As far as private investigator novels go, there are certain expectations and traditional themes that seem to always pop up. There is usually a mysterious femme fatale, a gruff PI who marches to the beat of his own drum, and enough twists to keep a reader tearing through the pages.
In The Ishtar Cup, Book 1 of the Bart Northcote Series by Murray Lee Eiland Jr., some of these commonalities seem to appear almost instantly, but with a flavor all its own. While there is comfort in convention, this book also offers a different tone and a more interesting leading man than most thrillers in this genre.
First of all, the first-person nature of the narrative gives far more insight into the thought processes and character of Bart Northcote, from his pulp fiction-loving ways to his methodical pursuit of the truth. It’s his knowledge of pulp fiction that makes the book particularly unique and entertaining – he’s not just a PI, but a writer himself, which is an ironic nod to the greats, but also makes the book more real, as Bart’s world doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The book isn’t merely PI meta fiction, but Eiland’s wink at the genre is what makes The Bart Northcote Series so unique. At this point there have been many PIs in crime fiction, most of which follow a similar formula, so Eiland has crafted a clever way to make the genre fresh again. Meta fiction can be overdone, but the book doesn’t fall into that trap, as the novel itself, apart from its references, is gripping, fun, and vigorously written.
There is a great deal of honesty in the writing, and the direct narrative voice is compelling. From the very beginning, Bart’s interaction with Vanessa has an uncomfortable edge, and it’s clear that she isn’t telling him the whole story. The story centers around the legendary and titular Ishtar Cup, passed from the hands of an Iraqi diplomat to Vanessa and a few friends who are eager to make a quick buck. However, with treasures from antiquity and million-dollar price tags, greed and murder are never far behind. Bart Northcote is drawn into a tangled mess of a mystery that tests his intuition and gumption, setting the stage for an excellent series with him at the core.
The peripheral characters, particularly his secretary and literary agent, support the flow of the story nicely, and act as excellent foils for Northcote. And no classic noir novel would be without vivid depictions of Los Angeles. The descriptions of the city are impeccably well done, and the nostalgic quality of the writing makes it seem far more distant, and even romantic, as if the 90s were part of black-and-white history.
Blending modernity with noir qualities makes this a fascinating read, honoring the traditions of the genre, but framing the life of this unique PI in more updated terms. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the novel such a fresh and exciting read. The Ishtar Cup is a thrilling novel with a twist ending that most readers won’t see coming.
The Ishtar Cup was Grand Prize winner in the 2016 SPR Book Awards.
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