Crime Fiction Writer and Reviewer Winter's assessment of NO TIME TO MOURN originally appeared in
Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.
Oakland PI Jim Wolf has what he considers the ideal existence. He lives alone aboard a boat, aptly named the Sea Wolf, with a pet python named Monty. His office is a booth at Big Emma's, the bar on Jack London Square tended by ex-lover and best friend Lori. Business consists mainly of cheating spouses and insurance cases (or, as we who write this sort of thing call it, the stuff that happens between the novels.)
In Tim Wohlforth's first full-length novel, Lori refers Susan Henry to Wolf. Someone killed Susan's husband and is out to kill her. The obvious suspects, especially to the police, are Susan's stepchildren, Edward, Jr., and Edith. Edith doesn't figure into it, though. Edith is a walking paradox: a member of the Devil Dykes, a lesbian biker gang, and yet a real sweetheart despite the leather and Harley-Davidson. Susan herself is a suspect until a killer they dub "Red" (Red hair, ruddy complexion, and drives a red car, mainly to taunt police) makes a run at both Susan and Wolf. When Red does kill Susan, he makes killing Wolf a mission, one he nearly succeeds in from his very first appearance onward.
Two things really drive this story. First is the common past Wolf and Susan share, what makes Wolf want to avenge her death. Wolf is adopted, as is Susan. That aspect of Wolf's own past ways heavily on his mind when he finds a photo of a young Susan and her mother with a man who is not her father. Or is he? The other is a subtext of unfinished business between Lori and Wolf. Though separated as lovers, Lori still takes an active interest in both Wolf's business and his love life. Late in the story, when Wolf begins to take that separation more seriously, the tension between him and Lori subtly rises.
Wohlforth populates his story with an intriguing cast of supporting characters. There's Nina, the homicide detective and Wolf's friend. Cop buddies are a dime a dozen in many PI thrillers, but the lines between Nina and Wolf are clear and respected, which is more than one could say for Nina's partner, Richard Oliphant. Ollie, as he is known, doesn't like PI's, and likes Wolf even less for the crime of not being an ex-cop. However, while Ollie's hostility seems excessive, it stems more from principle - however shaky - than blind, disassociated rage.
Perhaps most intriguing out of the cast is a group of lesbian bikers known as the Devil Dykes, who come into Wolf's world by threatening to cut him up with a broken beer bottle. Susan's stepdaughter Edith is picked up as a suspect, and Wolf earns the Dykes' trust by agreeing to help Edith clear herself.
The story itself is one of seemingly unrelated threads and coincidences. Wohlforth carefully constructs these and ties them together at the end in a surprising manner. He sends Wolf and Lori off in two directions - digging through the affairs of Susan's shady stepson and looking into Susan's own past. It's Susan's origins and how she came to call a man in Chicago her father that provide the most harrowing and dangerous moments of the novel. A photograph Wolf pilfers from the murder scene comes off as a red herring until about the third act, when it leads him to a past best left buried.
The pacing is excellent, and the tension between Wolf and Red, his largely unseen assailant helps keep up the suspense. Red himself is pretty one-dimensional, a hit man who enjoys his work too much but is a bit of a coward whenever the tables are turned on him.
I had a couple of problems overall with this one, mainly late in the story when it gets more intense. In one scene, Wolf and Lori stumble onto a mob operation that Edward, Jr., the stepson, has his finger in. In their rush to escape the bad guys, the Devil Dykes appear in a moment of deux ex machina. The section's saving grace is the humor with which Wohlforth handles it, along with the subsequent explanation. Still, it gave me a little bit of pause. The other problem is Wolf's injuries. Wolf and Red have a couple of serious fights in which Red's element of surprise results in Wolf getting a concussion, two broken ribs, and a bullet to the shoulder. (Don't worry. Just a lousy flesh wound.) For most of the book, Wolf deals with these injuries. He feels pain when he has to make sudden moves or use his injured shoulder. And while he has had time to heal during all this, in the last act, it's as though nothing physically bad has happened to him. I'd have liked to see the ribs or the shoulder still give him problems this late.
Finally, I cannot leave out two of the novel's best supporting characters: Monty, the python, and San Francisco's fog. The fog does a lot to create the mayhem Wolf finds himself in from Chapter 1 on until almost the end of the book. And Monty? Well, let me point out that Tim Wohlforth once used soup as a murder weapon in a Jim Wolf short story. Let's just say Monty is used even more creatively in this one.
No Time to Mourn is a terrific start to a series. Wolf is a low-key, introspective kind of PI. No flash or long rants about moral codes and missions. He's a loner, and his work, his relationship to Lori, and even his home are merely a function of that. Here's to more of the same.