Decoys

by Richard Hoyt, © 1980, Penguin Crime, 1984 mass market paperback, first John Denson mystery

I’d read this one back in 1985, I think it was, and I liked it a lot. Denson is a very much a part of his time,  by which I mean he subscribes to most of the social mores of the times. He’s ex-military, ex-CIA, mostly an ex-journalist though he keeps his connections with the press. This book introduces him. He’s a private detective working in Seattle. The author described Denson as “a sleazy man with a weak stomach, wary of carrying a gun because he might have to use it.”

This book is what might be called a “soft-boiled mystery “, it’s even on the jacket blurb: “John Denson is a private detective for the eighties—the world’s first soft-boiled sleuth. He washes down his raw vegetables with screw-top wine, refuses to pack a rod and is a pigeon for a beautiful woman. He lives by an honor code of detectives from another era.” What it doesn’t say is that he’s prone to doing foolish things because of that code, which is ill-defined.

Though not as “hard” as Spade, Archer or Marlowe, Denson can spout smart-mouth with the best of them.  Hoyt was a newspaper reporter, then became a journalism teacher, and it shows in his writing.

Decoys is plotted around a wager. Another private eye, an attractive woman, challenges Denson to see who can be the first to find the brutal pimp probably responsible for a string of murders.

Hoyt pretty effectively paints the settings of Seattle and Denson’s hometown of Cayuse, a small town on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, where much of the early action takes place before clues lead Denson back to Seattle. There the reader is shown Denson’s city, which he obviously knows well and loves. There’s a great description of a visit to Pike’s Market that gives the flavor of the writing, and the character:

“Pike’s was one of the best big-city fish and vegetable markets I’d ever seen. The big reason was the vegetables. The fish too. I love to eat raw cauliflower and smoked fish… I was a familiar face to the vendors at Pike’s. For them an attractive display was a way to sell asparagus or tomatoes. But it was different for me — a matter of esthetics — and they knew it. They watched me carefully when I examined their displays, looking for a hint or clue to my reaction. I was their jurist, and man of taste in matters of vegetable display.”

There are plot points in this one I found unlikely and Denson does some foolish things, needlessly – stupidly – putting himself in jeopardy more than once. In re-reading this, I began to wonder why I’d liked it so much the first time, but as I kept reading I liked it more and in the end enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read at just over 200 pages, and if you happen on a copy I think you’ll enjoy the quirkiness of the characters.

The next book in the series is .30 for a Harry and I enjoyed it just as much. For me, the books after that were less appealing.

~  ~  ~

This is my 13th entry in a series of Friday Forgotten Books.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more FFB reviews at her own blog, along with a complete list of today’s participating blogs.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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8 Responses to Decoys

  1. Bill Crider says:

    I remember liking this one a lot a long time back.

  2. You’re right about this series steadily declining as it went on, Rick. The first couple titles were the best of the bunch.

  3. Evan Lewis says:

    Hey, I not only read this (and the sequel), I still have the books and had completely forgotten them. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I read this one in 1985 too, Rick. I liked it enough that I kept up with it for a while, but after the first four I quit. I went back and read #5 in 1991 but I didn’t like it much and never tried him again, assuming he wrote more.

  5. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Just checked – there have been 9 books in the Denson series, the last in 2004, as well as another 16 books.

  6. Evan Lewis says:

    Hm. It seems my forgetfulness has no bounds. I now seem to recall taking a writing class from this guy once.

  7. Richard says:

    Jeff – 9 in the series? Wow, that’s more than I’d realized. As said in the piece, I stopped after a few (# 5, I think). The characters got too odd while the plot strength fell off. But the first two are very enjoyable, worth reading.

  8. Richard says:

    Evan – that’s an interesting tidbit. So this means you didn’t spring, a full-blown writer, pen in hand, from the forehead of Zeus? Another illusion shattered.

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