“Harry Lipkin” is like one of those songs in which everything works — the lyrics, the tune and the arrangement. What’s more, it doesn’t sound like any other song. If it were only longer, it would be perfect. As it is “Harry Lipkin” is a wonderful read, one that’s humorous, poignant, nostalgic, sad and upbeat.
The title character is an 87-year-old living in south Florida. He’s a private detective, and a pretty good one, mostly because he’s come to know a lot about people and made a lot of contacts in the decades he’s been poking around. He’s Jewish, as are most of his friends, and he lives alone. Sometimes he shows his age, such as when he can’t find his dentures or when he takes so long to get to the phone that it won’t wait for him and stops ringing. Harry drives a Chevy that also has a lot of life on it, but it’s only about half as old as he is. The book’s inside flap describes Harry as “part Sam Spade, part Woody Allen, all mensch.” That’s about right.
The story takes off when he gets a call from Mrs. Norma Weinberger, a widow whose husband, Isaac, was a hat maker back in the day. She’s wealthy and lives in an estate near the ocean with a whole crew to tend to her needs: a butler, a chef, a maid, a chauffeur and a gardener.
She’s in a near panic and wants to hire him because her pillbox has disappeared. It isn’t worth much, but she can’t stand the thought that one of the people who works for her is a thief.
She only becomes more undone as days pass when another trinket, then something sentimental and finally something quite valuable disappear. When Harry goes to her house for the first time, it’s apparent that she has more money than taste. He thinks to himself, “Jews play the violin. Discover streptomycin. Jews make the best suits and even better corned beef sandwiches. But interior design? What does a Jew do? He pays a fortune to someone with no taste to go to an auction.”
Harry, of course, interviews all her household staff: Mr. Lee, a self-important butler who plays the ponies; Steve, a stoned gardener who swaps his work for a place to stay and keeps his spade as sharp as a weapon; Amos, the chef, who’s raising money for a new synagogue in Ethiopia; Maria, a beautiful young Bolivian maid who is trying to send money home to help her sick father; and Rufus, a chauffeur who has the body — and the skills — of a semipro boxer and who has six children to support. All have motives: none makes enough money working for Mrs. Weinberger to do much more than get by, yet none stands out as more likely than the others.
Harry checks out their backgrounds, and when the stoned gardener threatens him, Harry roots around in his glove box for a couple of minutes to show Steve he can take care of himself. There, behind all the detritus from previous cases, is his firearm, but it probably hasn’t been fired in years.
Harry’s a character whose thoughts — living alone he keeps his own counsel — spike the mystery with insights and humor. Though not particularly attracted to Mrs. Weinberger, he wouldn’t much mind if she were attracted to him. When he concocts a plan to hide in her bedroom to trap the thief and assures her he won’t have to get into bed with her, she looks relieved. It doesn’t cheer him up.
“I would have preferred a look of disappointment. Old men lose their hair. Their teeth. Their patience. But not their vanity. I told myself to stop being a nebbish and carried on with the plan.”
Happily, and to Harry’s surprise, the mystery is solved. When he returns home, he decides it’s time to retire and do whatever he wants whenever he wants. He figures he’ll change his answering machine recording from the one identifying him as a private investigator to one telling callers, “You have reached Harry Lipkin. Fun guy. Free anytime.” Then the phone rings again and he unretires.
The author has done some unretiring of his own. Barry Fantoni, 72, who grew in in a household that was half-Jewish and half Italian, has done a little of everything.
He’s played with Ray Davis of the Kinks, been a cartoonist and written for the satirical magazine Private Eye and for the BBC’s “That Was the Week That Was.”
Fantoni likes the character Harry Lipkin and thinks Jewish communities value older people more than many other communities. Said the author: “Lipkin contains a lot of what I think about the world.”
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.