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Tom Chaney: Hard Boiled and Bourbon Soaked

Of Writers And Their Books: Hard Boiled and Bourbon Soaked. Tom says author Birkett was an unexpected pleasure. He is no Dick Francis, but he is a passing fair Bluegrass Ellery Queen. This column first appeared 5 April 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Eats, Shoots & Leaves Or -- Punctuation Matters -- Even if it is Only a Matter of Life and Death

By Tom Chaney

Hard Boiled and Bourbon Soaked

Why do I read one book and not another? Why do I persist in reading a book which is panned by one of my favorite customers whose taste usually parallels mine own? These are questions akin to my favorite riddle: "Why is a mouse when it spins?"

The customer in question wandered in to the bookstore last week on her usual monthly foray.

Yes, I was ready to sell the latest P. D. James novel which I had hoarded for us James fans in and about the store. The customer flung down a mystery with an accompanying recent obituary, declaring the book not up to snuff. "He's a Kentucky writer, but I didn't care for him!" she opined with some force.

Not one to pass a literary challenge, I took up the little paperback volume with a cover featuring a race horse decorated with a hundred dollar bill, yellow flames streaming from its rear legs and associated orifice with a green infield as background.

I am not a fan of real horse racing. I went to the track but one time about 40 years agone. I took $20, bet $2 on each of ten races, lost every penny and cursed my friend who advised me ten times. I'll take my horse racing with Dick Francis and other writers, now including John Birkett, if you please.

So, I thunk me, Louisville writer John Birkett's mystery The Queen's Mare might be a pleasant diversion for the intervals between the NCAA basketball games and speculation about a new coach for the University of Kentucky -- surely an impossible job that comes with a pretty good salary and at least 50,000 assistant coaches set to pounce. By the way, the wisdom in these parts has it that U K need not hire a coach -- just mount a courtside phone system so all of the experts around the state can call in their advice.

But I digress. Birkett was an unexpected pleasure. He is no Dick Francis, but he is a passing fair Bluegrass Ellery Queen. Private investigator Michael Rhineheart of The Queen's Mare is a regular hard-boiled detective who drinks his bourbon with a touch of branch and beds his women whenever he can -- with the shades discretely pulled, of course.

A mare and her foal are kidnapped. The ransom demand is a cool million smackers. The stable from which the horse is heisted is located somewhere just east of Louisville, run by an old dame well into her eighties better at managing her business than keeping order in her family of granddaughters, great granddaughters, their lovers and various staff.

Rhineheart is hired to be a go-between to retrieve the horse and pay the ransom.

All this is complicated by the fact that the horse is owned by Queen Elizabeth II who is due for a royal visit within the week.

To go further with the plot would spoil the story for others. Let it be said, however, that the Louisville setting for The Queen's Mare is accurate and interesting. As our p. i. hero proceeds from bar to bed to jail and back, one familiar with Jefferson and Seventh, Bardstown Road, and Eastern Parkway is able to follow turns and see familiar scenery.

Birkett, a native of Detroit, grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood -- a fighter who read Hemmingway, Mailer, Updike and Flannery O'Connor. After a stint in the army at Fort Knox he married and settled in Louisville, writing when he could. In fact Birkett made a career of writing. For many years he ran his Professional Resume and Writing Service and was an instructor for the Green River Writers Workshop.

His second wife was writer Betty Layman Receveur. In his mid-forties, he decided to try to write a novel.

Before his death last month at 71 he had published two mysteries and was at work on a comic novel, "a mystery of sorts" according to one of his three daughters.

The Queen's Mare stands as a good, well crafted thriller. Rhineheart is learning at the feet of his assistant Miss McGraw to be somewhat politically correct with respect to women in the work place, but Birkett draws a fine portrait of a crusty old p. i., Farnsworth, whom Rhineheart calls in for assistance. Farnsworth refuses to call McGraw anything but "Girlie."

I aim to look for his first book The Last Private Eye. Since the University of Louisville has lost its bid for the final four, a little escape fiction is in order.

Oh! By the way. The answer to the riddle posed above: "Why is a mouse when it spins?" is obviously "The higher the fewer."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-04-06 00:31:33
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