When you’re looking for a private investigator, you probably don’t hire the guy who emerges from his strip mall office in a rumpled shirt, popping breath mints to hide the smell of alcohol. That’s too bad, because if you did, you might engage the services of someone like Ward Dundee, an unexpectedly charming man who will stick with your case until he solves it. That’s the character James M. Maloney created with The Stump Man in 2007 and the character he returns to in his latest detective novel, Shadows on Smoke.
Gritty, funny, and engaging, Shadows on Smoke puts the down-on-his luck Dundee on the trail of a thief and murderer who targets stamp collectors specializing in “crash mail” — envelopes that miraculously survived the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin. It’s a quirky little case, and it comes with plenty of peculiar characters.
Maloney is expert at sketching unique characters in a few short sentences, using dialogue so realistic you’ll swear you’re eavesdropping on a real conversation. One scene in an auto repair shop is enough to do all of this: introduce Dundee’s infuriating client Marinda in all of her color-coordinated glory; intimate that the no-nonsense garage owner Kate has a bit of a crush on Dundee; and explain that the detective is only using the booze to shut out painful flashbacks of combat in Vietnam.
Maloney’s ease with characterization, which includes a multifaceted profile of the suspected criminal, will compel readers to follow a story that revolves around a rather esoteric topic: stamp collecting. The author is a lifelong writer and a retired creative writing teacher, and thus has all the tools to make it work. By varying the pace, throwing in some entertaining red herrings, and doling out clues carefully, Maloney reveals just enough to keep readers hooked until the tension-filled conclusion.
Also available as an ebook.