“I was almost an hour past Davenport and the sky above held no texture. It was a flat, gray screen of indeterminate height, impossible to approximate, set above fields of waist-high corn and the hard, straightaway road I traveled. A rare slow tune from Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra floated through my mind—lush strands of pure grace and sorrow.”
That’s Ross Duncan in a nutshell—always on a hard, straight road. Moving under an inscrutable sky. And always in between grace and utter sorrow. He’s a thinker. And he’s a killer, but only as justified. Yet he watches birds, notices the landscaping around a house, and studies the stars. He hears the crickets and the yodels of a loon. And he’s a Bible reader—as in, Bible thinker. “Lately, I’d been thinking about Hell more. I was rediscovering Genesis, the first book of Moses—the Old Testament. It held none of the Sunday school charm that I remembered from a distant childhood, but rather carried newer and deeper relevance. I read silently for an hour, with only my own thoughts of what lay ahead for occasional interruption.”
Sleep Not, My Child centers around a kidnapping. It’s the 1930’s. At first, Duncan is part of a crew of “modest bandits” with plans. They understand times have changed, in the wake of the Great Depression. They don’t want to request a ransom that doesn’t match the market rate. Post Lindbergh baby, after all, even Al Capone frowned on that particular form of extortion. But the plot goes sour. The kidnap victim is among the schemers. And there’s a kid who gets caught up in the mix, too, and a double-cross. Duncan feels foolish he didn’t know.
Sleep Not, My Child is beautifully, smoothly written. The plot is deft. Christopher Bartley takes the pace from brutal and quick to pastoral and contemplative with ease. The prose is a blend of noir and high-action fiction, pulp-free. Bartley is not afraid to let Duncan ponder the universe for a few pages while the bandits decide their next move or even let Duncan enjoy the lulls in the action, especially after Duncan is off on his own, riding solo and fending off the overtures of a young dame.
Yes, dames and Tommy Guns, cigarette smoke and booze. The scenery and atmosphere are familiar and so is a brooding bad guy who wants to be a better man and who does enough of the right things that we all want to see him survive. Duncan is so earnest and forthright, at times, that he even gets briefly deputized by the FBI.
Do those who live on the right side of the law come with an unlimited supply of pure honor? We all know the answer to that one. (Recent police beating—and shooting—videos, anyone?) Duncan sees it all. He knows his place, knows his record, knows why he’s being hunted and also that he’s fallible. He recognizes The System, how the government takes care of itself. Duncan spots the suit a detective’s woven silk suit and understands its meaning. “I wondered how it was that so many big city detectives seemed able to afford clothing like that,” he thinks, “while down at the corner of Monroe and Sangamon three thousand unemployed Chicagoans had been protesting economic and living conditions in the city.”
Duncan is on a never-ending search for his exact spot in the universe, all the time dragging around his particular, innate despair. Sleep Not, My Child is a terrific entry in a series that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Previous review of Naked Shall I Return includes Q & A with Bartley.
Previous review of Unto the Daughters of Men