In the acknowledgments for Boston Cream, Howard Shrier writes that he reread all the novels of Dennis Lehane, the early novels in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and other old favourites “to deepen my sense of crime in Boston.” It’s a rich tradition to live up to in dropping his Toronto-based private detective, Jonah Geller (whose previous cross-border tales took him to Buffalo and Chicago), in a city characterized by haphazard driving, tough neighbourhoods, and the seamy intersection of big money and organized crime. While Shrier’s sleuth holds his own, the shadows cast by those other big names are difficult to completely escape.
The set-up is standard: Geller, recently concussed but cleared by a doctor for regular work, is hired by an Orthodox Jewish couple to track down their eldest son, David, a high-achieving surgical resident at a prominent Boston hospital who vanished two weeks before. Geller and his senior partner, Jenn, set off to investigate what the cops won’t or can’t, and the standard mystery elements quickly shade into disturbing territory involving online poker, an influential politician, organ donation, and nasty psychos without any qualms about killing – or worse. Blood is shed, and Geller grapples with how his violent actions, while necessary, conflict with the aspirations embodied in Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of “repairing the world,” which gives his detective agency its name.
As with his previous books, Shrier keeps the pace moving at a brisk clip, ups the ante with surprising (though not always effective) plot twists, and makes the reader care about Geller and Jenn. But it is Dante Ryan, Geller’s sometime sidekick, who owes the clearest debt to Hawk and Bubba, the violence-prone supporting players found in Parker and Lehane. Ryan’s resemblance to these hard-boiled progenitors renders him pallid in a Boston setting, something that wasn’t the case in Shrier’s earlier books.