Hero with head of clay

Parnell Hall’s New York private investigator Stanley Hastings is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is the funniest p.i. in mysteries.

Parnell Hall

Parnell Hall

He has enough brains to handle his job, which mostly involves recruiting accident victims for a sleazy attorney. But when it comes to a real case, the people who know him — including his boss, Richard Rosenberg, his short-suffering but loving wife, Alice, and his contact on the police force, Sgt. MacAuliff — all respond in the same way: “Somebody hired you?”

In “Scam,” the 12th account of Stanley’s adventures, he is asked by a man who chatted up a woman in a bar, only to wake up hours later on the street, to find the her. Seems like an ordinary theft, but the man feels he had been targeted, but he doesn’t know by whom or why. Hastings finds the girl, but that is the last easy thing that happens, as New York’s most hapless detective bumbles into a scheme involving a company takeover and becomes suspect number one in three murders.

Hall’s books are characterized by few, short descriptions and lots of smart talk and tight plotting. And while waiting for the refrigerator light to go on inside Hastings’ head, Hall throws in plenty of enjoyable plot twists and genial insults before we reach the satisfying close. Stanley, too, can be a kick to watch working. He’s an easy target, but also decent and honorable. Despite three murder charges hanging over him, he’s more worried about Nintendo’s moral effect on his son. What’s more, Stanley presses onward in the face of peril and humiliation, which makes him — much to the reader’s surprise by the end — an admirable hero.