I picked up Vengeance at a used book store, thinking that it was one of the few Lew Fonesca novels I haven’t read yet. Turns out I’d done this one already, but I read it again anyway, just because Lew is a guy I like to hang out with.
Lew Fonesca is a Florida detective, but (aside from courage and personal integrity) that’s about all he has in common with Travis McGee or Doc Ford. Lew came to Florida a couple years back, ending up on the seedy side of Sarasota because that’s where his car broke down when he drove south after the death of his wife. He’s not technically a private detective. He makes a marginal living as a process server. He lives in one half of his two-room office next to a Dairy Queen. He doesn’t own a car anymore, and usually travels by bicycle. He’s short and skinny and bald, and has a large nose. People frequently comment that he “looks sad.”
But sometimes a problem comes up, and he looks into it for someone. More than once he puts himself into insanely dangerous situations, and he isn’t sure why, though his psychiatrist has theories.
In this first book in the series, Lew is approached by a woman from Kansas who has come looking for her fourteen-year-old daughter, who ran away to join her father in Sarasota. There’s good reason to think the father has been molesting the daughter. Lew agrees to look into it for a small retainer.
Immediately afterward he meets with a very different client, a big-time real estate developer, an aging man whose beautiful young wife has disappeared. He can’t live without her, he says. He’s confident she still loves him, and doesn’t know why she went away. He wants Lew to just deliver a message, to ask her to talk to him. Lew agrees to search for her too.
The investigations very quickly put him in danger, and he has to call on his friend Ames McKinney for help. Ames is a tall Texan who was once a millionaire and now makes his living sweeping out a bar (you may recall my theory of the Psycho Killer Friend™ in mystery fiction. Ames isn’t really a psycho, but he fulfills the function). Ames is a good man to have along in a tight place, but Lew doesn’t always call on him when he needs him. Lew also meets a compassionate female social worker with whom he begins a tentative, cautious relationship. In the end the two mysteries intertwine in a heartbreaking fashion.
The plot seemed to me far-fetched at times, but contained such believable proportions of tragedy and hope that it never lost my sympathy. I suppose you could call the Lew Fonesca books “soft-boiled mysteries.” Kaminsky writes with his characteristic concern for basic right and wrong, and compassion for the human condition. He’s one of my favorite writers and I enjoyed this book almost as much on the second reading.