This is my first experience of Davis’ work, and it also turns out to be the first Doan and Carstairs novel. Carstairs, by the way, is a Great Dane who is the sidekick and forlorn work colleague of a private investigator named Doan. They are on an assignment in Mexico and have joined a tour bus trip to a remote settlement named Los Altos, which has only hit the tourist map due to a bridge and highway being built to get there.
The plot of this mystery has several strands. Firstly, there is Doan’s original assignment, which is to meet with an absconded corrupt police officer from Bay City, who happens to staying at Los Altos. However, before he arrives there we become acquainted with the other tour bus passengers, and it emerges that one of them, Patricia Van Osdel, paid a lot of money to ensure this tour went ahead, as it had been due to be cancelled. Why is so keen to go to a village in the back of beyond?
However, little do they realise that danger lies ahead for them at Los Altos. A military mission, involving the Mexican army secret police, is taking place, their attention focused on one individual in the village; a violent and unscrupulous criminal and fighter, who they hope will lead them to another such person, who has many caches of weapons stolen from the army. This mission and the arrival of the tourists ends in a fatality and both sets of characters will intertwine as the book develops.
Into all of this enters an earthquake, which is a bringer of death, but also life. The game changes for Doan and Carstairs, who find certain tasks prematurely completed, and other new ones emerging. Doan plays a lone hand and neither those around him, nor the reader, can be entirely sure whose side he is on, over than his own of course!
This is an unusual sort of book for me to read, let alone really enjoy. But that is exactly what I did. Doan is a wonderfully ambiguous character, with the narrative containing many reversal moments, as we try to see how good or bad he really is. Is his assignment as dubious as it seems, or is there something else going on? Those around him often view him poorly and it can’t be said that he does much to make them think otherwise. He has no intention of coming across as anyone’s hero, any heroic acts very much stem from accident or self-interest. This latter point comes up early in the book when Doan is talking to another tour bus passenger who wishes to tell him a secret:
‘“On one condition, and that is that you don’t confess any crimes. Just because I’m a detective people are always taking advantage of me and confessing. You can’t imagine how boring that is.”
“Why, I should think you’d want people to confess to you. It would save so much time.”
“That’s the point, I don’t want to save time. I get paid by the week. The longer a job takes, the more I make. I always try to stretch them out, but it’s pretty hard to do.”’
His behaviour is as maverick as Gervase Fen’s, yet there is something tougher and darker running through Doan’s veins. If this had been a pure hardboiled novel, then I don’t think I would have liked it as much as I did. Instead it is an interesting and I would say successful blend of farce and hardboiled. Humour and comic moments are never too far away.
The comedy starts from the get-go, at the hotel, when the tour bus and their guide arrive:
‘A little man in a spic-and-span brown uniform popped out and clicked his heels snappily, and said “The tour of sightseeing presents itself to those who wish to view the magnificence with educated comments.” […]
“Oh, you’re the one I was looking for […] I’m going on the tour to Los Altos. This is the bus that takes me there, isn’t it?’
The little man bowed.
“With comfort and speed and also comments.”’
Bartolome, the tour guide, (‘accent on the last syllable, if you please’), may not be a primary character in the book, but all of his scenes are memorable, with the turns of phrase that pepper his dialogue. Incidentally if you are on his tour bus you do not get to admire anything you like, admiring something not considered magnificent enough by him, will elicit the phrase, ‘kindly do not waste the astonishment.’
It would be remiss of me if I did not talk more fully about Carstairs. Doan won him in a crap game some time previously, and Doan is convinced that his pet does not like him – partially out of the canine’s social snobbery. Carstairs, as his name suggests, is a pedigree, with papers, after all, and it appears that between jobs Doan earns money through using him as a stud. Carstairs obeys commands, but he does not lack personal autonomy. Actions to discipline him or to torment him, (in the case of one annoying child), will lead to him knocking you over and then sitting on you. Apparently Carstairs is also doing his bit for war effort as he is used to ‘train dogs to help defend airfields’.
As I mentioned previously, this is a multi-stranded plot and I have tried to balance giving readers an idea of what these might be, with also holding back a lot of information, as most of these strands are not visible at the beginning. I felt this narrative structure worked very well, since the book itself is not a traditional puzzle clue mystery. It is a fast and action paced P. I. tale on the one hand, yet on the other, due to other plot components, this subgenre is diluted, and the party of tourists are one of the elements which contribute to this. This is not a typical mystery involving one central crime with a closed set of suspects, though in a way our attention is shifted more to the tour bus group in the second half.
The earthquake is instrumental in making this happen and I felt Davis’ utilisation of this event was very effective, in re-directing the story and it does in fact close the village off from outside help, which adds to the tension as the characters try to resolve the increasing number of problems they have. There is a romantic subplot of sorts, though it is not overly intrusive in the piece, and is far from gushing or sentimental, but it does add to the comedy of the overall story. I don’t think this is the type of mystery you expect to solve. Yet it is also one of those mysteries in which you don’t mind, as you love the journey and the adventure you have been taken on.
I might try some more by Davis in the future, although the next books in the series don’t seem to be so highly regarded as this first one.
See also: Mystery*File has also reviewed this title here.
P. S. Does anyone know the relevance of the title to the plot? Once again my cat was thoroughly disappointed with this novel, as whilst it promised a mouse, one did not feature in the story. She was also unimpressed with the inclusion of a Great Dane as a primary character.