By Benjamin Jones
One aspect of novel writing which David J Sherman has down pat is what Stephen King has called "the gotta," as in, "I gotta find out what happens next." In his first mystery novel, The Dark Side, private investigator Jack Murphy works his way through a tense case. He makes progress, but every break he gets causes him a little more trouble. It's an effective shot-and-chaser combination.
In the beginning, frantic Wisconsinite Raymond Sanders hires LA detective Murphy, himself an emigre from the Badger State, to find teenage daughter Carrie. Carrie, it seems, has run off to Hollywood, visions of her name above the title dancing in her head. Once in Los Angeles, however, she vanished. Sanders is scared, and rightly so. Soon after Murphy takes the case, hired muscle tries bribes, then threats to get him off the case. The goons make the absurd claim that they are working for Carrie, and that she doesn't want to be found. If you know the stats, you won't like where this is going. Trust me, it gets there.
Murphy is a contemporary detective, but he has a few ties to the old hard-boiled tradition. There's the wise-cracking secretary who carries a torch for him. There's the tendency to mouth off to the wrong people. And certainly, there are cigarettes. Murphy lights up so often that in a few sequels, he should be able to knock down perps with his oxygen tank.
In his odyssey through the worst parts of LA's sex industry, Murphy is accompanied by reformed gangsta Arturo (no last name given). Arturo is fierce and loyal. You might call him the Hawk to Murphy's Spenser. He's also the connection to the Evergreeners, a posse of fellow gangbangers, former and otherwise. These are a colorful and funny bunch, and they deserve to be used again. Hand, a forger with acting aspirations, shows special promise.
The part of The Dark Side which works the least is the love story. Murphy and his gal Friday exchange some quips, have a falling out, realize they care about each other, and fall into each other's arms. It comes off as formulaic and impersonal. When we fall in love we are attracted to things that are unique to the other person, and share unique moments. If personality and surprise don't come through on the page, the romance is dead.
Some scenes show Murphy busting in on a suspect, leaning on him, pissing the guy off, then walking out holding his weiner. Frankly, I'm not sure if this is a fault or not. It's clear that the hero is supposed to be something of a hothead. Less obvious is just how far this trait goes, or is meant to go.
Overall, The Dark Side works pretty well. Sherman's Jack Murphy series, while showing room for improvement, also has a lot of potential. How it develops depends on Sherman's own perception of the characters' strengths.