Via his honorably jaded private dick Jack Flippo, Dallas Morning News reporter Doug J. Swanson has joined the front ranks of mystery writers aping the taut plots and wise guy dialogue of Elmore Leonard. Like James Lee Burke's New Orleans P.I. Dave Robicheaux--played by Alec Baldwin in the movie version of Burke's novel, Heaven's Prisoners--Flippo is a dilapidated, heroic everyman, squeezed between the addictions and poor judgments of his past and the encroaching anxieties of middle age. As an ex-pretty boy who has pissed nearly half his life away, he has an intimate acquaintance with the motives and mores of fat cats and lowlifes alike, and a personal need for redemption that gives him a do-gooder's wisdom, empathy, and crass amiability.
Flippo is, in short, a protagonist typical of P.I. mysteries, which increasingly function as the male equivalent of romance novels. As with Swanson's two other Flippo mysteries, 96 Tears contains at least one gorgeous, slightly dangerous woman with a penchant for zipless fucks; some memorably menacing yet tragicomic bad guys; and a sinuous plot with the baffling but implacable logic of an M.C. Escher print. On the surface, this makes for a frothy joyride no better or worse than an average episode of Savannah. But the difference and the depth is in the writing. Swanson can nail a scene or a character with a well-chosen phrase or two ("She looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor by way of Ardmore, Oklahoma"). And he can script an escape scene in a restaurant--involving a wayward eel and a bowl of hot soup--that is both outrageous and credible. If you've got the right kind of imagination, reading 96 Tears is like watching television in three dimensions.