Dark as Night
by Mark T. Conard
Published by Uglytown
288 pages, 2004
Good Thing We Didn't Step in It
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Mark T. Conard's impressive first novel, Dark as Night, boasts -- if "boasts" is the right word -- one of the most degrading and stomach-churning scenes I've ever read, built around a gross, cruel joke played by a police officer on a would-be snitch. That scene is all the more disturbing because it's found in the midst of a book full of lovingly described, mouth-watering meals.
Not that this is some laid-back domestic account, mind you; there are no cozy scenes of lingering family bliss in a bland American suburb or quaint little English village, and even though Conard's tale is partially set in the world of gourmet restaurants, you won't find any real recipes here, either. No, Dark as Night is at its core a noirish, violent, street-level drama that wears its heart of darkness on its sleeve proudly, and while it might not be quite as dark as the author had hoped, it's still plenty dark and, yes, gritty. And, as I said before, frequently nasty.
Also, frequently funny.
Part of the nastiness (and humor) comes by way of the playful contrast between the scuzzy lowlifes and criminal thugs who populate the harsh, unforgiving streets of Conard's Philadelphia, and the lofty ambitions and upper-middle class pretensions of hapless food snob Morris White. Morris is currently the sous chef at a swanky French restaurant, working under the temperamental and tyrannical Enin Neves, the high-strung Belgian chef who runs Le Tour de Couchon's kitchen like a sort of culinary Nazi.
Morris has big plans -- he wants to eventually open his own place, far away from Enin. And it's not just his professional life he wants to upgrade: he also has his eyes on Vicky Ward, the haughty "good" girl from the "good" part of town who works as Le Tour's manager. Morris is no saint. He grew up on Philly's mean streets, but now wants more out of life, and he sees cooking as his ticket out. When in doubt, cook -- that's his motto. But it'll take more than a well-done lasagna and a nice bottle of 1990 Amarone della Valpolicella to sort things out when Vince Kammer, his no-good half-brother who's "kinda ... mixed-up," is sprung from prison after doing a three-year stint for robbery.
All Morris wants to do is help the sullen Vince out a bit, just give him a ride home from the pen. But in a moment of weakness, he invites Vince to stay with him "for a while." This is a big mistake, and sets off a chain of events that promptly dropkicks Morris' soufflé of a life right back into the gutter. The City of Brotherly Love? Fuhgeddaboudit!
You see, Vince was in Pennsylvania's Graterford Prison for taking part in the botched robbery of Cohen Jewelers four years before, a heist set up by overweight local mobster "Little Johnny" Stacks (who's no stranger to food himself). The whole scheme fell apart when Vince's pal Billy Hope Jr., the getaway driver, spooked and took off, leaving him to take the fall. In the ensuing confusion, a hundred grand worth of diamonds were lost, never to be recovered, and now that Vince is a free man again, the gluttonous Stacks wants his cut -- or else.
But Vince claims he never got the diamonds. And meanwhile, he has his own agenda, or as he puts it, "Some shit's never over, it stays with you." It seems that Vince's stay in the Iron Bar Hotel wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise -- something to do with his incurring the wrath of mob boss Eddie "The Carp" Carpioli, another guest of the state. This resulted in a series of involuntary conjugal visits with Eddie and his boys. To get his revenge, Vince plans to kidnap Eddie's daughter, Jeanette, who's working as a waitress at a local greasy spoon. Unfortunately, Vince "ain't sure yet" what he'll do once the snatch goes down.
And his friend Billy isn't going to be of much help to him here. Billy's a spoiled rich kid who's somewhat short in the brain department -- in fact, he makes Vince look like a Mensa candidate. Seems Billy's also a tad superstitious, though he's come to realize that not everyone is quite as willing as he to put their faith in numerology and the stars. Defensively, Billy explains to Morris that he's only into astrology "for fun. When I want real advice ... I go to Wilhelmina -- she's a psychic."
Uh, huh ...
Really, though, I shouldn't pick on Vince and Billy -- nobody in Dark as Night comes across as a shining pillar of virtue or intellectual accomplishment.
OK, Erasmo "Mo" Pacitti does show a certain taciturn, ruthless efficiency as Stacks' lieutenant and chief enforcer, and ambitious young Detective Sergeant Nick Turner at least tries to do the right thing. But Mo is coupled with the gloriously dense and eternally pathetic Lenny Zielinski, the top-prize character in this comedy of errors and tragedy of buffoons. Lenny is a low-level thug who desperately wants to be an Italian gangster. With visions of old Godfather flicks and Sopranos reruns dancing in his head, Lenny's biggest desire is to impress Johnny Stacks and become a "made man" in the mob, a goal far exceeding his incompetent grasp. This dude was born to fuck up, but he doesn't even realize it -- he's too busy daydreaming and trying to come up with a cool mob nickname (he finally settles on "Lenny Deuces"), and toying with the idea of changing his surname to something more "Italian-sounding," like Zielini. No wonder his girlfriend, Gina, "busts his balls" so much.
Meanwhile, good Detective Turner is saddled with a drunken, foul-tempered, racist partner named Dwight Wojcik, who spends much of his time in this book offstage in the men's room, swigging Jack Daniel's with a Listerine chaser. In the man's defense, Nick allows that Dwight "wasn't a bad cop -- and that's about all you could say for him."
Poor Morris White. He just wants to escape the criminal life, and keep Vince out of it, if he can. But Stacks wants his dough, Vince wants his revenge, Lenny wants a rep and Turner, working on a tangential case, wants to figure out who on earth would use a Black and Decker drill on a young black kid's leg. (Like I said, this book has its humorous moments, but make no mistake -- people are playing for keeps here).
And sniffing around the edges of this whole mess is Dick Franks, a seriously bent cop who wants fame, glory, the stolen diamonds ... and some more cocaine, please. Right now, damn it! Franks was the original investigating officer on the Cohen jewelry theft, but he's far more interested in scoring the missing diamonds (and his next fix) than in seeing any sort of justice done. In fact, actual justice is just about the last thing Franks wants -- it would only get in the way. Increasingly strung out, he's willing to do almost anything to achieve his goals, whether that means lying, cheating, stealing or even threatening to frame Morris for murder. "The Governor'd just jump at the chance to sign a couple more death warrants -- make him look tough on crime," Franks tells our social-climbing sous chef.
Food is a recurring motif in Dark as Night, from the seemingly endless stream of pasta that bloated, gaseous Johnny Stacks shovels into his maw to those tantalizing meals Morris compulsively whips up to impress Vince and assorted would-be girlfriends. (The story's setting being Philadelphia, there are also frequent, obligatory mentions of cheese steaks.) It adds considerable crunch to Conard's slapstick noir, a sort of culinary shaggy dog (or is that sick puppy?) story that readers who crave Elmore Leonard in his more whimsical mode should eat right up.
Mark T. Conard spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia, but he's currently an assistant professor of philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. There, he's carved a niche for himself in popular-culture studies, co-editing such classic texts as The Simpsons and Philosophy and the upcoming Woody Allen and Philosophy. Dark as Night is his first novel, and if Conard occasionally overdoes it in the black humor department -- the scene I alluded to before, between the cop and the informant, is more sick than funny, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth -- well, I still think he's a writer to watch. He's got an ear for dialogue and a playful, audacious sense of plotting that bodes well for his -- and our -- future.
Get a doggie bag. This is another winner from the Uglytown kitchens. | February 2004
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, he now lives in the Los Angeles area, an imaginary city in sunny Southern California, where he's still searching for a decent deli.