The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 3, 2010

Lisa Brown, Book Review: Mystery writer to visit library

By Lisa Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Joplin Public Library will wrap up its Bramlage Author Series on Saturday with an appearance by novelist Will Thomas, creator of the “Barker and Llewelyn” mystery series.

I am thrilled at the prospect of Thomas’s visit. I’ve been a devoted fan since picking up his first novel, “Some Danger Involved,” in 2004. So when our former library director was lining up authors for the Bramlage series, I immediately suggested -- OK, begged -- that she contact Thomas, who lives in Oklahoma. She invited him, he accepted, and I nearly danced with glee in my office.

In preparation for his visit, I’ve been rereading his novels: “Some Danger Involved,” “To Kingdom Come,” “The Limehouse Text,” “The Hellfire Conspiracy” and “The Black Hand.” I love them all, but my favorite has to be the first in the series, “Some Danger Involved,” where the adventure begins with this brief advertisement:

“Assistant to prominent enquiry agent. Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in performance of duties.”

Thomas Llewelyn is in dire straits when he comes across the listing. A Welshman of humble origins, he earned a quality education thanks to a generous patron, but a series of unfortunate events -- serving prison time after being framed for theft, then losing his wife to consumption while incarcerated -- has left him unemployed, poverty-stricken and despondent, hours away from taking his own life.

After an unusual job interview that involves everything from a typing test to dodging small rubber balls, Llewelyn finds himself hired as an assistant to Cyrus Barker, an “enquiry agent,” or private detective, in Victorian London.

Barker is a complex, enigmatic man with a decidedly murky past. In his time, he would have been considered most unusual. Green tea is his beverage of choice, and he keeps a moody Pekingese as a pet. He has a working knowledge of several languages. A skilled fighter, he practices martial arts.

Barker’s respect for other cultures serves him well in the cases that he works. In “Some Danger Involved,” for example, he is hired by the revered Sir Moses Montefiore to determine who is behind the recent crucifixion murder of a Jewish scholar.

Although not as worldly as Barker, Llewelyn proves an able assistant. His intelligence, sense of humor, and willingness to try new things are assets as he and his employee attempt to find the murderer and protect the Jewish community from further harm. This son of a Welsh coal miner finds himself carrying exotic concealed weapons, fighting off attackers, serving as a “Shabbes goy” to an Orthodox Jewish family and eating in a Chinese restaurant that can only be accessed via a tunnel that runs under the Thames.

Llewelyn also encounters an intriguing array of people: a bare-knuckles boxer turned preacher, members of the early Italian mafia, a mad professor who promotes eugenics, an unconventional rabbi who offers him a warning he would do well to heed. My favorite, though, is Barker’s butler, Jacob Maccabee, or “Mac,” for short. Mac is a blunt, yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher and is very handy with a shotgun, all while wearing a Saville Row suit.

Thomas’s background -- he spent five years working in the reference department and handling adult programming in the Tulsa City-County Library System -- is evident in his detail-rich writing. London comes alive, with its historical figures, intricate geography and seedy underbelly of prostitution, crime and poverty. His plots are strong, full of action and unexpected turns, but his diverse characters and sense of humor are what grab my attention and hold on tight.

See for yourself. Pick up a copy of “Some Danger Involved” -- or any of the Barker and Llewelyn books -- then visit the Joplin Public Library on Oct. 9. Will Thomas will speak at 10 a.m. in the large meeting room, followed by a book signing. Bring your own copies (I’m hoping he’ll sign all of mine!), or purchase one from Changing Hands Book Shoppe the morning of the presentation.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant of the Joplin Public Library.