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'Steel City Confessions' by Thomas Lipinski

Promising Dorsey mystery comes to a messy conclusion

Sunday, March 07, 1999

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Steel City Confessions

By Thomas Lipinski

Avon Books
$5.99

   
 

In Tom Lipinski’s third Carroll Dorsey mystery, our hero finds himself a hired gun of the Catholic Diocese. His job is to put himself and, if possible, contrary evidence, between the DA’s office and a priest it suspects of murder.

This lucrative little job comes up just as Dorsey is preparing to testify in the trial of Mrs. Leneski, a character from Lipinski’s second novel, “A Picture of Her Tombstone.”

Mrs. Leneski shot and killed the sleazeball doctor who sold drugs to her granddaughter. She makes no bones about what she did — walked into Novotny’s office and shot him dead — but Dorsey wants to soften the blow of her punishment, so he is preparing to lie and say that Mrs. Leneski’s action was not premeditated.

Meanwhile, the district attorney knows Dorsey is trying to nix his crusade against Father Crimmins, the suspect priest, so he sics two young toughs from his office on him to intimidate him.

The Leneski trial is a nonjury one, which seems odd. The judge gets a call from Martin Dorsey, Carroll’s father. Though retired and recovering from a stroke, he still wields enough power from the days when he moved and shook city politics to call in a favor.

Mrs. Leneski’s punishment is reduced to house arrest; seems the elder Dorsey was untroubled enough by Novotny’s demise to want to thank the old lady. This rankles the DA so much, you can hear the snarls of the little Rottweiler in his soul.

Lipinski enriches his landscape, Pittsburgh, with characters we can imagine as real. The old-boy political realities are only a bit heightened by being in a detective novel. Besides, courthouse shenanigans never sound farfetched.

Then there are the many associations — people who know each other the way people in Pittsburgh do. Dorsey and Crimmins used to play basketball together.

And throughout the book, Lipinski sprinkles Pittsburgh places generously with Dorsey’s movements — the South Side, where he lives in an electric-fan-cooled row house; Point Breeze, where Crimmins supposedly gunned down a member of his congregation, a CPA, so he could share the hefty insurance package with his lover, the widow; the Evergreen Bar on Penn Avenue; the Westin William Penn, Downtown; and Aspinwall, where Dorsey’s girlfriend, Gretchen, owns a house.

As he digs to find motives that might point at other culprits in the CPA’s murder, Dorsey discovers startling evidence from the proverbial left field.

Crimmins is an unlikely suspect. He’s too sympathetic. The story holds its tension because of the possibility he is guilty and because of the shock value if he is not. But the ending is the book’s big problem; the denouement actually falls apart. It’s as if Lipinski has abandoned the clean, well-thought-out structure that got him believably to the end.

The climax is cartoonish and, as in murder mysteries on TV, goes on and on, with the gun-toter talking too much. As characters flood the scene, the tension evaporates and people act differently than you would have thought they would. The revelations are flat when they aren’t puzzling and out of character.

The reader has no feeling for the strength of the priest’s relationship with the widow and no sense of the widow at all. There’s no point of reference for believing in or accepting the outcome; the reader was allowed no insight.

Even the most surprising of surprise endings, if they are deft, should have had some foreshadowing, enough to do a “gotcha!” in the reader’s craw.

This ending seems inspired by bad TV and leaves more of a “huh?” feeling.

But if you’ve become a fan of Carroll Dorsey, you’ll be glad you kept up with him in this story, glad to see he’s staying in reasonably good shape, glad that Gretchen is back for good, even glad that his old man still has clout. And eager to meet up with him again.

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