Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

TITLE: Forever Haunt (The Jimmy McSwain Files #5)

AUTHOR: Adam Carpenter

287 pages, MLR Press, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 978-1944770587

DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): For Hell’s Kitchen private detective Jimmy McSwain, his father’s death has defined him, defied him, and denied him his chance at happiness. But the shooting death of a young officer named Denson Luke has re-ignited the investigation into the mysterious Blue Death conspiracy. But Jimmy still must earn a living, so he cannot ignore a family in distress.

New neighbors Carmen Ramirez and her young son, Sonny, are clearly running from danger. Overnight, their case becomes one involving a missing father, a Chinese crime syndicate, and an abduction which threatens to overwhelm Jimmy’s mission of solving his father’s case. His relationship status with Frank Frisano on and off again, Jimmy tries to do double duty, jeopardizing his own safety.

It’s only when another murder occurs that Jimmy finally finds the path that has eluded him. His investigation finally leads him back home, where a devastating family secret overshadows all he’s learned, and the cost to the McSwain family may never be repaid. Jimmy realizes the blood on his hands will forever haunt him.

MY RATING: Five out of five stars

MY THOUGHTS: Adam Carpenter has successfully and satisfactorily brought this first arc of Jimmy McSwain mysteries to a conclusion with Forever Haunt, weaving together hints and threads from each of the four previous novels and answering the series’ longest-running question: who orchestrated the death of Jimmy’s father?

The third book in the series, Stage Fright, represented a low-point for Jimmy: distracted by clues regarding his father’s long cold case, he dropped the ball on a client’s case and was beaten to the solution by someone else. The fourth book, Guardian Angel, saw Jimmy a bit more back on his game, and that trend continues here: Jimmy is paying attention, making connections, not letting his life’s unanswered questions distract him from helping others – and not letting other people solve the crimes he’s investigating.

Jimmy’s character arc across the series has been a realistic one, with setbacks in his love life because of work and his work and family life because of work. Setbacks abound in this final volume, but with some interesting twists. Jimmy learns secrets that have been hinted at in the previous four books: about his parents, his neighbors, his mentor, and his adversaries and friends on the police force.

Because everyone has secrets, so many secrets you almost need a score-card to keep track. Some of the secrets are explosive (just how much did Jimmy’s mother know or suspect, and how exactly was Jimmy’s father’s partner (and Jimmy’s mentor) involved in what happened?). Some of the secrets revealed are more personal (Jimmy’s sister Mallory comes to a hard decision, following one of the funniest “drunk siblings” scenes I’ve ever read).  Long-standing questions are definitively answered, with no ambiguity. And as I’ve said, the answers we get are satisfactory: there’s a sense of “fair play” between author and reader at work here. The reveals make sense, nothing comes completely out of left field. Carpenter also seems to wink at other theories readers may have had, acknowledging that being fair and generous with clues doesn’t preclude the author from throwing a few red herrings into the mix of possibilities.

Carpenter intended from the beginning for this to be a tight five-book journey for Jimmy McSwain, and he’s held to his original plan. There’s something to be said for an author who sticks to an original plan (and releases the planned installments in a timely manner) even when the popularity of a series might inspire the publisher to want more books. A different writer might have strung these reveals out for three or five or ten more books, diluting the impact as storylines stagnate until the final book is scheduled. The good news is: while this particular arc is over, Jimmy McSwain will be back in future books. But that’s a matter to discuss later in this review.

Every McSwain File has had two storylines running concurrently. Sometimes the mystery of Jimmy’s father’s death takes a secondary role to the other storyline, and sometimes Carpenter reverses it. This time the new case is the secondary mystery. It involves Jimmy’s new neighbor Carmen and her missing son, and if it’s not quite as compelling as the mysteries Jimmy has investigated in the previous books, that’s okay.

In this book, the secondary mystery serves two purposes. The first is to distract Jimmy at key points, so that his focus is split between helping himself and helping people who can’t help themselves.  As authorial as well as in-story distractions, I don’t feel like we got quite the same depth of character for the Ramirez clan that we’ve gotten for the characters in those previous cases. They’re not cardboard place-holders; there’s still enough depth that they feel real. It helps that just as they’re new to the reader, they’re also new to the neighborhood. Jimmy’s getting to know them at the same time as we are, and so first impressions are enough. This secondary mystery is not padding, though — it has its own arc and mostly satisfactory conclusion, its own internal consistency. And that enables it to serve its second purpose.

Carpenter has said there are plans to come back to Jimmy McSwain, his boyfriend Frank Frisano, and the rest of the recurring characters in a new arc. Without spoilers, I can say that the secondary mystery gives us the motivation for that new arc. It’s not a motivating factor I was particularly happy to read (in fact, I tweeted the author a rather indignant “I think I hate you now” moments after finishing the book), but it does the job it needs to do, giving author, reader, and characters a reason to return. I do think the Jimmy McSwain Files could have continued on without the need for a new “season arc,” ala characters like Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr or MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. But I can also see the allure of a an arc to run through however many books will comprise Jimmy’s “second season,” since the main arc of this first “season” worked so well.

I’ll miss Jimmy and his cohorts between now and when the next series starts. And while we wait, I recommend to folks who like gritty NYC PI stories with a touch of erotic content: find the first book in this series, “Hidden Identity,” and get caught up.

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