Friday, August 07, 2009

TOWER by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Busted Flush Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1935415077

Tower is the real deal; a collaborative novel that feels absolutely cohesive. Two voices that tell one strong tale, fusing together to create a whole that grabs the reader by the neck and shakes them to make sure they’re paying close attention. Sure, it helps that individually, Bruen and Coleman are two of the best authors working the crime and noir beats today, but it takes more than two talented authors to create a successful collaboration. There has to be, somewhere, a common purpose and a clarity of intent that allows the reader to quit guessing at who wrote what or trying to spot the compromises and bargaining that was made between the authors and simply appreciate the book in the same they would one written by a single author.

Let’s put it this way – even if I didn’t know the works of both authors, I would still consider Tower to be a damn fine novel.

The central conceit – two narratives that run parallel – is not groundbreaking, but it feels that way, told with such confidence and assurance. Read one narrative, you’ve got a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but the beauty of Tower is the fact that reading both narratives destroys your conceits and pre-conceptions; you spend the second half of the book trying to figure just how much you really knew in the first place.

And you want to know.

You have to know.

On the one side, you got Nicky, an Irish New Yorker with a hell of a temper and a habit of keeping bad company, and on the other you got Todd, maybe Nick’s best friend, and a guy with his own secrets and worries. Starting with a B&E that goes badly wrong, the two men sink deeper into troubles of their own making, soon finding themselves hip deep in bodies, mobsters and undercover cops. It’s a tale of friendship, loyalty and choices that, in certain scenes – and certain themes, as well – reminded this reviewer very much of Scorcese’s recent Boston crime melodrama, The Departed.

Tower’s construction is beautiful. In his introduction, Coleman talks about the early stages of the book and how the need for an epilogue and prologue really enhanced these two narratives, and he is spot on in his evaluation. I do not know precisely how they wrote these sections, but they both work beautifully, setting up the mood and cementing themes and ideas so that the novel feels solid. The connections between the two narratives are enhanced, and loose ends are perhaps not tied up, but certainly treated with respect, allowing the reader a sense of closure.

Both narratives are told in modifications – gentle ones – of the author’s own unique styles. And, yes, if you care about such things, you will know who wrote what narrative but its not something the authors have made a secret of. The result is a novel that truly flows. Had both participants stuck to their own styles rigidly, there would have been a complete disconnect. But for the world of difference that exists between Todd and Nick, there is also a sense of connection and continuity.

What we think we know of one character is changed utterly from another point of view. While the reader could be forgiven for thinking they know what’s happening when they read the first narrative, believing they’ve uncovered that major twist, the second narrative manages to twist our perceptions and ideas so that we view Nicky’s story in a whole new light. It’s a neat trick, and only two writers at the top of their game could have managed it.

Worth noting, too, is the fact that – as ever – publisher Busted Flush has packed the book to the brim with extras, including the aforementioned introduction by Coleman, interviews with both players and their editor (King of Scots Noir, Allan Guthrie). The extras are interesting for the insights they give into how the novel came about, and how each writer had to adapt to the book’s needs. Its fascinating material, and the kind of attention to detail that Busted Flush is becoming known for.

Ultimately, of course, the writing of the novel speaks for itself. Even without the benefit of supplementary material, Tower makes its presence known with a roar. The plot drags you along, and Nick and Todd are the best kind of protagonists. Like the book itself, they are compelling, complex and dangerously unpredictable.

Collaborations are nothing new in the world of literature, but Tower makes its mark in its compelling, two-tiered structure, its layered narrative and the way in which its author’s complement and enhance each other. If you love punchy, layered and stylish crime fiction, then believe me when I say that you’re going to adore Tower.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 08/08/09