(Editor’s note: This is the 72nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Chicago author Libby Fischer Hellmann. Her most recent novel is Doubleback, the second installment [after 2008’s Easy Innocence] in the private eye Georgia Davis series.
My entry into crime fiction was by way of thrillers. I gobbled up John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton, Ken Follett, and more (with the exception of Helen MacInnes, they were all men back then). In time, however, a steady diet of thrillers brought monotony: the world was on the precipice, the hero saved it, then walked off into the sunset. I remember complaining to my mother, who was and continues to be a prolific mystery reader. “Here,” she said, handing me a book. “Try this.” That book was The Staked Goat (1986), by Jeremiah Healy.
Although I didn’t know it then, I had wandered into a classic private-eye novel. In The Staked Goat Boston detective John Francis Cuddy tries to find out who murdered his old Vietnam buddy, Al Sachs. The police think Sachs’ death was the result of a ritualistic homosexual murder and want to close the case; Cuddy doesn’t buy it. His investigation takes him from Boston to Pittsburgh to the Pentagon, where he tangles with a subculture of the military whose black-market operations have flourished since the days of the Vietnam War. At the same time, Cuddy must deal with the aftermath of a previous case.
Unlike the novels I had been reading, there were no gut-wrenching pyrotechnics or impossible tasks to be accomplished in the nick of time. Instead, there was an absorbing story that dealt with real, human-scale issues. In fact, what attracted me most was the realization that crime fiction could be an excellent vehicle to explore social controversies without beating a reader over the head. Healy isn’t afraid to tackle a tough issue, one that--at the time--most would have liked to forget. He also explores society’s preconceptions about homosexuality, and, with unusual foresight for the era in which he was writing, shows how groundless they are.
But plot can only take a reader so far, and it was Healy’s characters who won me over. Al’s widow, her friends, the elderly black couple in Boston, even the antagonists--they’re all painted in shades of reality. There are no cardboard stereotypes here, no matter what race, gender, or sexual orientation--just people who laugh and cry and bleed. Everyone has a back story, and Healy sprinkles just enough of their histories into his pages to keep me reading. In that sense, the plot seems unhurried. Healy wants us to get to know these people before he reveals what will or won’t happen to them. And yet, events are carefully orchestrated. For example, one of the most touching scenes involves Cuddy taking a potential new love interest to the grave of his late wife, Beth. That’s interrupted with an explosive action scene. Perfect choreography.
The prose, crisp, lean, and muscular, takes us to the edge of terse. And while the author leaves much to his reader’s imagination, I never had questions about any character’s motivation. Healy really does show us how “less is more.”
It was Jerry Healy who started my journey into P.I. novels, police procedurals, even amateur sleuths. Over the next 10 years I read widely and eventually started writing myself. But, like a first lover, The Staked Goat has a special place in my heart. It’s a classic. Which is why you have to read this book.