Thursday, January 27, 2011

Private Eyes From the Hardboiled Guys

INNOCENT MONSTER by Reed Farrel Coleman Tyrus Books, $24.95, ISBN 9781935562207
A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block , Mulholland Books, May 2011, ISBN 9780316127332

The Private Eye is one of those archetypal characters everybody believes they know and understand. We all have this image solidified by decades of cliché and ingrained ideas that tallies our image of the investigator. This makes it tough to come up with anything new to say when writing about such a character, but at least two novels I’ve read in the last few months have proved that the eye is far from washed up.

The first novel was Reed Farrel Coleman’s latest Moe Prager novel, INNOCENT MONSTER (Tyrus Books). Coleman is one of my favourite of the current breed of eye heroes, not least because his stories rob the genre of its melodrama and instead aim for a more realistic, but no less hard-hitting account of the life of the eye. The Prager series focuses on mistakes buried in the past, on how we plant the seeds for our own destruction many years before they take fruit and how we seldom even notice that we’ve done so. This latest novel finds Prager retired from the investigation business, pulled back in by his estranged daughter. It seems that Prager’s past is what pulls him into the investigation business every time, as if by solving another’s problem he can somehow atone for all that he has done wrong.

As Prager finds himself pulled into the search for a missing art prodigy, he finds he must deal with the guilt of others as well as his own lingering self-criticism and guilt over all the anguish he has brought others. The only real reason Moe pursues the case is to try and mend his relationship with his daughter. As the book progresses, Moe is duped, outsmarted and double crossed by nearly everyone, but the fact is that no one can hurt Prager as badly as he can hurt himself. He is a unique and wonderful character – utterly rounded and flawed in a convincingly conflicted way so few crime protagonists are. Moe is neither a crusader nor an agent of chaos. He is simply a human being with all that entails, and Innocent Monster serves to further our insight into the man he is and the man he has been.

But while character may be king, Coleman manages to serve a meaty plot with which to mirror Prager’s own internal drama. The search for Sashi Bluntstone – child art prodigy, now missing – serves as a way into a world where no one can tell the truth, where people wear masks to disguise their own sins and where decades-long pain has started to resurface. Any writer can knock at the art-loving middle/upper class set but Coleman does it in a way that feels strikingly real and utterly plausible. The fact that Coleman – like all good eyes – is an outsider to this world only serves to bring further illuminations to the truths he uncovers within this world.

Coleman only came to Crime Scene Scotland’s attention a few years ago, but he has rapidly become one of our favourite writers here, and Innocent Monster only serves to cement that reputation. This is crime writing at its smartest and it’s most emotionally honest. Innocent Monster is the kind of book that stays with you, and of course will leave you wanting to know what happens next, as it hints at what might be in store for Moe the next time we meet him.

A word of warning, of course. If you are new to Prager, perhaps you might want to start earlier in the series. The emotional impact of the series works at its best as a slow and gradual build up. While we at Crime Scene Scotland often claim that series books do not need to be read in order, the Prager books are of a select few that have maximum emotional impact when read in order. But trust us, you won’t be disappointed.

The second novel is the forthcoming A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF (Mulholland) from Lawrence Block, and it’s the latest in one of my favourite long running eye series featuring ex-alcoholic eye Matt Scudder. What makes A Drop of the Hard Stuff interesting is that it acts as a flashback piece, a look back at a gap in Scudder’s decades long career. Looking at the chronology of the Scudder character, it is clear that there is a long gap between his realisation that he is an Alcoholic and his recovery. During that period we learn little of Scudder’s life, and know only that he returned more sober if not necessarily wiser.

The last couple of Scudder books (the last being 2005’s ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING) had found Scudder in a kind of odd place as a character. With his past behind him and his sins coming to a head in EVERYBODY DIES, it seemed as though there was nowhere new to take Matt. He was still one of the finest written eyes on the block (no pun intended) but the fire seemed to have gone from his belly.

This is what makes A Drop of the Hard Stuff so interesting; it takes place at a time in Scudder’s life when the conflict between his old and new selves was at its height. It was a time when he could tip either way, when his future was uncertain. As a result this makes for an intriguing central conflict within the book and the real possibility that our hero may just slip up. The very personal aspect of Scudder’s investigation – as he investigates the death of a childhood friend who is also in the Twelve Step Program – adds fuel to the emotional fire of Scudder and provides a neat counterpoint to the exploration of Scudder himself.

In contrast to the Moe Prager novels, Scudder’s world is operatic in its intensity. His is a world of melodrama. Grittily convincing melodrama, but melodrama nonetheless. This is not a criticism. Scudder is the last of the original two-fisted PIs left out there. He is one of the last pure eyes left, and he shows us in this novel why they were so effective and why they belonged to a very particular time and place before the genre had to evolve. In the prologue and epilogue, we see Scudder as he is now and New York as it has become. He talks about aging, about change, and we realise how much things have changed even if it feels like we haven’t noticed. Block makes perfect use of the contrast between the world now and the world as it was when Scudder was trying to quit the drink. The New York of A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the New York that used to be, that was associated with sin, where every corner was a temptation to a man trying to stop drinking, to pull himself out of the sleaze. It stands in sharp relief to the newly gentrified Manhattan and reminds us just how much things have changed in the space of a few decades.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is one of the best Scudder’s in a long time and it’s a reminder of the power the character has, why he has become part of the pantheon of great hardboiled investigators. Block claimed a few years back he was to quit writing. But even if it turned out to merely a rest, it’s clear that he and Scudder are not only back, but they’re firing on all cylinders.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 27/01/11