I seem to be on a run of debut novels. Hal Ackerman is best known as a teacher of screenwriting, but he ventures into the crime fiction world with STEIN, STONED, the first of what will likely be a series featuring sort-of private eye Harry Stein. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Stein was known as a leading authority on marijuana, probably because he smoked so much of it and even wrote a book about it. But by 1999, when this novel is set, he’s middle-aged, out of the drug culture because he shares custody of a teenage daughter, and works as an insurance investigator. He still likes to think of himself as a hippie at heart, but there’s not much evidence of that anymore.
He gets involved in two cases, one for his regular work when thousands of empty shampoo bottles go missing from a warehouse and one involving the theft of an entire crop of medicinal marijuana. And wouldn’t you know it, in classic private eye fashion the two cases turn out to be connected. In fact, the plot gets so complex and convoluted that the only way Stein can figure it out is when he’s stoned for the first time in years. I managed to follow the various explanations of who did what and why without any pharmaceutical enhancement, but it wasn’t easy.
Of course, the whole hippie-as-private-eye bit has been done before, most notably in Roger L. Simon’s novel THE BIG FIX and its sequels (none of which seemed to me quite as good as that first one, which was one of my favorite books of the Seventies) and in Brad Lang’s Crockett novels, which I haven’t read but ought to. Intentional or not, there are definitely some echoes of Simon’s Moses Wine in Ackerman’s Harry Stein. But there are some differences as well. Simon’s first-person prose seemed to be modeled on Raymond Chandler. Ackerman’s novel is in third person and is a little more detached. The pace is very fast, though, and a lot of the dialogue is pretty funny. Harry Stein is a good character, too. Although the book’s cover copy refers to him as soft-boiled, he can be fairly tough when he has to and finally does untangle everything successfully.
I don’t care much for the title – it doesn’t really say anything about what sort of book this is – but STEIN, STONED is a pretty solid mystery novel and a good debut. I read an ARC, but the book will be out in a few weeks, and if you like funny, offbeat private eye yarns, you ought to check it out.