It is September, 1950 and P. I. Jack LeVine has just pulled himself out of a year-long depression triggered by his father's death. He has re-invigorated his life and re-decorated his Broadway office when a high-strung second violinist from the NBC symphony walks through his newly-painted door and insists that the great Maestro Arturo Toscanini has vanished and that the orchestra is being led by an imposter.
From this point on we are drawn into a violent and high-stakes investigation that will lead LeVine from the executive towers of NBC to decadent Havana and then to a raw desert town called Las Vegas. Along the way he uncovers an elaborate scheme involving the fiddler's gorgeous daughter and winds up rubbing shoulders with the fabled likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Tender is LeVine then rockets to a hair-raising conclusion with a murderous cross-country chase as LeVine and Maestro Toscanini make a desperate run for their lives.
Don't be surprised if you find yourself thumbing through a mental Rolodex of actors as you read Tender Is LeVine, wondering who would be best suited to play Jack LeVine, Andrew Bergman's circa-1950 private eye. Chevy Chase for his good-natured goofiness? Gene Hackman for his looks and no-nonsense edge? Woody Allen for his innately sardonic Jewish New-Yorkness? Sounds like a crazy amalgam, but Bergman (a film director, screenwriter, and playwright) makes it work, and makes it work well. LeVine himself is a drolly pragmatic character; Bergman's dialogue and settings capture the essence of the era without ever stumbling into clichéd kitsch; and the novel's set pieces and pacing sparkle with admittedly cinematic verve.
And the plot itself is right out of the movies: The Case of the Missing Maestro. When Fritz Stern, second violinist with the NBC Symphony, walks into LeVine's office, declares that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini has been kidnapped and that the symphony is being led by an impostor, and asks LeVine to investigate, the PI is inclined to think his client is a few noodles short of a kugel. But LeVine is a sucker for sincerity and beautiful daughters, and Stern has both. When the violinist is found dead shortly thereafter, guilt and vengeance enter the motivational mix.
At NBC's urging (is it LeVine's imagination or do those corporate execs have something to hide?), LeVine, hot on Toscanini's trail, heads for Havana, where he finds not the maestro but the mob. Just what is Barbara, Stern's aforementioned daughter, doing with organized crime icon Meyer Lansky? In the process of finding out, LeVine is "injected with enough high- octane opiates to scramble a hippo's consciousness" and shipped off to the middle of a Nevada desert. Newly bustling Las Vegas is a place where people arrive with heads full of dreams and leave with pockets full of nothing. It's up to LeVine to figure out how corporate greed, a gifted Italian musician, and mob visions of grandeur all come together against this neon-lit backdrop, and if he can do it without taking a detour to the morgue, he'll be a happy man.
Almost 25 years have elapsed between LeVine's last appearance and this cross-country caper, but I'm betting that newly smitten fans won't want to wait that long again for an encore. "I'm sorry, Mr. Spielberg, but Mr. Bergman isn't taking any calls. He's working on his next LeVine novel." We can hope, can't we? --Kelly Flynn