The Black Russian
Scribe Publications, $27.95 pb, 272 pp
A purveyor of second-hand literature-cum-reluctant sleuth is an attractive proposition. We first met Jack Susko in Lenny Bartulin’s first novel, A Deadly Business (2008). Susko, a one-time employee of the notorious Ziggy Brandt, had finally established a legitimate (albeit struggling) business, Susko Books. Rarely troubled by customers, Susko was entertained by the music of Miles Davis and Muddy Waters, and alcohol.
One day, tempted by an easy buck, Susko began hunting for the works of an award-winning poet and was soon dragged into a puzzling family saga, with the usual suspects: jealous husbands, disinherited siblings, unfaithful spouses, vengeful children. Toss in a crooked detective and a couple of murders, and Susko wished he had never opened the shop that morning.
Bartulin’s narrative, though compelling, is nothing like the genre fiction of, say, Peter Temple, who tackles so exceptionally well larger issues such as police and political corruption, indigenous politics, and the overdevelopment of coastal regions. There is not much lyricism in Bartulin’s prose, either, though he is a published poet. In fact, with all the hard-boiled tough-talking (imitative of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain), you begin to wonder if Bartulin’s bent is more towards parody. Outside the milieux of the police force and the private detective bureau, this vernacular at times reads hilariously – Susko, in the new novel, is ‘sweating like a drycleaner at the steam press during Business Shirt Week’.
While there isn’t much self-awareness to this prose, there is something absorbing about The Black Russian, as there was, to a greater extent, to A Deadly Business. Part of this magnetism lies in the portrayal of Susko, a clueless and susceptible hero who somehow manages to be charismatic.