Charlie Bradshaw is no Magnum, PI. Magnum is youngish, fit, trim, handsome. Charlie Bradshaw is middle-aged, balding, paunchy. Magnum drives a Ferrari; Charlie drives an aging, somewhat-the-worse-for-wear Mazda. Magnum lives in Honolulu; Charlie lives in Saratoga, a small town in upstate New York. Magnum gets his pick of Hawaii's bodacious babes; Charlie has only recently moved in with a single mother of two teenage girls.
Charlie used to be a cop, but he had the uncanny knack for opening his mouth at the wrong time, to the wrong people. The chief of police would like nothing better than to yank Charlie's private investigator license; there has been no love lost between them for years. Charlie's relatives are all wealthy conservative business-types, pillars of the community; they all look down their noses at Charlie. Required by custom to give him the time of day, they will give him precious little else. So Charlie skates through his life on the thinnest of ice, eking out a living with security work, the occasional investigation, and odd jobs for the criminal element connected with the horseracing for which Saratoga is famous.
Charlie's best friend is retiree Victor (" . . . call me Vic") Plotz, a cheerful old codger with an eye for a scam and an easy buck. Vic gets recruited by an old mobster to retrieve a suitcase from Montreal. Upon delivery, the mobster will pay Vic two thousand dollars. If this sounds too good to be true, well, it is. Vic can't help but tear apart the suitcase to find out just what kind of trouble he may be inviting. In the false bottom of the case he finds money lots of it. Concerned for his continued well-being, Vic calls Charlie. Charlie removes a hundred dollar bill from one of the stacks and checks it out while Vic delivers the balance. The hundred turns out to be counterfeit, and worse yet, the mobster discovers it missing. Hijinks ensue.
Written from the point of view of Vic Plotz, Dobyns's latest has a different feel from the Charlie Bradshaw novels that precede it: a bit more tongue-in-cheek, the characterizations a little more broadly drawn. Unlike the previous Saratoga novels, in Saratoga Strongbox the central character is Vic, rather than Charlie. (This sort of thing is not without precedent in Dobyns's work; he is no stranger to unusual perspective. In his excellent Aftershocks and Near Escapes he wrote from the point of view of a six-year-old Chilean girl caught in a massive earthquake in the early 1960s.) It makes for an interesting shift, revisiting the "same old story with a different twist."Reviewed by Bruce Tierney.