Mystery writer Stephen Dobyns has staked out Saratoga Springs as his territory. That’s a great thing for mystery lovers, especially those, like me, who know Saratoga. We recognize the horse-centered culture, the various places where tourists, horse owners, stable hands, and locals hang out. And we also recognize the characters that become part of the landscape.
Charlie Bradshaw is one of those characters. A private investigator, Bradshaw has used his instincts and numerous contacts to deliver results for his clients. In Saratoga Payback, Bradshaw is settling into retirement, albeit not one of his own making. With his license and gun taken away, he can’t legally work as a P.I. That status, however, does not prevent him from investigating when a dead body shows up on his driveway.
Mickey Martin ran a small insurance and real estate business but really trafficked in “gossip, slander and scandal, as well as back biting and stabbing.” In other words, Mickey had a lot of enemies who might want him dead. Mickey’s throat was slashed and his tongue cut out. (Mickey was famously known for his urine-like breath, but that doesn’t explain his brutal murder.) Before Charlie unravels the mystery, several more victims will lose body parts to the killer.
Charlie’s assistance is not welcomed by the Saratoga police, particularly Lieutenant Frank Hutchins, who promises to throw Charlie in jail if he attempts to operate as a P.I. Charlie reacts to that threat by digging in and continuing to gather information. He also takes on a client, Fletcher Campbell, whose horse has been stolen and held for ransom. He wants Charlie to deliver the ransom money, but not to investigate. However, Charlie just can’t help himself and after handing over the cash to a man in a yellow cab, he memorizes the plate number, and after contacting the taxi company, traces the man to a hotel in Albany. The trail goes cold there, but Charlie knows that the Campbell horse-napping is just one in a string being carried out by a gang in Saratoga. Is Mickey’s demise somehow connected to this horse-napping ring? The clues keep piling up, as do the threats to Mickey, his family, and those he holds dear.
Dobyns produces an enjoyable read. HIs characters are not only colorful, they jump off the page and stay in our head. They feel “real,” like people you would expect to meet in a town like Saratoga. And his descriptions are priceless. For example: “Eddie hadn’t simply had hair; he’d had a glossy pompadour of black locks rising above his scalp like Godzilla over Manhattan.” Or this one: “Lizzie Whitaker…wore a gray turtleneck sweater, an ankle-length skirt of darker gray and a black leather belt. All she needed was an iron ring to make her look like a granite hitching post…”
Besides Charlie, several other characters stand out. Victor, who places his life on the line for his best friend, Charlie. Janey, Charlie’s girlfriend, tries her best to keep him in line, while her daughter Emma is only too happy to jump in and help the P.I. especially when being able to use her tech skills.
The final battle doesn’t disappoint. We know that Charlie will succeed but how and when is the question. It’s also humbling to find Charlie fighting, not only his adversaries, but his aging body. Not being able to run or react as quickly as he did in the past hampers his physical efforts but certainly not his mental abilities.
Truth be told, this is the first Charlie Bradshaw mystery I’ve read. I’m planning to go back to the beginning to encounter a younger Charlie and follow his many adventures in Saratoga.
Top Bigstock Photo: Saratoga Casino-Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, as seen on Sep 24, 2016. The property has 1,700 video lottery games as well as live harness racing during the months of March to December.