“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.”  

EDGAR ALLAN POE                                                                      

I had a serious mental craving for a whodunit recently, so I pulled Nibbled to Death by Ducks by Robert Campbell off the oldies-but-goodies shelf, for a re-read. This is one of eleven books in the author’s Jimmy Flannery mystery series that were published over the twelve year period from 1986 to 1998.  But it’s a mystery novel, some might quibble. Once you’ve read a mystery, you know how it turns out. What’s to be gained by reading it again? To that I say: not necessarily, and:  it re-acquaints me with the pleasure of its company once more. It’s like getting together with an old friend.

Nibbled to Death by Ducks is number six in Robert Campbell’s first-rate who-done-a-crime series that began with the Edgar Award-winning The Junkyard Dog, which was published in 1986. Junkyard Dog also won an Anthony Award in paperback. The protagonist, Jimmy Flannery, is one of several unusual fictional series-characters the author created. By conventional standards, Flannery is a very unlikely crime-solving hero. He is a warm-hearted nosy parker who works for the City of Chicago department of sanitation as a sewer inspector.

There is an endearing quality about Flannery.

The book is narrated in first person and you quickly get to know the characters and a feeling for the flow of the story through Flannery’s very distinctive colloquial slang and tone that might be described as mildly Runyonesque (except that the setting is Chicago, not New York) in that it always remains several notches below the highbrow.

There is an endearing quality about Flannery. He is a people person of the first order. He loves his wife and anthropomorphizes his dog. He is a bit of an operator in that he has the equivalent of several Rolodexes (does anyone out there still know what a Rolodex is?) worth of contacts within range of his dialing finger, and he trades on them shamelessly. But the story turns on the understanding that he is an ethical person at heart and when he sees a wrong that he thinks needs righting, he just can’t help himself from getting involved. He tells you this on page eleven.

“I’m halfway down the hall while she’s yelling all this. Whenever I hear somebody yelling for help or sounding like they’re in pain I always go to see if there’s anything I can do, though some people accuse me of sticking my nose in where it don’t belong and I should learn to mind my own business.”

Robert Campbell has a typical family dynamic sussed out down to a needle point.

One of the charms of this book is the author’s acutely perceptive depictions of the protagonist’s relationships with his family and friends. He has a typical family dynamic sussed out down to a needle point. Flannery’s father’s name is Mike, and they are very close, but even in the tightest of families, mild friction is commonplace and Robert Campbell nails it with his characters.

“My old man’s got this thing. I say something, and he says the opposite. Sometimes he’ll turn me around to his way of thinking. Maybe I’ll even start agreeing with him. Then, the next thing you know, he’ll do a hundred and eighty and argue my case like I was standing up for his.”

The story moves along at an easy canter as opposed to the galloping pace of a thriller.

All eleven books in the Jimmy Flannery series have titles with birds or animals in them (The 600 Pound Gorilla, Hip-Deep in Alligators, et al). Nibbled to Death by Ducks is set around several murders that took place in an overcrowded and understaffed Chicago nursing home (very little seems to have changed in the nursing home business in twenty-five years, can anyone say déjà vu?). The story moves along at an easy canter as opposed to the galloping pace of a thriller. For me, it was a relaxing read, a two-night indulgence.

Some people turn their noses up at mysteries, but they have a long history, the influence being traced back as far as Voltaire (and bless his soul for his contribution to divertissement). In North America, Edgar Allen Poe is acknowledged as setting down a cornerstone for the now venerable institution of escapist literature that became mystery fiction.  The genre is now so entrenched in our culture that the names of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen (pen name of the writing duo of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) are readily recognized even by non-readers, because their works have been adapted for film and television.

But for every Doyle, Christie and Queen there are thousands of other authors of mystery fiction who have written intricately-crafted whodunits that make for a stimulating, entertaining and satisfying read. Robert Wright Campbell (1927- 2000) is one of them. He also wrote the four-book La-La Land series that featured a hero named James Whistler, two books that revolved around a railway detective, Jake Hatch, and several stand-alone novels.

 As pure sensory bedtime indulgence, I found this book almost right up there with a tot of seriously-aged brandy or a white-chocolate truffle.

Besides all that he was a Hollywood screenwriter (with an Academy Award nomination to his name) a television screenwriter and a playwright.

First published in 1989, Nibbled to Death by Ducks went back far enough in time that much detail of the story had become blurry and faded from memory. I enjoyed reading it over again in the same way that one catches up with someone that you haven’t seen for a long time. You rediscover things together. You remember little delights mutually that you otherwise have long forgotten or have pushed down as into the far recesses of memory, as individuals.  And as pure sensory bedtime indulgence, I found this book almost right up there with a tot of seriously-aged brandy or a white-chocolate truffle.  Highly recommended. REG

Links for additional information:

Robert Wright Campbell

Nibbled To Death By Ducks