by Michael Koryta
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2006
by Bill Pronzini
Published by Forge Books
288 pages, 2006
Cooking and Coasting
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
There are no "classics" of crime and detection. Not one. Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing that exhausts the possibilities of its form. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.
The perennially cranky Chandler may have occasionally rued the genre in which he travailed, but many a reader (and writer) would argue that Chandler's seven novels featuring Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe came as "close" to being "classics" as anything the genre has produced, entertaining readers ever since and inspiring writers, both young and old, who over the subsequent decades have heard the call of crime fiction and are still diligently storming the castle themselves.
Michael Koryta is a case in point. He's a young tyro, barely out of his teens, who popped up from nowhere just a few years ago to nail the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel contest, and subsequently nabbed both Shamus and Edgar award nominations for his reverent but rollicking tribute to the hard-boiled genre, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004).
In the book, he introduced 30-ish former police officer turned Cleveland private eye (and gym owner) Lincoln Perry and his partner, Joe Pritchard, a retired cop more than three decades Lincoln's senior. It was a solid and highly readable debut, though perhaps a little too respectful of genre conventions for my tastes -- homage, after all, can come perilously close to fromage -- and the main characters seemed curiously flat at times, merely existing in order to be put through their paces. However, there was no denying that underneath the plug-and-play plot conventions was a definite heart beating and what looked like a promising new voice developing, even if the strain of Koryta's reach sometimes exceeded his grasp.
But that was then and this is now, and with his exhilarating new novel, Sorrow's Anthem, it looks like Koryta's grasp is coming along just fine, thank you. A novice writer's hesitancy and reliance on the safety of formula have been replaced here by boldness and assertiveness, as Koryta confidently stakes out his own turf. Even better, his willingness to dig beneath the surface and really put some emotional flesh on his characters' bones this time out, not to mention his apparent compassion for those characters, has paid off in spades, in this heartfelt tale that is ultimately about friendship, particularly childhood friendship -- how it shapes us, for better or for worse, and how incredibly, heartbreakingly fragile it can be.
Which isn't to say that Sorrow's Anthem delivers a parade of soft-focus, Vaseline-on-the-lens, Hallmark-ready "special moments," though. Nope, what Koryta has done is far more impressive. He's sidestepped the potential touchy-feely quagmire, creating an almost entirely plot-driven novel, which chugs along at a smooth but steadily accelerating pace that grabs you and draws you in, until -- almost at the very end -- you discover that the book was all about people after all.
Koryta's tale starts off with the still rather boyish Perry shooting a few baskets with his reporter pal, Amy Ambrose, at an elementary-school playground a few blocks away from his apartment in West Cleveland. The sun's setting even as the August humidity lingers and sirens cry in the distance, all adding up to a nice sense of neighborhood. Almost instantly, you get a feel for the characters and the setting -- the sort of tight focus I felt was a little lacking the last time around.
But this urban pastoral is interrupted by the ringing of Amy's cell phone. It's her editor dispatching Amy to cover the nearby arrest of an arson suspect; a man who, it turns out, is Lincoln's long-estranged childhood buddy, Ed Gradduk. From there it's but a hop, step and a jump into a series of carefully interwoven flashbacks, as Lincoln heads back to the old neighborhood to try and do right by his former best friend, whom he (along with most of the folks left in that neighborhood) feels he betrayed years ago, when Lincoln was still a bright-eyed rookie cop out to save the world. But the hoped-for scene of forgiveness and male bonding doesn't come. Instead, Lincoln arrives just in time to witness the untimely death of his panicked ex-chum, as Gradduk attempts to elude the police.
With forgiveness now an impossibility, Lincoln settles for redemption, hoping to assuage his deep-rooted feelings of guilt by trying to clear Ed's name. It's a complicated walk along a narrative tightrope that could have sunk into nostalgia-tinged schmaltz and cheap sentimentality, or maybe shabby a-man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do machismo; but Koryta achieves just the right balance, letting his plot (and the hot-headed Lincoln's slow and dangerous slide into obsession) unfold slowly, but with a sense of tragic inevitability, allowing readers to determine for themselves what's driving the characters, instead of hitting them over the head with it.
And such subtlety is appreciated. In this author's previous outing, incongruous back story seemed at times to have been slapped on in a haphazard fashion merely to give Koryta's characters a certain amount of angsty edge, which wasn't always necessary or appropriate. Not so in Sorrow's Anthem: This time, the emotional baggage feels right and natural, more integrated -- woven carefully into the plot, instead of jack-hammered.
Granted, Lincoln remains impulsive, sometimes recklessly so, but he's matured enough to realize it. It's also probably just as well that he's got the older (and wiser) Pritchard by his side to watch over him. In a refreshing change for a fictional P.I. sidekick these days, Pritchard is no bulletproof psychotic superman able to leap tall buildings (or the sometimes foggy moral quandaries of the hero) in a single bound. He's simply a seasoned cop, whose seen-it-all stoicism and quiet professionalism provide a welcome respite of calm, both for the reader and for Lincoln, as events spiral more and more out of control, gradually exposing a vile concoction of corruption, arson, murder and deep, dark secrets that threaten to poison the entirety of Ohio's most populous city -- as well as Lincoln's memories of his own past.
I knew, from reading Tonight I Said Goodbye, that Koryta was capable of crafting powerful scenes that reverberate long after the final page has been read (I still remember the melting snowman); but nothing prepared me for the cool assurance he brings to bear in this new story. Not only is the plot of Sorrow's Anthem snappier and more engrossing, and the characters and their motives more fully developed, but the dialogue's tighter and the details sharper. Even better: This time out, the author has something to say.
For this yarn is ultimately not just about friendship, or even about making good on promises, but about doing the right thing; about not merely having the courage to do the right thing, but possessing the strength to live with the aftermath of that act.
If the author has grown this much from his first to second books, I'm almost afraid to see how good his third one will be.
Unlike Koryta, Bill Pronzini is no spring chicken -- if anything, he's one of the acknowledged masters of the private-eye genre, thanks to his long-running and often groundbreaking "Nameless Detective" series, which started way back in 1971 (with The Snatch), making Pronzini a regular stormer of the citadel long before Koryta dirtied his first diaper. Over the decades, Pronzini has contributed more than a few "classics" to the genre (1988's Shackles, a white-knuckled tale of suspense that echoes both Chandler and Stephen King's Misery, remains one of my particular favorites in the Nameless series). And if that's not enough, he's also one of the most respected critics and anthologists of mystery fiction, particularly in the crime pulps field. What's more, in the last 15 or so years Pronzini has become one of our greatest noir writers, delivering an impressive stream of standalone noir masterworks such as Blue Lonesome, (1996), A Wasteland of Strangers (1997) and The Alias Man (2004).
As for the Nameless series, it's one of the longest currently running succession of American private detective novels, with today's exhibit, Mourners, being something of a landmark. It's the 30th Nameless book, a record of turnout topped only by Robert B. Parker, who has composed 34 books (including Hundred-Dollar Baby, due out in October) starring his single-monikered, gourmet-cooking Boston P.I., Spenser. (But then, Pronzini -- unlike Parker -- is also a prolific short-story writer, filling three collections, so far, with Nameless yarns.)
So another novel being added to the usually dependable Nameless series would appear to be good news. But sadly, while Koryta's book seems tight and driven, Mourners, which also deals with themes of sorrow, guilt and regret, comes off as oddly blurry and finds the author in something close to a holding pattern. Not that Mourners is a bad book; it's just a peculiarly subdued one.
In a masterstroke (or maybe just a happy accident), Bill Pronzini never got around to giving his San Francisco gumshoe a name. However, he then made his sleuth such a well-rounded, finely drawn character that a name was superfluous. Nameless is the detective as Everyman, stripped of all pretense at glamour or romance. Middle-aged, out of shape, content with a cold beer and one of his beloved pulp magazines to read, Nameless was perhaps the first true couch potato P.I., a truly regular joe, the kind of guy who'd stop and lend you a hand if your car broke down, or give up his seat on the bus for a pregnant lady. The kind of guy you might play poker with or see at the hardware store buying a screwdriver -- if you noticed him at all.
Yet, over the last 35 years, the Nameless series has quietly but continually pushed the borders of private-eye fiction. Pronzini pointedly tampered with formulas and expectations, making his series not so much a string of adventures as a collection of chapters that form one giant novel chronicling the life of a man and his times -- a man who's keenly aware of the world around him, but also of the clock ticking. Because, of course, Nameless is no spring chicken, either.
OK, so maybe he (and his creator) have earned the right to coast a little. After all, this taciturn, gloomy, lone-wolf P.I. has been through the wringer over the years, tackling everything from romantic breakups to cancer scares, and being kidnapped by a psycho along the way. Currently Nameless has a wife, Kerry Wade, as well as an adopted teenage daughter, Emily, and -- gasp!!!! -- a couple of employees, each with personal problems and issues of their own. As the Grateful Dead, another venerable San Francisco institution, once put it, it's been a long strange trip.
The problem with Mourners is that, while Nameless remains an instantly recognizable voice in detective fiction -- even though (thanks to the novel, Twospot (1978), which he co-authored with Collin Wilcox) we now know that his first name is Bill -- that great melancholy voice is noticeably absent from much of Pronzini's newest novel. Instead, we are subjected in Mourners to a round-robin of loosely connected tales presented in alternating chapters which, unfortunately, don't add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
Sure, Nameless himself (sorry, I still can't get my head around calling him "Bill") narrates his chapters in the traditional first-person. However, the chapters following Tamara Corbin, his personal assistant, researcher and office manager (don't you dare call her a secretary!), and Jake Runyon, Nameless' new investigator, are presented in a rather bland, "just the facts, ma'am," third-person viewpoint. But it isn't solely the narration that's at fault here -- it's the interconnecting stories themselves. Tamara's chapters, for instance, revolve mostly around her break-up with her long-distance classical-musician boyfriend, Horace. While Tamara, a mercurial and ambitious young black woman, has often played the perfect foil to the sometimes-stodgy Nameless, the gormless Horace has always been a bit of a drip. So, while his apparent departure from this series is no great loss, it's irritating to find so much of this particular book devoted to Tamara picking at her emotional scabs.
Nameless, at least occasionally, is involved in actual detective work in his chapters. He's been hired by Lynn Troxell, who wants to know where her moody, distant husband, James, a financial planner, has been disappearing to lately. The answer -- if not the reason -- is soon uncovered by Nameless and his operative, Jake: Troxell has been attending funerals and sending flowers to the graves. The common links seem to be that Troxell doesn't know any of the deceased and, more disturbingly, all of the dearly departed are women who have died violently.
So far so good, but Nameless too often seems to be merely going through the motions on this one, offering little more than his usual "no-nonsense straightforward professionalism," distracted by personal problems at home which, along with Tamara's romantic tribulations, threaten to swamp Mourners in soap-operaish sub-plots. The domestic crisis Nameless must deal with is the emotional chasm growing between him and his suddenly secretive wife. That the big secret turns out to be a plot twist Pronzini has employed previously (and with better effect) in this series, and that it's handled here relatively superficially, simply underscores the sense of inertia this book presents. Like, haven't we been here before?
Therefore, it remains for new kid on the block, middle-aged widower Jake, the ex-Seattle cop, to do most of the substantive detective work in these pages. Jake is compelling in a way the increasingly complacent Nameless hasn't been over the last few of Pronzini's books. A lonely but proud man, whose recent loss of the love of his life and his seemingly permanent estrangement from his grown son have left him a hollow shell, Jake's only retreat is to throw himself into his job. And throw himself into it he does, with a dogged determinism and unflinching professionalism that's more than a little familiar to longtime readers of this series. But Jake, it's soon revealed, isn't quite the empty vessel he thought he was. He finds himself emotionally involved, unexpectedly, in a tangent of the Troxell case, mostly due to the resemblance between his late wife, Colleen, and the sister of one of the dead women whom James Troxell had gone out of his way to mourn. Like Lincoln Perry in Sorrow's Anthem, Jake is drawn almost against his will -- and certainly against his better judgment -- into becoming personally involved in the Troxell case.
Sappy? Possibly. But, unlike Tamara's heartbreak and Nameless' marital woes, Jake's difficulties carry some real emotional weight and the sort of immediacy that is bound to attract the reader. I genuinely wanted to find out what would become of Jake; whereas the problems faced by Tamara and Nameless and Kerry didn't amount to a hill of beans for me. And remember, this isn't "A Jake Runyon Book." Part of the strength of the Nameless series has always been Pronzini's courage to let his protagonist evolve and grow from novel to novel. His watering down here of Nameless' inner conflicts, while he diverts so much of his narrative energy to Tamara and Jake, combined with his reliance on a plot device he's already been used, only highlights the sense of wheel-spinning so evident in Mourners.
Fortunately for all concerned, both Nameless and Pronzini are pros, and they rally in the home stretch, bringing the case, if not the melodramatic side-plots, to a fitting and satisfying conclusion, clearing the decks for what will, I hope, be a return to form next time.
Longtime fans (like me) will certainly cut Pronzini some slack and, charitably, view Mourners as a flawed but perhaps pivotal chapter in the larger book that is the Nameless series (while wondering if a standalone starring Jake might lay somewhere in the future). And fans of the genre should certainly raise a glass to Sorrow's Anthem and to the continuing development of Mike Koryta as a bright young voice in this genre.
But are either Sorrow's Anthem or Mourners classics?
Only time will tell, I guess. Certainly neither book feels that way right now. But in a genre where acknowledged stone-cold classics, be they Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon or Ross Macdonald's The Blue Hammer or James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, seem more likely to inspire than discourage further attacks on the citadel, I have a feeling that Chandler's original premise -- that there are no "classics" of crime and detection -- is a little off the mark. And perhaps even tainted by false modesty.
He sure was right, though, about everything else. Even 50 years or more since his proclamation, the possibilities of crime and detective fiction don't seem particularly exhausted. Sure, modern writers such as Pronzini and Koryta may wear their fondness and respect for the traditions of the genre proudly on their sleeves, but they also both seem more than willing to roll up those sleeves and mess with the formula, allowing their characters emotional depth and narrative range far beyond what Chandler might have imagined.
Nameless' unhurried evolution from a middle-aged loner to an increasingly elderly family man, who's moving slowly but inevitably towards his own Big Sleep, remains one of the most compelling sagas of this genre. And brash, impulsive Lincoln's gradual emotional and professional growth -- which, ironically, recalls the work of Pronzini at least as much as that of Chandler -- seem like the first tentative steps along a longer and ultimately fascinating journey.
Which means that the guards in charge of the citadel better keep their eyes open.
And Mr. Chandler? Sir? You ain't seen nothin' yet. | June 2006
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor, a Mystery Scene columnist, the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, and master of mirth and mayhem at The Thrilling Detective Blog.