The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris Review

The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris, an irreverent, laugh out loud funny soft-boiled detective tale with a solid, entertaining plot. Read my full review.

The Pine Barrens Stratagem Synopsis

From the Case Files of Steve Rockfish

Private Investigator Steve Rockfish needs cash, like yesterday. The bad news is that yesterday, a global pandemic raged, and Maryland was headed toward a lockdown that would ultimately lead to cheating spouses no longer “working late,” and hence a lack of new clients.

Rockfish’s luck changes when a Hollywood producer reaches out, but the job is two states away and involves digging up information on a child trafficking ring from the 1940s. What he uncovers will be used to support the launch of a true crime docuseries. He grabs a mask, hand sanitizer and heads for South Jersey.

On-site, Rockfish meets Jawnie McGee, the great granddaughter of a local policeman gone missing while investigating the original crimes. As the duo uncover more clues, they learn the same criminal alliance has reformed to use the pandemic as a conduit to defraud the Federal Government of that sweet, sweet, stimulus money.

It’s not long before the investigation turns up some key intel on a myriad of illicit activity over the last eighty years and Rockfish rockets toward a showdown with the mafia, local archdiocese and dirty cops. COVID-19 isn’t the only threat to his health.

Black Rose Writing (2022)

Categories Mystery & Detective

Ken Harris | Pub Date Jan 27, 2022 | ISBN 9781684338719 | 249 pages

Book Review

The Pine Barrens Stratagem is a risible “soft-boiled” detective novel that takes place in a time in which the Trump presidency is waning, coronavirus hysteria is rampant, government shutdowns are in vogue, the economy is grinding to a halt, and Paycheck Protection Program (coronavirus relief) loan fraud is as profitable as the porn industry. Our bumbling hero, Steve Rockfish, modeled roughly on Jim Rockford (James Garner’s character in The Rockford Files, 1974-1980), is a down and out private investigator facing repossession of his beloved Dodge Challenger (named Lana) because of a dearth of cases to pursue and is desperate for a payday. He’s on a losing streak after a promising assignment with a generous finder’s fee in the mix falls through when Angel Davenport, a Los Angeles producer, hires him to help do research on a project Davenport hopes to turn into a hit docuseries. Rockfish’s ship has come in. The client wants Rockfish to dig into local records and interview people to get all the information he can about an illegal adoption scam that took place in the 1940s in a small Southern New Jersey area called Elk Township. With an advance in his pocket, Rockfish braves the threat of the Rona and heads for South Jersey. His investigation eventually points him to a young woman named Jawnie McGee. McGee, who owns a fledgling computer repair business. She is doing a little investigation of her own into what exactly happened to her great grandfather, an Elk Township cop and presumed murder victim from back in the 1940s. A known connection exists between McGee’s great grandfather and the adoption scam Rockfish is researching, so the pair team up on the combined investigations. But after making progress, Steve and Jawnie realize they may be in over their heads. A criminal syndicate composed of a triune of bent cops, a mafia crime family, and church officials don’t want the bodies their predecessors buried dug up or two sleuths sticking their noses into a lucrative coronavirus relief fraud scheme the consortium is reaping big profits from. And Rockfish and McGee soon have targets on their backs. 

The Pine Barrens Stratagem combines two of my passions, entertaining crime fiction and comedy. Harris displays razor-sharp wit as he pokes good natured fun at every private detective trope in existence. But not only is his book belly-laughing funny, Harris also serves up an interesting and entertaining crime fiction plot, and a host of fun characters to go with the comedy. It’s a pacy read that keeps the pages turning and the tension mounts once our intrepid sleuths tangle with the local criminals and corrupt officials. Harris’ gift for slapstick, combined with the fantastic chemistry between Rockfish and McGee, makes The Pine Barrens Stratagem well worth a read. I loved it. It’s perfect for those who enjoyed the organic humor of private eye television series like Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I. and The Rockford Files. I’ll gladly read the future adventures of Steve Rockfish. Maybe he will finally catch a break.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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