In Saratoga Payback, Stephen Dobyns Takes Another Ride Around the Track



Late each summer a certain type of New Yorker flees north instead of east. Some, often cigar smoking gentlemen of a certain age, will continue upstate past Albany until they reach the horsey mecca of Saratoga Springs. Perhaps their sons will be invited too; in addition to the eponymous racetrack, the small town of Saratoga is said to have one of the highest capita of bars in the nation. There are A-list bands booked nearby at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and cute coeds up the road from Skidmore College, along with the horseplayers that have made the town famous. The heady recklessness of gambling and characters of all stripes looking for a buzz – there’s a lot to be said for skipping the beaches and spending some hot August days and nights at the Spa.

For 76-year-old Stephen Dobyns, author of eleven Saratoga-set mysteries, along with thirteen volumes of poetry, thirteen standalone novels, and two works of nonfiction, it’s the ideal place to set a series of crimes and misdeeds. The prolific Dobyns discovered Saratoga back in the seventies during stays at Yaddo, the famed literary retreat that has hosted luminaries like Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, and countless others. Dobyns identifies as a poet first, and first arrived in upstate New York with a MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his first volume of poetry, Concurring Beasts, already published – not your usual CV for writers in the crime genre. But the quirkiness of nearby Saratoga caught his writer’s eye and his series character P.I. Charlie Bradshaw quickly took shape.


“I was struck at the time that there were so many sides to Saratoga,” he remembers. “Not only with the track, but there was the ballet, a theater going on that was quite well known, a very active folk music scene. There were these old grand hotels. It was the diversity of things. The college, the spa, the performing arts center, a lot of bars, for such a small town there was an incredible diversity.”


A lover of the racetrack scene, but not much of a gambler, Dobyns debuted his first Charlie Bradshaw mystery back in 1976, and began each subsequent title with “Saratoga.” For twenty-two years, Dobyns kept up with Bradshaw’s adventures with a new one every few years, until his tenth outing in 1998, Saratoga Strongbox. Ten seemed like a nice round number for a series and Dobyns moved on to other works, delivering four standalone novels and four more books of poetry in the ensuing years. But all along, for nineteen years, sat another half-finished Charlie Bradshaw book beckoning.


“It was like having lost a limb,” he says. “I set it aside and I couldn’t forget about it. At some point I just had to finish it to find out what happened next.”

Thankfully for mystery fans, this old master succumbed to the temptation of a story not yet fully told.


At this point, Charlie Bradshaw, like Dobyns himself, is past the age of retirement and really ought to be enjoying his later years in peace. In the latest book Bradshaw is seventy. Dobyns notes that he had to cheat his age a bit, as his P.I. was forty when the series began, forty-one years ago. Artistic license must be granted, as an octogenarian might have some trouble wielding a shotgun. But Dobyns is wise enough not to impose any tough guy behavior on his aging private eye. Saratoga Payback succeeds because of the humility that comes with age. It’s mystery laden with knowing self-doubt and the hard truth of the darkness closing in.


It also succeeds because Dobyns can flat out write, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for an author with thirty-nine published works to his name. A downtrodden upstate woman reminds Charlie “of a large suitcase – solid, squarish and difficult to navigate.” Crime writers down the line from Raymond Chandler can be forgiven for loose plots, as long as they can swing the sharp similes when it comes to describing the dames.


It would be easier for Charlie Bradshaw – and Dobyns himself – to embrace easy living with the love of a good woman at home. But then: “The trouble with retirement was it made him claustrophobic. The walls were narrowing and he could only go forward like a cow entering the slaughterhouse.”


A grim thought indeed, and a few lines later Charlie is thinking that maybe he should take up yoga.


But then he shrugs it off and heads back on the case. Because after all, Dobyns writes that “It was the process of investigating more than the results that he enjoyed.”

Saratoga Payback
By Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press
365 pp.