Say It Was Murder, by Stephen Mertz, is an innovative and modern vision of the old fashioned private eye novel. McShan—no first name offered—is an operative for a large detective agency. His boss requires daily status reports, gets grumpy when she doesn’t get those reports, and enforces a strict policy to include local law enforcement with any criminal activities uncovered during an investigation. McShan doesn’t wear a fedora and he works globally, rather than being centralized to a specific city or state. But beneath the new-world corporate trappings McShan is an old fashioned, authority shirking knight-errant with more loyalty to his clients than to the law or his employer.
A loyalty on full display when McShan is sent to Bisbee, a small rural city in deep southeastern Arizona, on what appears to be a simple case. Marna Richards, recently divorced from a tough guy film producer and all around jerk, wants McShan to make sure her daughter, Janine, is safe. Janine has been making time with a local commune-style cult and the relationship worries her mother. A simple case until it skews sideways and becomes something else.
Say It Was Murder is an example of what Stephen Mertz does so well. Take the ordinary—in this case a private eye investigating a cult—and make it original by shaking and twisting until it becomes new and interesting. McShan is likable and honorable. He’s tough enough to get things done and smart enough to keep himself out of trouble. The Arizona setting is painted with stark colors to reveal a vibrant rural landscape and culture. The prose is perfectly simple, its smooth as glass style has the strength of an Arizona thunderstorm. This is Stephen Mertz’s first private eye novel in four decades, and Say It Was Murder marks a fine return to a genre he never should have left.