Book review: Where the Dead Lay by David Levien

Levien David Levien’s second novel to feature PI Frank Behr certainly lives up to the promise of the first, City of the Sun.  As Where the Dead Lay opens, Behr is distraught to discover the dead body of his jiu-jitsu teacher and close friend, Aurelio Santos. Aurelio has obviously been murdered, so Behr calls in the police, who aren’t too sympathetic. Behr is determined to discover who killed his friend, but despite his best efforts, he can’t find any leads.

While Behr is mourning his loss, he receives a call from a large investigation agency, asking for an appointment. The CEO and his lawyer want Behr to find two of their operatives, who have gone missing, Behr being a lot cheaper than the $300 per hour in lost fees the missing men’s colleagues would cost the agency to assign to the case. Despite needing the money, Behr turns them down, as he’s suspicious of their secretiveness. Soon afterwards, Behr’s old police supervisor and nemesis, Lieutenant Pomeroy, contacts Behr and asks him if he will take on the same case, hinting that Behr may be reconsidered for the police force if he does. Behr can’t resist this incentive, so finds himself tracking down an illegal gambling racket among the decrepit low-rent and abandoned neighbourhoods of Indianapolis.

The reader has a little bit more of an idea than Behr as to what is going on – part of the enjoyment of this novel is seeing how Behr is going to discover the pieces of the jigsaw that we have been told about, and fit them together. To reveal any more would be to spoil this excellent, traditional detective novel, but suffice it to say that the plot is a good, strong one with lots of satisfying, disparate elements to delight the keen crime-fiction reader.

Where the Dead Lay is more than an action thriller, though.  Behr is a lost soul, whose world view can be summarised as  “…it was a shit world, lousy with fear and not knowing and death, full of people in a constant state of panic and desolation, the more they learned the more the truth swam away…”. Part of this novel is about the possibility of a new start for Behr, and whether  he can put behind him the tragedies of his past – all the more tragic because of his own culpability.

There’s a little too much fascination with bodybuilding and fighting in this novel for my own taste, but other than that, Where the Dead Lay is a very good read indeed. When I first started reading it I was prepared to be a bit disappointed, because I thought what worked so well in City of the Sun (Levien’s debut) was the juxtaposition of Behr’s world and that of his clients, a suburban couple. When I realised that there was to be no “client” in this second book, rather that the plot seemed as if it was going to depend on Behr’s discovery of a friend’s body (a friend not mentioned in the first book), I admit to a few doubts. But I needn’t have worried, the book is solid and engrossing, with Behr an attractively flawed protagonist, sensitive as well as macho. I was particularly entranced by the subplot of Behr’s relationship with his sort-of girlfriend Susan.

You can enjoy Where The Dead Lay without having read City of the Sun, but you’ll understand Behr more if you’ve read the first novel, in particular the events of his past that triggered his lasting depression, and why he is no longer in the police force but yearns to return as part of his internal quest for a family. David Levien has written two excellent novels in a series that I hope will continue for many future titles.

My review of City of the Sun.

Other reviews of Where the Dead Lay at:

The Mystery Reader

The Agony Column

Shotsmag

I thank the publisher, Bantam Press, for my copy of this novel.