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October 29, 2020
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'Tanner On Ice' by Lawrence Block
Mysteries with a Sense of Humor
Sunday, August 02, 1998
By Michael Helfand
If a comic mystery is your glass of tea, here are a couple of cool ones to consider. "Tanner on Ice" marks the revival of a series the old mystery master Lawrence Block put on ice 25 years ago. Back then, Evan Tanner was a comic James Bond (and so was James Bond!) working under deep cover around the world in operations so complex he wasn't sure who or what was right.
Like Bond, he was a macho womanizer with a memorable quirk - he couldn't fall asleep. Well, Tanner is back. The spy who couldn't sleep became a Rip Van Winkle, put on ice in a sub-basement in New Jersey by a foreign agent with an expertise in cryogenics.
As Tanner puts it, "Many are cold and a few are frozen." There are no puns too low for Block to pursue. And like his recently resurrected Bernie Rhodenbarr stories, "Tanner on Ice" will be enjoyed for its playful nonsense, wit, allusions and self-conscious plotting. In this case, Tanner is discovered, defrosted and left to adjust to a world he doesn't know. After he deals with these problems, and some are pretty funny, he is contacted by an independent operative to assassinate Aung San Soo Chee, the Nobel Peace Prize winner now under house arrest in Myanmar (previously Burma). Tanner flies via Bangkok to Rangoon where he sees the sights, meets a very friendly British fellow and a Eurasian beauty, checks into a hotel, is stalked, arrested on trumped-up charges and, well, you can imagine the rest.
Block is a fluent and amusing writer who mixes descriptions of the sights and customs of the Far East, absurdist humor and the occasional political jibe to create some entertaining moments. But he has to try very hard to make this a full-length tale. The story as a whole, is not well thawed out and Block, if not Tanner, is skating on thin ice.
John Wessel's deceptively titled noir thriller, on the other hand, might chill you to the bone. Wessel is a new- and late-comer among those who tell tawdry tales of the city. And he knows his noir. "Pretty Ballerina" has echoes of, and outright thefts from, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Parker and Lawrence Block (the Matt Scudder series) and is alternately witty and grim. The place is Chicago. Harding (no first name), Wessel's private eye, is an unemployed ex-con with no license and the kind of smart mouth that keeps him and his readers in stitches.
Among his friends and associates he numbers con men, petty thieves, crooked cops and the occasional "body man" (the guy who'll give you an even break, perhaps to your knees or fingers if you don't do the right thing). His loyal lady, Alison, is a Nora Charles for the '90s. She looks great, is expert at jujitsu and has a taste for the tart retort.
Alison is away at a Cubs'fantasy camp when Harding is hired by Cassie Rayns, an Asian-American who gained fame as an underage performer in porn films. She wants to locate her brother Kim, who disappeared 22 years ago, two years before the rest of her family was killed. Neither case was solved.
Despite frustrations, dangers and double-crosses, Harding stays on the case, which takes him all over Chicago and deep into the country of southern Illinois.
This is more than classic noir; it's a novel of manners. How many private eyes do you know who would take time from their busy days to say, "I can't tell if it's in bad taste to tell a porn star how great she is, or impolite not to."
Harding is clearly a thinking man's private investigator, and "Pretty Ballerina" is just too, too much.
Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh, including a course in crime fiction.
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