Fans of Jeff Sherratt’s mystery series have come to expect certain things from his novels. Jimmy O’Brien books are clever, gripping, and addictive. Known for their multi-layered suspense, Sherratt’s novels immerse the reader in the politics, society, and industry of Los Angeles in the 1970s, all the while maintaining a style more reminiscent of 1940s who-dunnit narratives than anything else. They’re classy, surprising, and endearing – in a murder mystery kind of way.
Sherratt’s newest book, Detour to Murder, is all of this and more. When Jimmy O’Brien goes to represent a man accused of murder some thirty years before, the parole hearing doesn’t go as planned. How can it, when the man who once confessed to the crime now claims his innocence? So starts a rollicking edge-of-your-seat investigation into a cold case come frightfully alive. O’Brien’s search takes him from a run-down Hollywood motel to a luxurious Santa Barbara estate, from the cells of a Los Angeles prison to the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire. Several characters are recognizable, from obscure film icons to political figures. There’s a surprise of one kind or another on nearly every page.
But what sets this book apart most significantly is the material from which it’s drawn.Detour to Murder gets is storyline – as well as its title – from the film noir icon, Detour. Released in 1945, Detour is a perfect example of a “poverty row” film. Shot in six days with a budget of about $20,000, the film was all but forgotten until it entered the public domain and started running on late night TV. Since then, Roger Ebert, the Smithsonian Institute, and countless hopeful film students have given the movie a nod as one of film history’s greatest works.
In Detour, the movie, Al Roberts finds himself hitchhiking across America to reach his fiancee in California. When the man he’s riding with ends up dead on the side of the road, Roberts makes a sudden and fateful choice to take up the man’s identity and drive the rest of the way alone. More death and fate ensue, sending Roberts in the final moments of the film off to prison. It’s here that Sherratt’s novel picks up the story. Or, rather, thirty years from this point. The case is brought up for parole, Al Roberts claims his innocence, Jimmy O’Brien investigates, and what starts as a simple murder mystery unravels into a vast and tangled political thriller with enough twists and turns to keep your head spinning for over three hundred pages.
The book is meant to be the first in a new series of film noir mysteries featuring the established legal sleuth, Jimmy O’Brien. The premise is promising, and there are certainly enough classic films to draw from. The trick, of course, is bridging the gap between the older dates of the films and the standard 1970s setting of O’Brien’s practice. “Meeting the characters so many years after the main event certainly presents some limitations,” Sherratt’s publisher, Molly Lewis says. “A crime can either lose or gain significance with the passage of time. In this case, an innocent man has been imprisoned for three decades and significant social and political figures have risen to power based on his assumed guilt. The passage of time absolutely intensifies the crime. Between a false accusation and the final truth, there is this thirty year pregnant pause. It’s explosive.”
Working with pre-established source material, as with the film Detour, limits more than just the time frame of a narrative. Sherratt also had to work within the storyline of the existing movie. “The novel takes a different direction than the classic film,” Sherratt says. Early on, we find out that Al Robert’s the mystery’s central character, has sold his story to a film production company. “That one factor changes the film’s significance altogether. If the film itself is a product of Roberts’s false imprisonment, then the whole series of events portrayed in the film is called into question.” Which is why familiarity with the movie isn’t a requirement for appreciating the novel. Despite the complex interplay between film and fiction, the book stands on its own.
It is a standalone novel, not only in relation to the film, but in relation to Sherratt’s earlier Jimmy O’Brien mysteries. There’s a sophistication to this new series, a certain richness, that is both the result of its source material and the intricate craftsmanship of the author. Detour to Murder appeals to a wide variety of readers. Traditional mystery readers will find everything they’re looking for – and then some. Film connoisseurs will delight in this bold interpretation of the classic movie. Hesitant readers will be drawn in by Jimmy O’Brien’s carefully crafted voice. Whatever you’re looking for in your next read, we invite you to find it in the pages of Jeff Sherratt’s Detour to Murder.