– Rick ‘The Zen Man’ Levine
Former attorney and current private investigator Rick Levine has a lot to be worried about in author Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Now clean and sober for five years after having had his law license suspended by the state of Colorado because of his substance abuse, Rick and his girlfriend, Laura, have opened a B&B lodge and things seem to be looking up for Rick personally and professionally.
In an attempt to lure some of Rick’s former colleagues into using his investigative services, Rick and Laura decide to host a seminar for criminal defense attorneys at the lodge. What started out as a good idea immediately goes downhill when Rick’s decidedly bitter ex-wife shows up at the seminar and gets quite vocally belligerent with him, as well as several others in attendance.
Things go from bad to worse when she’s subsequently found dead in one of the lodge’s hot tubs and Rick is arrested for her murder. Able to secure bail with the help of Laura and his former law partner, Rick has thirty days to discover the real killer’s identity before he’s swept into a system that seems just fine with closing the books on the case with him as the culprit. Easier said than done, as Rick soon finds out there were more than a few people who had reason to want his ex dead, and that someone at the Sheriff’s office is not playing fair with all the evidence.
Throw in a murderous Mexican Santa, a few shady lawyers (I know, can you believe it?), perpetually stoned handymen, a guard dog who’s only good for guarding her favorite chair, a couple of high speed chases and a kidnapping, and top that off with some high stakes embezzlement, a ‘retired’ South Boston mafioso, and the appearance of some very interested F.B.I. agents and The Zen Man makes for one heck of a fast-paced ride.
Though already an accomplished author of close to two dozen novels for the Harlequin and Dorchester labels, The Zen Man is Collins’s first foray into pure mystery/crime fiction, and it’s a quite successful one at that. Though not exactly a cozy – there are guns and knives and drugs and even a malicious use of darts – Collins was still clearly aiming for a more lighthearted approach, with the ‘Zen Man” Rick and his girlfriend Laura being hat tips to The Thin Man‘s classic characters of Nick and Nora.
It was a wise decision, and one executed to great effect. Rick and Laura are incredibly charming and likable, with both striking the right balance between aggressive competence and cautious concern over their situation. The lodge’s on-site handymen, wacky weed aficionados Garrett and Ziggy, provide built-in comic relief with their endearingly earnest – if slightly clueless- attempts to help, and the book’s mystery is well structured with clues and red herrings doled out steadily to move the plot along and keep things interesting. And though some readers may figure out the ending before arriving at it, that doesn’t make the journey to get there any less enjoyable.
It’s no spoiler to say the case is resolved in Rick’s favor, but it is left hanging whether Rick will continue his private investigation career or go back to practicing law. Either way, I can’t wait for the return of The Zen Man.