I forget how I stumbled across Lenny Bartulin’s Death by The Book (aka A Deathly Business). Thank goodness my review reminded me! I do remember enjoying it so much that I hunted down the other 2 titles in the Jack Susko series with the doggedness of Columbo …. and left them collecting dust on the shelf for just shy of 7 years! However, they jumped straight to the top of the TBR when Kim announced her Southern Cross Crime event.

In The Black Russian the cash register in Jack Susko’s secondhand bookstore thinks it has been made redundant, and Jack begins to sell conceptual art catalogues to supplement his income. Delivering one such, he finds himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time. De Groot Galleries becomes the scene of an armed robbery. Something is stolen from the safe along with the first edition of Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love that Jack had in his bag (for another client). The husband of the art gallery owner offers Jack a substantial amount of money to keep him from going to the police …. but later reneges on the arrangement. Johnny, whose inclination is to stay out of what are obviously shady dealings, has to start sleuthing for himself if he is going to retrieve his property.

In De Luxe things are looking good. Business is going well and he’s feeling quite chipper. Then he is served notice on his flat. It’s only when he starts looking for a new place to stay that he becomes aware of exponential rent rises in Sydney. Suddenly that proposition from his current landlord, former boss and corrupt property developer looks a little more tempting. He is to insert himself between his landlord’s daughter and her fiancé and break them up. Ha! If only things were that simple. In this novel Jack’s less than saintly past comes back to haunt him in more ways than one.

There’s no need for Jack to go looking for trouble, because it comes looking for him. Nor are the criminal dealings in which he finds himself enmeshed small time. In The Black Russian, we talking about international art theft, in De Luxe property development. Both activities in which there are millions are to play for, and many rival factions playing. Jack inevitably ends up pig in the middle, the one in the tightest jam or as he so succinctly puts it in The Black Russian “I’m the goddamn lamb shank in the stew.”

He’s also a bit of a punch bag. Bartulin doesn’t shy away from giving Jack a good old whalloping now and again. And I have to say the premises of Susko Books get a pretty hard time as well. (So much so that, even though I know that after a year of lockdown, we’re all desperate to go bookstore browsing once more, I would advise against visiting this one. You’d be taking your life in your hands.) But there are some benefits to Jack’s life – Bartulin gives him plenty of feisty female company …. including his cat and a bevy of De Luxe bunny girls, the likes of which you’ll never forget.

The Susko mysteries are modern crime fiction incorporating the best traditions of noir: they’re full of action, snappy dialogue and are replete with sexy dames and unscrupulous villains. I love them.

The Black Russian was shortlisted for the 2010 Best Fiction Ned Kelly Award.