Mr. Good Barge

By Jennifer Hartig
Joanie McDonell Annie Leibovitz

Joanie McDonell
Thomas & Mercer, $14.95

   I’ve noticed that when reading mysteries I can usually tell from the opening chapter if I’m in for an enjoyable ride. With “Bolero,” Joanie McDonell’s first Nick Sayler adventure, I knew within a few paragraphs that I was in good hands. The tone is smart, the setup intriguing and fast-paced, and the protagonist appealingly eccentric.
    Nick Sayler is a private investigator who lives on a vast converted barge called the Dumb Luck (he won it in a poker game). He is accompanied by his socially inept but brilliant assistant, Meriwether, and his old, valued friend Dr. Edward Sloane. And then there is his Creole girlfriend, Rue, a teaser since, while she is referred to throughout the book, she never makes an actual physical appearance.
    The barge, a floating palace, is large enough to accommodate them all. It’s moored on the Weehawken side of the Hudson, affording magnificent views of Manhattan but also creating a useful distance. It serves as a secure base of operations for Nick’s company, Sayler Security.
    Within a couple of pages we are plunged into the action: the rescue of a young woman who has been brutally beaten and is suffering from amnesia brought on by a concussion. Against his better judgment, Nick becomes involved, springing her from Bellevue Hospital, where she is about to be committed to the psych ward, and bringing her back to his barge — “a good deed, but a bad idea.” He is spurred by the vulnerability and extraordinary beauty of the victim: “even cut and bleeding her kind of beauty opens doors everywhere.” It’s a softhearted response from a tough man, and one that will lead to big trouble.
   Every once in a while, Ms. McDonell pauses the forward action to flesh out Nick’s life story: his upbringing as an orphan by the Sisters of Perpetual Grace, his previous spiral into a life of drugs and petty crime after suffering a devastating loss, his recovery and the development of his mutually respectful relationships with the savant Meriwether, the elegant homosexual Edward Sloane, and his cop contact, Tom Fallon. The story unfolds as a first-person narrative, charting Nick Sayler’s psychological and emotional development as it progresses.
    When the electricity goes out on the barge, gas lines are found to have been cut, cellphones jammed, and a gunman attempts to break in, Nick realizes that his charge is in danger of more than just a beating. It becomes his mission to protect her from a potential killer. The puzzle of the victim’s identity hangs over the first third of the book, as she only hesitantly begins to regain lost memories, starting years back in her childhood. She can’t remember her name or any recent events, and is surprised by modern inventions like cellphones and the Internet. All Nick and Meriwether have to go on are her appearance and the innate air of quality that she projects.
    Ms. McDonell is gifted at creating vivid scenes and a believable sense of locality. There are spot-on vignettes of New York life: of the 79th Street yacht basin and its ambience, of a cab and limousine dispatching company in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and of the High Line and the teenage skateboarders who hang out there. She also writes interesting subsidiary characters and a lively plot, essential ingredients in a good detective novel.
    Most important is the portrayal of the central character. Nick Sayler is a loyal friend, likable but flawed and definitely politically incorrect; he drinks too much, smokes too much, and, as the nuns would say, “has a mouth on him.” He confesses to the sins of “Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Smoking.”
    If I have any criticism of “Bolero” it’s that the tension slackens in the second section of the book, which is too long and would have benefited from being cut and tightened. However, the pace picks up again in the final portion and it concludes with an exciting, if gloriously improbable, ending.
    All in all, it’s a very talented debut for what is apparently planned as a Nick Sayler mystery series. I have no doubt that it will be successful.

   Joanie McDonell is the author of “Half Crazy,” a novel, and “The Little Book of Hope.” She lives in Amagansett.
    Jennifer Hartig regularly contributes book reviews to The Star. She lives in Noyac.