The story opens on 23 October 1935 as hard-boiled private eye Errol Black is tucking into a nice, bloody porterhouse steak. Then someone walks into the restaurant and begins shooting and his dinner with partners Dyke Spanner and Terry Shadow is blown all to Hell. So are Terry Shadow and the two intended victims, notorious mob boss Dutch Schulz (who lives for 23 hours) and one of his henchmen.
The story then shifts to 1945 and the mid-town Manhattan offices of Black and Wentz Detective Agency where we find Errol Black alone in the office doing paperwork. The door opens and a beautiful young woman named Claudia walks in seeking help. She suspects her fiancé of cheating on her. Is she trouble, or isn’t she? Young, beautiful, flirtatious and naive, she’s just the kind of gal hard-boiled detectives fall for. I kept warning him off, but of course he didn’t listen, In spite of his personal failings, he’s good at his craft of detecting, the case is an interesting, convoluted one, and he finally solves it after many convoluted twists and turns. Living happily ever after is a different matter for a hard-boiled,PI, but we already knew that when we started. The many-splendored thing called love is something that eludes hard-boiled guys. Black Shadows is an enjoyable read and I’m glad I read it.
That said, would benefit greatly from some further editing. The story Begins in 1935 with the shoot-out, then shifts to 1945. Though it appears to remain in that year, it isn’t clear: reference is made to an article written in the 1960s; a two-foot thick solid steel door is opened by touching a red button on a keypad on the wall; Errol Black takes Claudia out to celebrate her birthday on July 3,1940; and soft rock is heard on a radio. And I am confused.
Other problems are as follows: A South American man can’t understand a man who is talking to him because he has a poor grasp of Guatemalan. (There is no such language.) In several places the names of two Chinese characters -- Wang and Ping -- are mixed up, once in the same paragraph. As Black is talking with Ping, Ping’s name suddenly changes to Wang. In another place Weeny Jung Ping is called “Weeny Wang”; this should to have been caught (or explained), but wasn’t.
One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Dutch Schultz’s half-brother, “known colloquially as The Portly Gangster,” a cultured, hugely overweight, vain, and greedy man who has spent his life looking for a blue diamond, said to have been Dutch Schultz’s. No matter how hard I try, “the portly gangster” isn’t a likely colloquialism in Big Apple or New Jersey criminal or popular culture of that day. “Fats”, “Fatty” or “Fatso” yes, but “The Portly Gangster”? I can see someone like Margery Allingham using it, as it fits the upper middle class British culture she wrote about back in the 40s, 50s an 60s.
So ... as good a novel as I think Black Shadows is, I can only give it 3 *** . If someone can show me that I’ve gone terribly wrong, I’ll be happy to change my rating. I look forward to seeing some more of Simon Swift’s work.