The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler
I’m starting off this review with thoughts about the relationship between historical fiction and the emerging subgenre which I’ll call Cold Case although, since the idea actually comes from Roy Vickers seminal collection, Department of Dead Ends (1949), we should perhaps find a better label. Anyway, the structure of this group of books has a contemporary detective investigate events which took place in the past. Vickers has a series detective called Rason who looks through old files until he finds something interesting. As in “The Man WHo Murdered in Public” where he puts together reports of deaths by drowning which my have a common denominator. The American television series Cold Case has Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) solve a murder a week which, after 156 episodes, grew somewhat monotonous. However, the essential question remains of how best to classify the format. Although we’re looking at older witnesses and suspects now, the primary focus is what happened way back when. We therefore get the best of both worlds by having events from the past acting as a catalyst for contemporary events (or maybe the other way round).
The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the tenth in the series featuring ex-film critic Mitch Berger from New York City and Connecticut State Resident Trooper Desiree Mitry. They currently cohabit in the small village of Dorset where he does various odd jobs while she keeps the peace. After many past attempts failed, the election of a new selectwoman brings the men and equipment to resurface the street through the Historical District. As they begin stripping off the old asphalt, they expose a body. It has been there forty-seven years. You can’t get a colder case than this and still have enough living suspects walking around.
The body belongs to a Navy flier called Lance Paffin whose younger brother has been the selectman opposing all attempts to resurface the road — if he did not know the body was buried there, why has he so adamantly opposed resurfacing? Among the other suspects are the elderly owner of the local newspaper, a US Congressman and a number of local women who, for these purposes, have the misfortune to live longer than men. They were all part of a group of bright young things who met at a party in the local hall in 1967. There was an argument which might have been about politics or about the shameless way Lance related to the female sex. The official records from the time showed everyone going home after the party apart from Lance who went out for a midnight sail in his boat. Later the boat was found on the shore. Lance’s body was never recovered and he was presumed dead. Given the body ended up buried outside the hall, there’s obviously been a major cover-up in place all these years. The questions we have to wrestle with are who might have been the killer and how many of the others conspired to conceal it.
Mitch is one of the conversationalists who disarms those he talks with. Once he gets stuck into the local gossip mill, the stories of the past come thick and fast. In fact, he’s almost too good at collecting different stories. Getting them all the fit together is a challenge. Meanwhile Desiree is caught up in a difficult political situation. The US Senator was obviously in on the cover-up because he gave a job to one of the detectives from the original investigation. This raises the stakes for the police department. If corrupt police officers botched the original investigation and a contemporary US Senator is involved, the media interest could be very damaging to reputations. Desiree is therefore under pressure to come up with quick answers to deflect blame.
One aspect of the plot is nicely obscure although it may be fairly obvious who must have been the killer. Whether this spoils your enjoyment really depends on why you read books like this. Those who switch off their brains and just enjoy the ride will find this book a delight. Some of the character we meet are fascinating and given enough space so we can watch their development from smooth purveyors of the cover story to embarrassed old folk shifting from foot to foot like naughty children caught out in a lie. Should you want to second-guess the series characters so you can claim bragging rights for having solved the case before they did, this book is also for you. It’s not that difficult to identify whodunnit. The uncertainty is more as to motive and opportunity. Going back to my opening salvo, this is more a contemporary mystery than historical fiction. Although the characters talk about their lives forty-seven years ago, it’s all seen through today’s lens. Some might see this as a cozy mystery in that we have a pair in a romantic relationship investigating crimes together in a small town. This just goes to show that once you start trying to attribute labels, it grows rather annoying. So let’s conclude with the good news that The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb is a distinctly above average murder mystery with minimal police procedure thrown in to add political realism.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.