of Romeo’s Rules, the first volume in his Mike Romeo series, initially. I thought it a little ham-handed, working too hard to be amusing. But I kept reading. And the more I read, the better I liked the book. And the one that followed. And so on.
Mike Romeo (not his real name) is a genius. He was admitted to Yale at 14, but left at 15 due to a personal tragedy. Then he knocked around, learning the trade of private investigator, training his body, and becoming a champion cage fighter for a while. Now he’s drifted into Los Angeles, where he’s staying with his only friend, Ira, a wheelchair-bound former Mossad agent, now a rabbi. Mike has begun to think he’s stayed in one place too long. People are hunting him, and he needs to keep moving. But life keeps holding him here.
In Romeo’s Rules, Mike is out jogging one day when a woman approaches him, asking his help in looking for her children, who have disappeared. Then a nearby church blows up. Mike goes inside to make sure the kids aren’t there, and finds a dead body. This brings attention from the police, something Mike does not want. He gets sucked into the woman’s problems – she’s trying to get custody of her children from her powerful husband, who may have kidnapped them. In any case, they’ve gone missing.
In Romeo’s Way, Mike is hired to go to San Francisco as a mole in a political campaign, working for the opponent, whom he considers a rare decent candidate. San Francisco will be everything he expected (that is, just as bad as he expected), but he will meet an interesting woman who may or may not be on his side.
In Romeo’s Hammer, Mike finds a beautiful woman on the beach, naked and disoriented, and rushes her to a hospital. Then she disappears again, and her father appears to ask Mike to look for her. The trail will lead to radical environmentalists and a cult that’s even weirder than the usual California variety.
Finally, in Romeo’s Fight, Mike gets an offer that’s hard to refuse. A big fight promoter wants him to do a major cage match for him, for a lot of prize money. Mike knows he can beat his opponent, but he desires neither the fight nor the money. However, an old friend, another fighter, is arrested for murder and begs Mike to help clear him. That involves getting involved in the fight world again, only this one will be a fight for his life.
Once I developed a taste for the Mike Romeo stories it was like eating potato chips. I devoured them one after the other. Mike is a guy who’s forever citing philosophy and mythology to people, and they never get it. I can identify with that. He was almost the perfect male fantasy character for me. There were echoes of Travis McGee and Spenser here, but the ideas were conservative.
I enjoyed these books a lot, and recommend them highly. The Christian themes are only implicit, but the books are delightfully devoid of profanity. That’s hard to do well in a realistic story, but author Bell carries it off admirably.