In a way, Tim Johnson’s novel “Savannah” is a therapeutic detective and crime novel. Whatever the reader’s problems, they likely do not amount to those of the protagonist in this book. In fact, main character Michael Taylor is dead of a stabbing in prison by page 40, the plot pushed along by a journal he left, of how he got into the mess he’s in, and it’s complicated.
Of course it’s complicated, it’s a detective novel, with a private detective, a man’s descent prompted not by gambling but by cheating at gambling, bad guys galore in the form of outlaw bikers and Russian mobsters (and a tax investigator) and several damsels in serious distress.
It is a well-told story, done in spare sentences in that Raymond Chandler style so many detective novels emulate. It has plenty of drama and interchange in conversation, but none of that Raymond Chandler wisecracking and internal commentary so many detective novels emulate. In fact, the detective is not the star here; a potential victim, and the words in that journal of the dead man, are.
We watch the rise and fall of a card-playing cheater whose problems multiply as he attempts to get out of the jam he’s in. Taylor invents a card-dealing scam he calls Savannah, gets greedy and rich, gets busted by mobsters, then gets deeper into it as he seeks help from a motorcycle gang. The mobsters intend to kill his sister and girlfriend if his enormous payments aren’t received.
It’s all in his journal, which appears as selected chapters, meant to be expository but frankly could have been cut by 50 or so pages. It pushes the plot along but lacks other detail. Detective novels typically offer an opportunity to learn a few things about endeavors other than one’s own (the way you can learn how to hot-wire a car by reading John MacDonald, or a lasagna recipe via Robert R. Parker), and except for the rules to a poker variant called Texas Hold-em, there’s little picaresque information here.