Panama City, Florida, 1943: Jimmy Riley is a former cop turned private detective. It’s wartime, lots of federal money is being spent, and corruption abounds. A mayor’s race is looming, and the stakes, if primarily local, are high. The best candidate happens to be married to a beauty named Lauren Lewis, who happens to be Jimmy Riley’s former lover and the woman he’s still besotted with.
Jimmy is called “Soldier,” because everyone assumes his injury happened as a result of wartime fighting. It didn’t; what it had to do with was Lauren. Jimmy’s injury is that he lost his right arm, the one he wrote with; the one he shot guns with.
Welcome to The Big Goodbye, Michael Lister’s first of four Jimmy “Soldier” Riley mystery novels. And welcome to noir detective fiction, a 21st century interpretation of a genre that reach its peak in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel’s title, in fact, is likely borrowed from two of the best known noir detective novels by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.
The first of four novels in the Jimmy “Soldier” Riley series, The Big Goodbye has all the requisite noir features – a tough guy detective, a beautiful if flawed woman, lots of guns, policemen who step on both sides of the law, political corruption, a not-inconsiderable number of dead bodies, twists and turns, and even the most theoretically saintly characters often caught up in crime and violence.
In this story, everything turns on Lauren Lewis – why she’s being blackmailed (she won’t say), who’s pressuring her husband to quit the mayoral race, and what a sanitarium and its doctor are really up. Jimmy loves Lauren too much to let it all go, and he finds himself sinking ever more quickly into the violence and corruption surrounding him.
Having read a fair number of the novels in the noir detective genre (in addition to Raymond Chandler, there’s Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and even the police procedurals of Ed McBain, among many others), I would say The Big Goodbye is a credible and entertaining entry in the genre. Lister uses some profanity, which one won’t find in the novels written back in the 1930s and 1940s, and a couple of explicit scenes that wouldn’t have made it past the publisher’s first readers or review committee those long decades ago. Those elements aside, Lister is faithful to the genre.
Lister followed The Big Goodbye in 2011 with three additional titles in the series: The Big Beyond (2013), The Big Hello (2014), and The Big Bout (2015). He’s also the author of several other novels, detailed at his web site.
If you’re a fan of detective fiction in general and the noir genre in particular, this is a good contemporary series to discover and read.
Photograph: A scene from the movie The Big Combo, a noir detective film released in 1955.