City Hall is a full block of rough stone with a thick finger pointing up at God. It’s like something that was left standing after wind and water wore away the weaker stone. Used to be purple, but it wears a coat of coal dust like most of the buildings downtown. A thing of glory when it went up, but forty years of cops and politicians will rub the polish off the nicest cuspidor.
That’s Minneapolis City Hall. I know it well – I used to work about two blocks away, but about 25 years after 1947, the time of this novel.
James Lileks, who’s rather popular in these parts (speaking both culturally and geographically) is producing a series of mystery novels set in Minneapolis over a period of decades. They’re not coming out in chronological order, for reasons which will doubtless be made clear in the fullness of time. The first book, Graveyard Special, which I reviewed here, was amusing but perhaps not entirely successful. The new one is Casablanca Tango, and I think it’s even better, though not perfect.
The Casablanca, to which the title alludes, is a bar across the street from the Citizen-Herald, the newspaper where the narrator works. The narrator is John Crosley, a photographer, who plays Watson to the Holmes of Harold Holman, ace reporter. They’re both veterans recently back from WWII. They’re the first on the scene when several men and a girl are murdered in the Casablanca one day. Three lines have been drawn with blood on the girl’s forehead. Soon after, another girl is murdered, with four red lines drawn on her body, and soon the police are on the hunt for a serial killer. But Harold and John are curious about mob ties and a political plan to raze the Gateway District, a run-down downtown neighborhood.
The greatest pleasure of The Casablanca Tango is the immense amount of research Mr. Lileks has put in to recreating a city only barely recognizable today (the clearing of the Gateway District here was just the start). Even if you don’t know Minneapolis, you’ll feel like you visited it. He mentions more than one restaurant I ate in myself, decades later but before the concrete wave of redevelopment obliterated them.
The writing and dialogue are good, and there’s an authentic hard-boiled flavor to them (“I’ve seen flies land on eyes that had more life than hers”). Unfortunately the author seems to lose sight of the forest for the trees sometimes – he has a disconcerting way of losing track of his characters’ hair color, for instance (he describes one woman in a single sentence as being a blonde with black hair). He introduces a peripheral character named “Cecil,” who is obviously standing in for Cedric Adams, a newspaper columnist and broadcaster who pretty much owned the town in those days (I remember him). Then, about half-way through the book he drops the pseudonym and Cecil openly becomes Cedric. He also identifies Hawthorne as the poet of the “Song of Hiawatha.” He really needed an editor, or at least a better one.
I’ll say this though — the culprit was not who I expected, and not who most writers would have fingered.
On balance I give The Casablanca Tango four stars. It’s as good a voyage through time as you’re going to get for $3.99