4.5 stars out of 5
I've been a fan of Cleveland writer Les Roberts for too many years to count, and while he's written dozens of books, my favorites are the ones featuring private investigator Milan Jacovich (who is, for the record, is on my list of Top 10 favorite book "heroes"). By now, he's getting a bit longer in the tooth and losing some hair, but other than that, by golly, he's still got it.
The stories themselves are always a treat to read (I finished this relatively short one in a single day), but one of the reasons I enjoy the series so much is that my proximity to Cleveland and other parts of northeast Ohio is such that I've been there, seen that - and it's fun to get a view of it from someone else's perspective. This one in particular struck a chord; the action takes place in and around Ashtabula County - the county just north of ours (Trumbull) that borders Lake Erie - specifically, in the towns of Ashtabula and Conneaut. My husband and I visit the area fairly often; Just last week, in fact, we were sitting at a small restaurant in Conneaut Harbor chowing down on that delicious Lake Erie perch.
The story begins as Milan's lady friend, Cleveland homicide detective Tobe Blaine (pronounced "Toby"), gets sent to the ultra-small (and for the record, fictitional) community of Queenstown, somewhere in between Ashtabula and Conneaut. Murders of two fairly prominent and local men just occurred there, and solving such heavy duty crimes is well beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement. Tobe drags Milan with her, and right from the start, they hit a brick wall: Tobe happens to be African-American and she and Milan are out-of-towners - two pulls from under of the welcome mat in this close-knit place.
Before they can get very deep into the investigation, though, a third murder is reported - this time a local woman. The modus operandi is different in all three cases, adding to the mystery. Further, it appears the town's rowdy, insolent teenagers may have clues to whodunit, with a trail that stops on the doorstep of the pastor of the local Baptist church. Every Sunday (and apparently every chance he gets in between), he rails about sinning - specifically homosexuality and the evils of people whose skin isn't pearly white.
To help, Milan brings in his young assistant, Kevin O'Bannion (K.O.) - an experienced armed services vet who loves animals and is working on keeping his hair-trigger temper in check but is great with kids. He has some success, and the trail veers off toward a possible meth lab and the now privately owned prison in Conneaut where a man known as "The Prophet" rules supreme and just may have some answers.
More than that you'll have to learn by reading the book, but I will say I'm glad that I've never encountered this kind of behavior anywhere in Ashtabula County. Neither has the author, for the record; in the acknowledgements he emphasizes that he's been to the county many times and enjoys the places and people. But the fact is - I'm paraphrasing here - stories about nice people don't tend to sell well.
In the end - maybe because the people involved were just too nasty - I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the others. But ask me again down the road a bit; I did learn of a new-to-me place to eat in Conneaut - a pizza cafe that's one of the 25 oldest Italian pizzerias in the United States (founded in 1934). If it's anywhere near as good as the book claims, the discovery will more than make up for that half-star.
The Ashtabula Hat Trick by Les Roberts (Gray & Co., August 2015); 243 pp.