In the world of hard-boiled detective fiction, the story is generally not so much about solving a mystery as it is setting things up for the hero to take on the bad guys and win, usually with bullets flying and plenty of bloodletting. Unfortunately, too many writers have turned this into a template for a lot of bad stories filled with clichés, caricatures, and stereotypes, not to mention a lack of any shred of originality.
The Gateway to Hell is certainly a part of this genre. Thankfully, it manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of this type of fiction, and turns out to be an entertaining read. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its share of clichés, caricatures, and stereotypes. In fact, the private investigator at the heart of the story is introduced to us being very much an over-the-top, cliché of a detective.
Mike Shannon is a St. Louis’ private investigator who has made a career out of solving the cases the police couldn’t or wouldn’t take. He’s killed more men then he cares to remember. He’s fiftyish and his work is starting to wear him down.
Shannon is also a former Marine sniper, former St. Louis police detective whose exploits often landed him in the newspaper, and the leader of a covert CIA op team known as Sabre 6, who we learn has just rescued an ambassador’s daughter in South America from the Escobar crime cartel.
Shannon is one very tough, hard-to-kill, private dick, uncorruptable and a boy scout at heart.
And if, by the bottom of page two of the book you aren’t convinced of this, well, you just haven’t been paying attention. Admittedly, the opening chapters don’t really get the ball rolling. But the fact is, author Ray Mileur is just using those early chapters to set us up for a great ride, as Shannon ends up having an assortment of bad guys-- the mafia, the Escobar cartel, corrupt cops—all out to kill him.
His rescue of the ambassador’s daughter has led to a $1,000,000 bounty on his head, and resulted in the New York mob, at the prompting of the Escobar family, sending hit men to St. Louis to do him in. On top of that, the “Sandman,” a former marine sniper—trained by Shannon and now a freelance hit man— is also in St. Louis to perform a hit. And while Shannon isn’t his target, the Sandman clearly wouldn’t mind having a shot of Shannon.
And when Shannon pays a visit to the local mob boss, Salvatore Salerno—a Don Corleone-type who wants nothing to do with drugs, the FBI turns up. Their agents initially arrest Shannon in a ruse to get information out of him to help in their investigations into a cocaine trail that leads to St. Louis.
In the middle of all this, Shannon is hired by a minister and his wife to find their missing 17 year old, runaway daughter, who may be linked to one of Shannon’s police buddies, Steve Holland. When Holland turns up dead, and appears to have been a dirty cop involved in the drug trade, the action amps up, as things get increasingly personal for Shannon.
What ends up setting Shannon apart from so many other similar characters, is that it turns out he’s not superman-- he manages to nearly get killed while trying to catch the runaway. Shannon gets hurt, physically and emotionally, and he makes mistakes, e.g., had he returned a phone call he might have been able to save Holland. He’s also got an ex-wife who manages to complicate things even more for him.