Age is a terrible burden for a gumshoe. Harry Lipkin is 87, plagued with acid reflux, and too sore to mend the broken roof tiles atop his decaying home. When he’s called to a wealthy widow’s home to track down her stolen jewelry, it’s the only kind of case his broken body can handle. Harry Lipkin: Private Eye has a mystery to solve, but the book is more interested in living in Harry’s worn-out shoes than in plot specifics, which gives it room to be a quirky little character study.
Harry lives in a housing development in Miami where the median age for homeowners is in the mid-seventies. Old as he is, the PI is hilariously out of place in his surroundings. While his neighbors are counting coupons and taking free bus rides to the movies, Harry is still working, wisecracking, tackling cases the cops ignore, and keeping multiple guns for protection. Although his situation is comic, satirist and cartoonist Barry Fantoni makes sure the joke is never on Harry. The geriatric sleuth is well aware of how ridiculous he seems to his clients, neighbors, and the suspects in his case. This self-reflexive quality turns the book from a one-note joke into an exploration of what drives detectives forward.
Fantoni deftly handles the underlying obsession Harry has with his work, but uses his character’s age to show how strange, and downright dangerous, that obsession is. Almost all detectives in crime fiction are driven by a dogged need for the truth, which usually leads fictional PIs to do things wildly against their better judgment. Harry is a grizzled, ancient Sam Spade—alone, battered, but still unable to let go of the need to solve puzzles placed before him. By aging the archetypal detective—and giving him the humor and background of an East Coast Jew—Fantoni shows how self-destructive men like Spade are. Harry is an eminently likeable character, and his narration is funny and engaging, but Harry Lipkin makes clear that he’s the kind of guy to keep at arm’s length.
There’s also the terrible specter of dying alone, which hangs over him as he tries to find the stolen jewelry. Harry’s client, Mrs. Norma Weinberger, is almost as old as he is, and although a well-paid staff surrounds her in her mansion, she’s just as solitary as Harry. Their impending deaths do little to alleviate the loneliness these two feel, and their scenes together show an unspoken but shared fear. Age in Harry Lipkin isn’t simply a way to show the absurdities of a particular crime-fiction archetype, it’s also a tragedy to be weathered. The book’s denouement makes this distinction clear without being heavy-handed.
In spite of its surprising poignancy, Harry Lipkin is, above all, a fun read. It aims to please more than anything else, making it a quick joy, rather than a masterwork. But Harry would probably say that’s a minor quibble, and he’d be right.