by Leonard Chang
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne
336 pages, 2003
by Bill Eidson
Published by Justin, Charles & Company
301 pages, 2003
by Robert E. Bailey
Published by M. Evans & Company
288 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
With summer hard upon us, now's the ideal time to crack open a cold one and hit the hammock, with one's preferred reading material in hand. In my case, that means private eye fiction, and lots of it, thankyouverymuch. I've found three good, recent examples of what can be done within this genre, by three writers who were new to me. Each of these guys is working hard to establish a series, and they all have a bit of fun with the genre, proving once again how many variations on a basic formula are possible, while still managing to deliver up the goods. None of these books exactly reinvents the wheel, but take it from me, there are many hours of quality hammock reading to be found here.
Leonard Chang's philosophical Underkill was a pleasant surprise. Not so much because I didn't expect a great deal from Chang -- on the contrary, the widespread acclaim for his 2001 release, Over the Shoulder, his first novel featuring Allen Choice (née Choi), a Korean-American executive security specialist (don't call him a bodyguard, please) and would-be private eye, already had me really looking forward to this one. What I didn't anticipate, though, was just how refreshing Chang's take on the genre would be. It seems that Allen and his creator have read all of the same P.I. books I have, and they're very conscious of the myths surrounding these sorts of detectives. But any awkward literary self-consciousness is more than made up for by Underkill's sheer subversiveness.
There are few knee-jerk macho heroics here -- everything the brooding protagonist does tends to be thought out before, during and after the deed. For Allen, an abandoned child reared by a loveless aunt, life is a constant, never-healing scar that he just can't help picking at. Even when he's happy, he tends to mope about it, wondering if he's worthy. At times Allen is so emotionally detached from his life that he refers to himself in the third-person -- a blank slate drifting through his own existence, looking not so much for answers, but for the right questions to ask. He prizes his autonomy and anonymity, which allow him to do his job so effectively; yet at the same time, he can't help feeling he's missing out on something. Meanwhile, the once-robust economy of Northern California's Silicon Valley -- on which he has depended for his living -- is crumbling, causing Allen to contemplate a career switch from security to investigation. What's more, his two-year relationship with attractive but troubled journalist Linda Maldonado is grinding to a halt, and Allen doesn't know how to deal with it. And then real tragedy strikes: Linda's estranged brother is killed in Los Angeles, and she sucks Allen into helping her investigate her sibling's messy life and suspicious death.
Allen, the poor sap, instantly agrees, thinking this is a great way to patch over the difficulties in their relationship. But the truth soon turns out to be more than either Linda or Allen expected, and they become caught up in a deadly battle with a violent drug dealer who works the L.A. rave scene ... and who has no second thoughts about murder.
Especially worth observing in these pages is Ms. Maldonado, a whole new type of femme fatale -- not the cold, heartless siren of film noir who entices men to their doom, but an ordinary woman who's too wrapped up in her own problems to see the damage she's doing to those she cares about. In fact, Linda's just one of several characters we're forced to really look at and try to understand, because in this book, as one character quips, "Everyone's so screwed up."
And that definitely includes the protagonist. Still, although Allen may seem like a wimp, don't underestimate him. He's an engaging character who grows on you, who's smarter and tougher than he gives himself credit for, and when push comes to shove, he does the right thing -- eventually. A quiet and thoughtful exploration of honor, bravery and alienation, Underkill ends on a promising note, with a budding relationship between Allen Choice and a young computer geek that bodes well not only for Chang's protagonist, but for this series' future.
By contrast, the heroes in Bill Eidson's The Repo seem to live on emotion, and any brooding they do is on more immediate concerns, such as paying the bills and staying alive. Not that Jack Merchant and Sarah Ballard are shallow, but they're definitely more suited for action, and they offer a more hands-on, less cerebral approach to crime solving.
These two aren't looking for trouble. Not exactly. For his part, Merchant would prefer to be left alone. As a former sailor and U.S. drug-enforcement agent, who left his government job under a rather dark cloud, trouble's the last thing he wants. If he had his druthers, the entire world would just get off his case, and let him enjoy his premature retirement aboard his 40-foot sloop, the Lila, playing around with his new digital camera. Of course, things don't quite work out that way. The Charleston, Massachusetts, docks where the Lila is defiantly berthed are teeming with the very dealers and punks Merchant used to put away. And then an old acquaintance, Ballard, who repossesses boats on behalf of banks and finance companies, shows up with the papers on his boat.
But Sarah's real intent here is to cut a deal: If Jack will just take that giant chip off his shoulder and help her track down a man-and-wife team of yuppies who've skipped out on their boat payments, and taken their very expensive yacht with them, he can keep the Lila. Of course, this skip trace isn't quite so simple as it seemed initially. There are some very deadly people (with some very powerful friends) who are also looking for the missing couple.
Even better than Eidson's plot twists is the constantly shifting relationship between Jack and Sarah. She has her own dark secrets, and it's made abundantly clear right off the bat that she's not a "hugs-and-kisses" kind of girl. What she is is one tough damn cookie, fiercely independent and more than a little leery of getting into any sort of emotional entanglement with Jack, whose stubbornness verges at times on stupidity. Which makes the slowly evolving relationship between these two prickly cases of damaged goods all the more intriguing to watch. Real characters gradually developing a real relationship -- what a concept!
But this is no "hugs and kisses" kind of book, either. Sure, there's enough violence in this promising debut to keep you turning the pages, but at the same time, The Repo offers the sort of rough-hewn, bittersweet resonance that recalls John D. MacDonald's beloved Travis McGee series at his best. It's about time we had a new beach bum detective with whom to while away the summer. Pass the Coppertone.
If Underkill is thought provoked into action, and The Repo is thought transformed into action, then Dying Embers, by Robert E. Bailey, is just plain ol' private eye action that doesn't require much thought at all. In fact, I'd suggest you give your brain a break and don't even try to make sense of this novel's rat's nest of a plot. Simply enjoy the white-knuckle ride. Bailey's hero, Art Hardin, may be a middle-aged family man with a wife and three kids, but he goes through enough thrills, chills and spills here (not to mention bombs and bullets) to fill a Hong Kong film festival. The author seems to be a firm believer in Raymond Chandler's old adage on plotting a detective story: "When in doubt, have a man come in the room with a gun."
Fortunately, Hardin is more than up to such a challenge. In true pulp fashion, this former government spook, now running a rough-and-tumble detective agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan, takes on a simple missing-persons case, and soon finds himself facing off against rogue agents who refuse to die, street gangs, biker gangs, the FBI and other assorted federal agencies, the local Michigan police force, a crazy lesbian with a dark secret, a nasty smear campaign that includes trumped-up charges of murder and distributing kiddie porn, a flaming tar truck and, perhaps most terrifying of all, an overzealous bureaucrat determined to revoke Hardin's private investigator's license.
Helping the apparently indestructible Art make his way through this kaleidoscopic kitchen sink of a plot is a rich supporting cast that includes some extremely well-drawn colleagues and cop pals. By far the best characters of all are Wendy, Hardin's long-suffering wife, who also runs a detective agency, and Ben, his car-loving teenage son, who gets more than a little kick out of his dad's adventures. In fact, the down-to-earth humanity that Hardin's family brings to this book is far more interesting than the increasingly far-fetched story line, which eventually caroms all over the place and threatens to fly off into the ozone.
Hey, I'm not complaining -- Bailey has created some great players in Dying Embers. But he should learn to trust them, and use them more. Shoot-'em-ups are a dime a dozen, but characters we can care about? Priceless. The increasingly frantic action sequences crammed into this book, and Art's apparent attempt to become known as the Energizer Bunny of Detective Fiction, begin to reek of desperation and overkill, while the scenes in which his family appears seem fresh and new and believable. They make Art himself come alive.
And ultimately, that's what brings readers back to a series. Sure, we all want to see Saint George (or Art or Allen or Jack or Sarah) slay the dragon. But it really helps if we like George. | August 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently in the Los Angeles area, trying to make sense of it all.