"Loot the Moon" (Minotaur), 276 pages, $24.99, by Mark Arsenault: Billy Povich, former investigative reporter, has been reassigned to write obituaries _ his newspaper's way of encouraging him to quit.
But Billy is content to chronicle the lives of Rhode Island's dead.
Recently widowed and a chronic gambler, he is raising his young son in an apartment above a mortuary in a working class section of Providence. Billy's father, who's on dialysis for kidney disease, lives with them.
Billy's son, who lugs an Einstein doll with him everywhere he goes, dotes on his grandfather. But the grandfather has given up on life. He wants to stop treatment and die.
So Billy doesn't need the complication when an old friend, an idealistic lawyer named Martin Smothers, shows up and asks for a favor.
Gilbert Harmony, a respected judge who has long been Martin's idol, has been shot dead. The police have declared it a robbery gone bad. Martin doesn't buy it.
He thinks the judge was assassinated, and he wants Billy to investigate. Billy and Martin do a little dance, Billy refusing and Martin pleading, until Billy inevitably agrees to look into it.
Soon, he discovers that Martin's hero had some unsuspected character flaws and lots of enemies. A menacing mobster is among them. But the judge's wife and his drunken brother also have good reasons to want Harmony dead.
Billy spends most of the book chasing down leads, running down blind alleys, getting beaten up, and finally identifying the culprit.
Arsenault writes well, creating convincing dialogue and displaying a mastery of colorful figures of speech. Rows of slot machines look like "an invading robot army." Gamblers are "gutshot with the despair of losing." A judge rises from behind his desk "like a thin column of steam."
And throughout, the prose is raw in the hard-boiled tradition: "The hospital smelled like disintegrating people and the chemicals invented to clean up after them."
The plot is plausible and fast-paced, but Billy's emotional struggles with his family are the most satisfying part of this story, the second book in Arsenault's Billy Povich series.