Local colors

Mysterious doings in Providence
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 16, 2008

Straight Pool | By J.J. Partridge | Chukar Books | 323 Pages | $13.95

Two and a half years after publication of the well-received debut novel, Carom Shot, fans of the Providence-set mystery novel are finally seeing a series get underway. In Straight Pool, the second Algy Temple whodunit by J.J. Partridge, the reluctant sleuth once again manages to capture a culprit who has eluded the professionals.

Like his head-scratching hero, John J. Partridge is a Harvard-issued corporate lawyer in Providence, so in the tradition extending from Erle Stanley Gardner to Scott Turow, he once again ventures into his case as meticulously as when preparing a legal brief.

Temple is the in-house counsel for Carter University, whose students stroll along Thayer Street just like those at Brown do in the universe on this side of the pages. This time it’s not the murder of a former student that puts Algy in action, but a personal favor. His friend Tony Tramonti, the Providence police commissioner, wants him to help out his feckless brother-in-law, Charlie Fessenden. He is simply to coach him when he gets grilled before the board of the exclusive Haversham Golf Club, at which he is club secretary. Fessenden is confident and urbane but also a screw-up, and he can’t afford to be found responsible for a recent disaster, which might have involved a homicide.

The nearly completed clubhouse dramatically burned down — fireworks stored there for the opening celebration assured its complete destruction. The death of the presumed arsonist in the blaze, a disgruntled caretaker, is made mysterious by his charred remains revealing a fractured skull.

Investigation reveals complications, which branch off into further complications. Here’s a meager sampling: there is a rumor that Fessenden made a profitable side deal for an option on family property that adjoined the club’s; that brings into play mob-connected Ugo Calibrese, who owns much of Federal Hill; that gets into the man’s suspicious dealings with the Quonochontaugs; they in turn are surreptitious trying to get federal recognition as a tribe and build a casino on that land.

There aren’t just boxes within boxes, plot-wise; each box contains a knotty problem to undo. If there is a significant weakness to Straight Pool, which is graced with intelligent prose style and colorful dialogue, it’s that the story is too convoluted, requiring close study rather than absorbing reading, unlike an engrossing literary novel. Toward the end of the tale, with so many lines of inquiry still unresolved, more get introduced. There’s material for three or four mystery novels in this book.

Town and gown conflicts come up, most arising from a bête noire introduced in the earlier novel: Providence’s “mendacious mayor” (so identified on both book covers) Angelo “Sonny” Russo. Even if we didn’t know that writer Partridge, wearing his attorney hat, has had professional dealings with the city, we’d guess as much. Temple’s contempt for Sonny is hardly concealed. And when there is crude pressure by the city to get the mayor faculty club membership, there’s no doubt which recent power broker Partridge used for Sonny’s template. At one point Temple says, “I was reminded of a Rhode Island aphorism: In Rhode Island, you can be guilty, not guilty, or guilty with an explanation.”

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