I need to confess that for almost a decade I mourned the loss of Georges Simenon so intensely that I never read another mystery. I never expected to savor another detail, marvel at the accuracy of another metaphor, or care about another protagonist the way I did for Inspector Maigret. Burl Barer has succeeded in enticing me back to fictional crime with the debut of Jeff Reynolds, P.I., in HEADLOCK.
Jeff Reynolds, the novel's protagonist, barely makes a living as a mid-list mystery writer. To augment his income, he has a Walla Walla, Washington private investigator's license. Reynolds takes small cases for small cash. His main interests lie in finding justice for the oppressed, retribution for the criminals, and a plot for his next novel.
Despite his acknowledged but suppressed gift of extrasensory perception, Reynolds is not another quirky yet unbelievable hero. His intuition enhances his intelligence; it does not replace it. He never allows the reader to forget that he is more than capable of error. When Columbo played the role of a bumbling, less-than-bright police detective, we knew he was acting. When Jeff Reynolds bumbles, he does it seriously.
In the tradition of himself, Burl Barer gives his audience the usual romping read of little history lessons and big belly laughs. Readers familiar with the witty asides of the writer, as well as the humorous situations he devises for his characters, will love the humor in HEADLOCK. His fictional characters soar in the sublimity of their truth and nonsense.
Jeff Reynold's truth, however, is evasive. The "private eye" narrates his story in the first person, present tense, giving us the impression that he is confiding in us, yet he hides as much as, or more than, he reveals. We are "outside" while the characters are "inside". Reynolds allows us into his mind, an honor denied his co-characters, yet he remains essentially isolated. His "close friends" are only a phone call away--and only a phone call. He says he listens to anything from anybody, but is his listening an exercise in detached observation rather than real communication? He carries private eye identification to legitimize his forays into crime, but he says he is not a real private eye; he is a mystery writer. If he is not a real private eye, is HEADLOCK a real private eye mystery novel? Maybe, maybe not. I think Barer is up to something.
At one point, fellow mystery author G. M. Ford teases Reynolds about "hiding out." It is also Ford who directs Reynolds to an important piece of the plot's intricate puzzle. Barer, using Ford as the touchstone of authenticity, bestows upon him the honor of ultimate expositor. It is G. M. Ford, a real author of highly praised private eye novels, appearing "as himself" in a work of fiction, who provides the primary clue that HEADLOCK is a novel "beyond the genre"--a daring, original piece of contemporary fiction "hiding out" as a private eye mystery.
Enigmatic, captivating, amusing, and, in the final analysis, sweetly sad, HEADLOCK is a novel that inspires reflection. It's also a novel you'll read more than once and enjoy for different reasons each time. Despite the unusual amount of typos and misspellings -- a technical preparation gaffe -- Burl Barer's HEADLOCK is a one-hundred percent dazzling debut of what could be the best new series in mystery fiction."
©2000 and beyond by Gerry Graber. Not to be used without permission by anyone except the specific author being reviewed.