By David Handle
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press,$24.99, 246 pages
That "Runaway Man" is funny, scary and (mildly) prurient will come as no surprise to readers already familiar with the work (20 previous novels) of David Handler, who has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, aka the Edgar, the prize awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America. Mr. Handler also finished high up for a Dillys Award, the coveted prize given each year by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, and won in the past by such heavy-hitters as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane.
Unlike the crime-solving heroes of many of Mr. Handler's partners in crime-writing, and I'm thinking in particular of the late Robert Parker's Spenser and his huge and scary buddy Hawk, protagonist Benji Golden is your average below-average guy: "I'm twenty-five, but look younger," explains Benji. "In the world of casting agents I'm what's known as a juvenile type. I'm exactly one quarter-inch shy of five-feet-six, weigh a buck thirty-seven and am exceedingly baby-faced. But I'm plenty feisty." That he is, and also plenty smart, a combination that has earned him the reputation as New York City's finest finder of missing persons, especially young missing persons.
The case that comes in the door of Golden Legal Services is most unusual, but not as unusual as the firm itself. Founded by Benji's late father Meyer, a heroic and highly decorated former New York City cop, it's now run by his widow, Benji's mother, who is still a seriously (and very savvy) foxy lady in her late 40s. When they met, Benji's father was a homicide detective, and she was "the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City." Then, when Meyer learned her name was not really "Abraxas," but Abby Kaminsky, he proposed.
The firm's newest missing-persons case is brought to them, in person, by one Peter Seymour of Bates, Winslow and Seymour, the whitest of the city's white-shoe firms. He clearly disdains their shabby office and obviously does not think much of them, but quickly pays the large fee quoted him by Rita to find one Bruce Weiner, a college student.
According to Seymour, young Mr. Weiner has been left a lot of money by one of the firm's clients, "An individual of considerable wealth who has passed away." But he won't tell them the client's name, and doesn't want the campus police or the NYPD involved, nor will he explain why he isn't using the Leetes Group, Golden Legal Services' rich (and unprincipled) competitor.
It soon dawns on Rita and Benji that Seymour, et al., don't want Golden Legal Services to find him, but instead to fail. Why that's the case is one of the book's main themes, as is Benji's skill at his job, another thing Seymour didn't expect. Benji rather quickly finds the missing Weiner, but the problem is he finds him dead. What follows is the peeling away of a many-layered onion of a mystery.
Along the way, young Benji falls in love. Not with Sara Weiner, Bruce's very cute teenage sister (though she clearly falls for Benji, even though they are hardly members of the same social set), but with a nice girl his own age, a kindergarten teacher he met at temple, no less, who is a stunner in face and figure. And she's a Sonya, not a Sara.
Besotted he may be, but Benji sticks to his assignment, and in so doing uncovers a coverup that involves Seymour, his firm and the Leetes Group, and interests cops from New York to Connecticut and back. On his journey, he's seduced and all but silenced. In the end, as the reader might have suspected, justice triumphs.
What makes Mr. Handler so much fun to read is that while he's kidding around — and he is a very funny writer — he's taking care of plot business with skillful ease. His dialogue actually reminds me of the late, great Elmore Leonard. For example, when he tells comely young Sara that he's driving up to the Weiners' house on Candlewood Lake where he thinks Bruce is hiding, they have this exchange:
"Benji, where are you at this moment?
"In da Bronx, why?
"You can pick me up on your way, dat's why.
"That's a big no, Sara. I can't take you along."
"Just for starters, Candlewood Lake is in Connecticut. It's against the law for me to transport you across state lines unless you're accompanied by a parent or a legal guardian.
"The age of consent is 17 in New York. In Connecticut, it's 16. Try again, liar mouth.
"OK, it's like this. I'm a licensed private investigator. I'm going there on official investigative business. And you're not coming with me, understood?
"Jeez, Benji, you don't have to go all butthead on me.
"Sorry, you left me no choice."
And Mr. Handler leaves this reader with no choice but to look forward to his next novel — "The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb: A Berger and Mitry Mystery" — which, I am happy to report, will be out in March 2014.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.