Solving high crimes

Special to The Times

If, AS Minnesota native Garrison Keillor likes to remind us, all the region’s women are strong and the men are good-looking, it’s logical to wonder whether all its writers are above average. Bart Schneider, whose latest novel is, among other things, a valentine to the Twin Cities, wasn’t born in Minnesota, but he lived in St. Paul for more than 20 years. A founding editor of the Hungry Mind Review, financed by the now-defunct St. Paul bookstore with the same name, Schneider went on to serve as director of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and to edit, until 2006, its cultural magazine Speakeasy. He also published three well-received novels, all set during the 1960s and 1970s in the Bay Area, where he was raised.

Schneider’s new novel borrows its title from a poem by Thomas McGrath, who died in Minneapolis in 1990, and is stuffed with local landmarks and lore. It’s also a detective novel of sorts, though its sunny Midwestern atmosphere is a lot more blanc than noir, and its hero is not so much hard-boiled as gently baked. P.I. Augie Boyer deals mostly in infidelity and insurance, proud that he’s managed to stay in business without carrying a gun. What he does carry is “a goodly amount of weed,” whose calming effects help get him through his days. “After all,” he confesses, “what chance does an unarmed, pothead, existentialist detective have against the genuine existentialists running around with guns in North Minneapolis?”

It’s not just work that harshes Augie’s mellow. His personal life produces plenty of anxiety on its own. At 50, he suffers from high cholesterol and low testosterone. His marriage recently went south after his wife, a therapist specializing in anger management, left him for another therapist. For the last five months he’s been seeing a much younger woman who’s hounding him for a commitment. And his beloved only daughter, Rose, an L.A.-based protest singer, has become famous enough that Augie now fears for her safety.


In stoner suspense novels, everything that rises must converge, as the action does here when a beautiful blond violin prodigy walks into Augie’s office in downtown Minneapolis on a humid late-summer morning. (Musicians play prominent roles in all of Schneider’s novels and in his autobiography as well: His father was a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony for 50 years.) The blond asks Augie to investigate her husband, a dealer in rare violins whose business, she fears, has turned shady. Sure enough, Augie’s search of the couple’s fancy condo uncovers a cache of German firearms, a Nazi catalog of stolen musical instruments and some priceless 18th century violins that have been missing since World War II.

With help from Augie’s assorted colleagues -- his prettily tattooed assistant, Blossom; his best friend, Bobby Sabbatini, a St. Paul policeman with a proselytizing mania for modern poetry; and Frankie Synge, a left-leaning FBI agent -- he manages to link the stolen violins to a sinister collector of Third Reich paraphernalia. Turns out the collector is also masterminding an enormous anti-abortion rally, scheduled for Labor Day on the state capitol grounds in St. Paul. And a little more digging reveals that the Nazi lover is also involved in a plot to kill three local abortion doctors and possibly also Rose, Augie’s rock-star daughter, who’s returning to town to sing at a hastily convened counter-rally.

Both rallies are set to coincide with the nearby opening ceremonies of the GOP National Convention, during which Jim Holsom, Minnesota’s photogenic anti-abortion governor, is hoping to clinch the vice presidential nomination. The real-life GOP convention, we know, is coming to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in September, with real-life Gov Tim Pawlenty in the running for the VP nod, so it’s clever of Schneider to set his fictional clash of ideologies ever so slightly before the actual carnival comes to town. That cleverness abounds in the novel’s sharply drawn scenery, exuberantly landscaped with Obama and “Al Franken for Senate” signs and spangled with banners by both armies of the Blue and Red wars.

Less effective are Augie’s occasional stale rants against the Bush administration. And sometimes the wackiness that flavors the action goes sour: At one point Sabbatini, the poetry-addicted cop, delivers a lecture about Americans being “as afraid of poetry as they are of al-Qaeda” -- when it seems pretty clear that what’s keeping us from rigorous poetical pursuits these days is not so much fear as Grand Theft Auto. But otherwise Schneider’s extensive cultural literacy (particularly his musical sensitivity) is appealingly on display here, and in Augie Boyer he’s created an entertainingly offbeat hero.


Donna Rifkind is a Los Angeles-based critic and reviewer whose work has appeared in various publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.