Mundania Press, 2006, ISBN1594262322, $12 (US)
Ed Lynskey’s debut novel, The Dirt Brown Derby, takes the lead from the long running short story series featuring PI Frank Johnson. As ever, Johnson finds himself on the move across America, this time heading to a small town where the rich stink of corruption and a seemingly accidental death may reveal more than anyone ever expected.
One of the first things you notice when reading Lynskey’s work is the incredible debt owed to the classic hardboiled investigators. The lyricism of Spade and Marlowe is alive and well in the world of Frank Johnson, as smart dialogue quips across the page and wry observations raise a smile of grim satisfaction not just from our protagonist but from us, the readers, as well.
In fact, there’s something oddly out of time about Lynskey’s style that affects the reader deeper than they realise. The dialogue and narration come straight from the classic PI novels; including oddly archaic sentence construction that feels unnatural in one sense and perfectly organic in another. In Johnson’s world, the nineteen-twenties and thirties never really ended. The world kept going; the technology and references changed, but the attitudes and language remained the same. This makes Lynskey’s world seem at first artificial, but once you buy into the rhythms of Johnson’s language, this fictional place makes a brilliant and hardboiled sense all of its own.
This odd – and occasionally stilted – artificiality may put some readers off. There’s a correctness of phrase and grammar to Johnson’s narration that occasionally distances the reader from our protagonist, making his actions seem oddly robotic and raising questions over his personal motivation. But Johnson’s detachment works well in this tale of high society, as he explores a world with its own sense of morality motivated by money and position and power.
But for all of that, there’s an economy here that is missing from a great many other novels. Within a few hundred pages we explore not only the small town, old money world in which Frank finds himself, but a little of the private life of Frank Johnson. We gain a sense of his past, of his relationships and what it is that makes him the old-school no-bullshit PI we see today.
The Dirt Brown Derby hits the ground running, but it’s in the home stretch that it makes the most impact. With an impressively staged shoot out in a church, and Frank’s old-school no-bullshit attitude cutting a path through the bloat that plagues many other PI novels, the Dirt Brown Derby is a welcome addition to the Frank Johnson canon. Not only that, but it’s a welcome debut novel for a writer who has been around, honing his own unique style in the pages (real and virtual) of the new pulps for a long time.
While the occasionally odd and artificially archaic style my distract some readers, its clear that Lynskey is a writer of talent and The Dirt Brown Derby is a loving, well crafted and entertaining homage to the glory days of PI fiction that stands on its own merits, as well as a lean, absorbing novel that will not only appeal to fans of PI Frank Johnson’s previous short story outings, but bring him new fans as well.
Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, November 2006