Steve Oliver is a local crime fiction author and the mastermind behind Dark City Books, the publisher of titles such as the short story anthology "Spokane is Still Deader Than Dead" and "No Human Involved" by Barbara Seranella. Dark City Books focuses on crime and suspense stories set in Spokane. Oliver has written several fine examples of these himself, such as his mystery novel "Moody Gets the Blues."
Last year, Oliver released the books in the Moody series in new affordable Amazon Kindle editions. This is a great way to get the books into the hands of more crime fiction lovers in the greater Spokane area. Oliver got the rights to the series back in the Nineties and has been offering print editions through Amazon and Dark City Books for a long time, but the new ebooks offer a better price point for people who may be on tight budgets during the winter holiday season.
"Moody Gets the Blues" is both a tightly plotted mystery and a fascinating character study. The protagonist, Scott Moody, is a somewhat eccentric cab driver trying to moonlight as a private investigator in Spokane in 1978. Moody has several unusual obstacles standing in his way as he tries to solve a missing persons case and the worst ones come from within himself.
Moody is struggling to recover from a bout of mental illness. He has only been out of an institution in another state for three months at the beginning of the novel. Readers eventually learn that he is also dealing with survivor guilt related to the tour he served during the Vietnam Conflict and several other serious issues he has to discuss at least once a week with a local psychiatrist. His grasp on reality is not as firm as he might prefer because he used to be plagued by powerful hallucinations and he takes Thorazine to try to fake a degree of normalcy.
Oliver reveals a deft hand at plotting as Moody finds himself trying to work his way through a classic noir mystery with little more than some investigative skills from his days as a newspaper reporter and his odd sense of humor to help him deal with uncooperative sources, quirky local criminals and the Spokane Police Department.
Moody's client is an ex-girlfriend named Deirdre who married a wealthy local real estate mogul named Wendell Mercer. Wendell disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and it initially seemed like he was murdered or kidnapped until he broke into their house to try to steal some things he wanted. Moody must find him and figure out why he won't just go back to his wife and his thriving business. Unfortunately, several people are interested in thwarting his efforts, including a group of local drug dealers.
Eventually, Moody puts the pieces together in a way that would make Philip Marlowe proud, but in a way the main plot is really an excuse to spend time with a surprisingly compelling protagonist. Oliver makes Moody, who may be difficult for some readers to sympathize with at first thanks to his cynical perspective and his attitudes toward women, oddly lovable as he reveals more of his quirks and slowly reveals how he ended up in his current state of affairs.
Moody's narration is insightful and often hilarious as he describes various weird people he picks up in his cab, people he encounters while trying to work on the Mercer case and his reasons for why he says and does some of the strange things he does throughout the novel. It gradually becomes easier to understand how his occasionally obnoxious behavior helps him struggle through each day and why he prefers being alone with his dead houseplant Irving. Moody has a lot of hidden depths that gradually become more obvious.
His genuine love and concern for most of the women in his life also help redeem him in the eyes of Oliver's readers. Moody has an ex-wife he still loves and a young daughter he doesn't see often enough. He also develops strong feelings for a woman named Sheila who becomes involved in the Mercer case, and he doesn't know how to deal with them. Moody is a broken person, but not irredeemably so. There are still hints of what he must have been like before he ended up in the mental hospital that come out when he interacts with Sheila or his family.
"Moody Gets the Blues" is also an interesting portrait of what Spokane was like back in the late Seventies. Oliver mentions restaurants and other businesses that aren't around any more, which should be fun for people who have lived in the Lilac City for a long time. He goes beyond that to create a vivid sense of what people in the community were like back then.
Moody often comments about how hippie culture influences people he runs into, which definitely rings true. Back in the Seventies and early Eighties, Spokane had a lot of people who didn't seem to realize the Sixties had ended and did things that have come back into vogue in recent years such as growing their own vegetables and making their own clothes. Basically, some Spokanites were hipsters before hipsters were officially recognized.
Moody blames a lot of the odd things other people do on this and on being too influenced by the era's popular television shows. There is a great bit where he blames one character's clothes and behavior on Huggy Bear from "Starsky and Hutch." Through Moody's observations about other Spokanites, Oliver brilliantly captures the love/hate relationship with Spokane that is characteristic of a lot of people who lived in the Inland Empire before the Nineties.
Oliver also captures some of the community's rich history of dumb criminals who did really weird things through nice touches such as a series of news articles Moody reads about a serial robber called The Absent-Minded Bandit and Moody's occasional run-ins with a local criminal he knows only as Chicken Man. These characters may seem like Oliver is engaging in exaggeration for comedic effect, but if anything he is downplaying what Spokane's criminal element was really like back then.
People from the greater Spokane area who love mysteries and feel some degree of fondness for the community will probably love "Moody Gets the Blues." It would make a great Christmas gift for the crime fiction buff on someone's list. If people prefer to shop locally, they can order the print edition directly from Dark City Books. The publisher offers free shipping on all books.