We’ve been here before. If you’re a fan of postwar paperback originals, you’ve been probably here quite a few times, in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be here all over again if a talented writer can make it worth the trip.
A stranger arrives in a made-up big town/small city, typically in some vaguely Midwest or southwest locale, only to wind up in trouble with the local law, corrupt power brokers and – inevitably – the resident femme fatale. It’s been a standalone mystery/crime fiction novel staple since the 1940’s. Paw through musty paperbacks in a used bookstore and you’re bound to come up with one or more. Familiarity (even occasional redundancy) doesn’t undermine this viable noir-ish story setup, any more than seascapes, still life’s and figure studies would be invalidated simply because painters frequently explore them like an artistic right of passage. Two examples of this type of story that immediately come to mind are Ross MacDonald’s Blue City from 1947 and The Long Wait, a rare non-Mike Hammer novel from Mickey Spillane in 1951. And I bet you could name some others.
So, there’s nothing surprising about David Baldacci giving this time-honored theme a go in his current One Good Deed, other than the fact that this NYT bestseller already knocked out nearly 40 novels (his first novel, Absolute Power, adapted to a successful film as well) before contemplating his first retro postwar setting. Based on some online reviews I’ve spotted, it caught a few of his loyal fans off-guard. Well, they better get used to it, since it sounds like One Good Deed is the first in a new series Baldacci has planned.
In 1949, Aloysius Archer steps off the bus in Poca City in ill-fitting clothes, a measly few dollars in his pocket and a three day stay prepaid at the only hotel. He’s due to meet his parole officer, find a job and start over after a three-year prison stint on trumped-up charges. But Archer (which is the handle he prefers) endured far worse as a decorated infantryman in WWII’s Italian campaign, and is a man to reckon with.
An ill-advised but understandable urge for a forbidden drink and some barroom banter with a local lounge looker are among his first mistakes. Followed by a bigger lapse in judgement when he agrees to collect a debt for Poca City’s big shot, Hank Pittleman, who owns the local bank, the town’s only industry (a hog slaughterhouse), the hotel Archer’s staying in…hell, even the cocktail lounge they’re drinking in. And the girl who’s got Archer’s head spinning. As will happen in such tales, Archer winds up in bed with Pittleman’s seductive mistress…the same night Pittleman’s murdered, his throat slit ear-to-ear. All of which finds Archer in one hell of a lot of trouble with the local law, the State Police homicide investigator who takes over, and Archer’s own parole officer…who just happens to be an intriguing woman with a mysterious past and is every bit as alluring as the Poca City bad girl he’s already mixed up with.
There’s enough small-town drama and family secrets to fill both a Grace Metalious novel and a Tennessee Williams drama here, mixed in with a puzzling murder mystery (and a few other dustups and deaths along the way), all capped off with a climactic courtroom scene, which may sound like a bit much for any one book, but then Baldacci’s a real pro and more than up to the task. I’d never read one of his novels before, but knowing he plans more Archer novels after One Good Deed, I’ll be watching for the next one. The fact is, when I stumble across some musty old paperback by a long-gone writer in a used bookstore with some other loner stepping off the bus in a made-up town’s Main Street, I’ll probably give it a try too, no matter how many times I’ve been there already.