Monday, December 10, 2007

THE BLONDE By Duane Swierczynski (featuring the original novella, REDHEAD)

St Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0312374594, $13.95

Who is Duane Swierczynski? In a relatively short space of time he’s hopped from subgenre to subgenre, barely breaking a sweat. His debut, Secret Dead Men blurred several genre lines. His second novel, The Wheelman had a pace and style that recalled Richard Stark at his finest.

And, now, with The Blonde, Swierczynski changes tack again, giving us a techno-thriller with the bite and pacing of an honest-to-God action movie. It has the thrill and speed of Wheel Man with the genre-bending aspects of Secret Dead Men.

And it doesn’t waste time with pre-amble.

The opening scene of The Blonde sets the tone perfectly, with our hero being told by the attractive lady opposite that his drink has been poisoned. That if he wants the cure, he needs to do what his new companion says.

Of course he doesn’t believe her.

But soon enough he finds she wasn’t lying. And the poison isn’t the worst thing about his new friend…

Without giving too much away, there’s a near SF aspect to The Blonde that, upon reflection, seems almost ridiculous, but which is handled so skilfully you simply accept it as part of the world that Swierczynski creates. A lot of this is down to the pacing of the novel. The Blonde starts in high gear and just keeps going. The technobabble required to set up the MacgGuffin of the story is brief, convincingly straightforward and treated with respect. A lot of writers would spend time apologising or over-explaining the more apparently insane aspects of the story, but Swierczynski lays them out, says, just accept it.

And we do. Even the unlikely use of the word, “fook” that only Ken Bruen seems to ever be able to employ in prose without seeming foolish. In fact, if there are any niggles I had reading The Blonde, it was probably the Irish connection that seems a little superfluous, but doesn’t dampen the pace and mood.

There’s a joy to The Blonde that spills straight off the page. The reason we go so willingly with Swierczynski in his novels is because he’s having a ball with his stories, and this transfers directly to the reader. The best thriller writers don’t need complex plots or end-of-the-world stakes (even if The Blonde does have some extremely high stakes involved) to pull in the reader. They need pacing. Energy. They need the kind of crackling energy that can’t be faked.

The Blonde is a damned entertaining novel, reads at a hell of a speed and refuses to take itself too seriously, delighting in the kind of gloriously over the top action that leaves the reader grinning like a lunatic. And among all that, there’s an unexpected tenderness to some of the characters and their relationships that adds an extra dimension to this fast-paced thriller. Kowalski – a hitman with a past, and a served head in a gym-bag – is noteable for surprising the reader with extra dimensions and wrinkles to his character that a writer more concerned with theatrics may have ignored.

But what makes this paperback edition special is the addition of an original short story, Redhead, which will only make sense (as the author urges in his introduction to the new story) if you’ve read The Blonde.

Redhead picks up threads left hanging in the original novel and runs with them, creating its own kind of frenzied energy and serving as a satisfying and often witty coda to the action in the original novel. To be honest, it’s easy to move onto this final story with skipping a beat. Insert your own fade out and fade in, and you have an extended epilogue that adds something to the original story, but takes nothing away.

You don’t have to read Readhead to get full satisfaction from The Blonde, but it’s a helluva story and adds a more satisfying kick to the package in the paperback edition, along with the kind of joy that’s more often associated with DVD extras to enhance film.

So my advice to you is that you spend time with the kickass Blonde and her righteous Redhead sister. These two girls, they’re gonna slay you…

Russel McLean for crimescenescotland, 11/12/07