Kris Nelscott is the pen name used by bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch. The books she writes is the Smokey Dalton series set in Memphis, Tennessee. Smokey is an unlicensed private investigator and the series is particularly strong for its ability to mix historical fact into the fiction.
The first book in the series, A Dangerous Road, has picked up the critical award of the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery as well as being nominated for Edgar and Shamus Awards.
The first book in the series is A Dangerous Road (2000) and when it was released it immediately spoke loudly as something special for fans of hardboiled detective novels to enjoy. The story is set in Memphis in the 1960s and Smokey is an African-American detective who is barely scraping by as an unlicensed investigator.
Just when he is hired by a white woman the city of Memphis is starting to explode with racial tension on the eve of the arrival of Dr Martin Luther King. This becomes far more than a simple PI mystery with racial turmoil, a turbulent affair and a smartly defined mystery.
After the events of the first book, Smokey has fled to Chicago in Smoke-Filled Rooms (2001) where he is now living under an assumed name. But just as he has escaped from the aftermath of the assassination of Dr King, he is embroiled in the protests in the lead up to the 1968 Democratic Convention.
It appears that he has been tailed to Chicago and he is obliged to find out who it is following him and endangering the life of ten-year-old Jimmy who he spirited out of Memphis. This is another remarkable book that fully engages the reader and transports them back to the turbulent ‘60s.
In the third book of the series, Thin Walls (2002), Smokey Dalton and Jimmy have become more settled in Chicago’s South Side. Dalton has returned to the job he knows best as an unofficial private investigator and the locals know to come to him for help.
He is hired to investigate the murder of a black man, a crime that has been ignored by the Chicago police. The deeper he gets into the case, the more disturbing are his discoveries. He also has to worry about the possibilities that Jimmy may be in the process of being recruited by the local street gangs.
Dalton is asked to find the person responsible for an illegal abortion in which a woman nearly dies in Stone Cribs (2004). He is still living under an assumed name in Chicago, still hiding his identity after the events of A Dangerous Road. The problem starts at the hospital where the woman is refused treatment unless she explains to the doctor what happened to her. It is a situation that is sadly all too familiar and speaks volumes about the social attitudes at the time of the late 1960s.
But the focus of the story turns quickly to the problems of gang violence in South Side Chicago and the recruitment of young kids into selling drugs and getting involved in gang violence. The solution to the problem is not an ideal one with a type of “deal with the devil” scenario leaving the gangs in control but the kids relatively safe.
It’s turbulent in 1969 and the anti-war movement is under the spotlight when War At Home (2005) unfolds. Young Daniel Kirkland fails to arrive at Yale and his mother, a friend of Smokey Dalton’s, asks him to look for the missing boy.
The trail takes Dalton and Jimmy to New Haven, Connecticut and then to New York City. What is uncovered is a growing unrest with disintegrating racial relations, protest groups that are starting to look more like revolutionaries every day and a situation where war at home is becoming more and more likely.
For the fifth time in this series, the ability of Nelscott to combine the factual turbulent events of the 1960s with her own fictional story is outstanding.
Days of Rage (2006) is set at the time of the trial of eight protestors from the Democratic Convention of 1968 and the entire city of Chicago is under immense pressure. There are police and FBI everywhere and, given his past, Smokey is feeling a little nervous.
The case that Smokey works is initiated by his girlfriend Laura Hathaway when she asks him to investigate a house that was bought by her father’s company. When the only resident and manager of the property dies, Smokey is compelled to take an even closer look. That’s when he discovers the first set of bones and the grisly past of the building becomes more apparent.
The book was a finalist for the 2007 Shamus Award for Best Novel, it won the Spotted Owl Award for Best Mystery by a Northwest Writer and was chosen as one of the best mystery novels of the year by Deadly Pleasures Magazine.
It took 8 years but the seventh Smokey Dalton entry, Street Justice (2014), was published and is set in the decade of the 70s. The story starts with word that Dalton’s adopted son Jimmy and his best friend are in trouble and need his help.
What Smokey finds himself thrust into is a prostitution business that has been set up by The Outfit. Although he tries to get help from the police he soon discovers that they have been bought off and won’t be any help at all.
Dealing with these kinds of people is fraught with all kinds of dangers, not the least of which is the possibility of losing Jimmy.
The book was a finalist for the 2015 Shamus Award for Best Paperback.