Quick — the summer reading list! The end-days of summer are upon us: The cicadas now sing in the evening, notebooks are on sale at the drugstore and sweet corn is everywhere. Here’s your last chance to fit in some summer reading before school arrives and our attention shifts back to serious things — even for those of us long out of school. Pack up your towel and head to Huntington, Edgewater or Mentor Headlands Beach for the perfect place to read Les Roberts’ 14th book, King of the Holly Hop, starring the Cleveland detective with the most derring-do, Milan Jacovich.
Winsome Milan Jacovich (say My-lan Yock-o-vich) attends his 40th high-school reunion only as a favor to an old friend, finding his classmates at least 20 pounds heavier, but still nurturing grudges almost a half-century old. The usual suspects abound: the cheery geek, the beauty queen, the sleazy loser, the football hero. No one has changed; personalities have become only more concentrated with the years, and the old hurts still boil just below the surface.
So it’s to no one’s great surprise when Tommy Wiggins, once theater nerd, now Tony Award winner, confronts Phil Kohn — the class snot-nose who became a high-and-mighty cardiologist — in no uncertain terms: “I’ve been waiting 40 years to tell you, in front of as many people as possible, to go fuck yourself. I flew in from New York for just the pleasure.” Then he throws his drink in Phil’s face. And can’t each one of us relate?
Trouble is, within a few pages, Phil is dead. And his classmate, Milan Jacovich, is hired by Tommy Wiggins’ lawyer to clear Wiggins’ name. Reluctantly, Jacovich takes the case.
As the mystery unravels, so does Jacovich’s past. His high-school memories are called into question as he interviews friends and past classmates, finding out not only alibis but dirty secrets, thinly veiled racism, petty crimes and full-blown psychoses. High-school scars run silent and deep, and reveal people who, under the surface of success, are bitter and twisted, unable to forget and move on.
The power of the past runs through all the Jacovich books but is paramount here. There’s a great deal of longing for the unremarkable days of the 1950s, when “life was simpler and less difficult to figure out — especially on TV and in the movies.” Men acted manly and women told secrets over the backyard fence. Detectives smoked and didn’t have to smear low-fat cream cheese on their bagels. And even the bad guys were better back then: “Today the criminals who are escorted through the Third District doors are pond scum…Their imaginations begin and end with violence. They’ve forgotten that when you’re rich, powerful and celebrated, you’re expected to give back some of the money you’ve cadged and chiseled and stolen from honest people.” Ah, for the days when the Cleveland Mob was in its ascendant phase.
The nostalgia-fest continues with highlights and commentary on Cleveland’s landmarks, its political highs and its not-so-past lows. The whodunit is woven in and among these glimpses of better days and builds nicely. Almost everyone attending the reunion has a reason to hate Phil Kohn; as the narrative progresses, this guy attains smarminess beyond compare. You’re almost glad he got his, particularly if you are a believer in karma or vigilante justice.
With a nifty ending of suburban suspense, Jacovich rises to the occasion in MacGyver-like fashion, gets the bad guy, and shakes himself into some semblance of acceptance for the disconnect between past and present. Would that we were so lucky.
All that makes King of the Holly Hop great summer reading — especially if you buy it for your mom.