Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Surf: Chance by Kem Nunn

One of the few writers whose work I want to read as soon as it appears, Kem Nunn, with books like Tapping the Source, Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, is best known as one of the foremost practitioners of what is loosely termed called surf-noir. Unlike his  fellow surf-noirist Don Winslow, Nunn has yet to write an epic novel like the incredible Power of the Dog, nor relies upon minimalist chapters or books that could just as easily be  screenplays. No, Nunn's novels are decidedly more conventional and more consistent affairs. Invariably intelligent, they also make for compulsive reading. But as good as his surf novels are, Nunn's latest, Chance, is, despite a flaw or two, a major step up. It's a truly scary book, beautifully written about obsession, power, and the vagaries of the human mind.

Set in San Francisco, the novel centres on neuropsychiatrist Chance, a high achiever from a wealthy family whose life seems to be collapsing around him.  He's about to be divorced, he's got problems with his daughter, and his practice has hit the skids,  most of his work deriving from his performances as an expert witness in court cases. To make matters worse, he falls for one of his few patients, a woman with multiple personalities, who happens to be married to a violent and corrupt cop. Chance needs help and has it thrust upon him in the form of an  overgrown psychopathic vigilante-type who never sleeps.

Chance is one of those noir anti-heroes, not dissimilar to the sort one might come across in a Jim Thompson novel. In other words, well meaning, helpless, marginal, and caught in a spiral over which he has less and less control. In fact, he's so marginal psychologically one wonders how he could have possibly qualified as a neuropsychiatrist. With dodgy ethics to boot, he definitely needs help, mostly for matters mental. The best one can say is that he is only human. Which means he allows his obsessions to get the better of him. And chooses his friends badly. Though at least he  has friends. And while everyone at one time or another fantasises about seeking retribution on those who deserve it, Chance, a normally mild person with a checkered past, does so by proxy, which only adds to his problems. 

After finishing the book, I couldn't help but wonder how Nunn's recent career as a TV writer for  shows like Sons of Anarchy, John From Cincinnati and Deadwood, might have influenced his writing of this particular novel. If it has influenced him, it's, on the whole, probably for the better.  His writing seems to have become more lyrical, tighter, with an even better sense of pacing and suspense.  But, on the other hand, it might also have had an adverse effect. While the novel builds to a strong, nail-biting climax, it's final few pages, once the dust has settled- here I don't to give anything away- reads like something of an add-on. If I'd been his editor, I would have asked him to cut those final few pages down or take them out altogether.  For me it seemed somewhat confusing, even unnecessary, particularly if one takes into account the fireworks that precede it. Sure, it could be that I read those last  pages late at night, unable to put the book down, wanting to finish it so badly that reading it was practically making my eyes bleed. But that final page could even be interpreted as Nunn pitching for a sequel. That might work for a TV series but not for a novel. I could be wrong, but that's how it  felt to me in what is  otherwise an excellent novel. Of course, the ending could just as easily mean that Chance's obsessions are about to be recycled. In which case, the novel is more subtle than I'm giving it credit for. I wouldn't put it past Nunn. But, then, you can read it and decide for yourself.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier

It's been some thirty years since the French edition of Philippe Garnier's groundbreaking book David Goodis: La Vie en Noir et Blanc first appeared. Finally, thanks to noir supremo Eddie Muller, we have an English edition, translated by Garnier himself. But to say it's a strict translation of the original would be somewhat misleading. Because Garnier has made more than a few alterations, adapting it for an American readership, which means he's added some bits and taken away others. Nevertheless, the essential information remains intact; likewise,  the function and drift of Garnier's narrative.  

Personally, I'm somewhat partial to the original edition, which I came across in the mid-1980s thanks to my late friend Mike Hart, then working at Compendium Books in Camden Town, who told me about the book.  So on my next trip to Paris  I bought a copy, although  at the time I couldn't speak or read a word of French. The woman at the small Left Bank book shop asked me why on earth I was buying the book if I didn't know the language. I simply told her it was for a friend.

In fact, it was Garnier's book and a handful of others- Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs de la Serie Noire- Voyage au bout de la Noire, novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Claude Izzo, and magazines like Polar, Folk and Rock, Les Inrockutibles and Cahier du Cinema- that prompted me to learn French. Looking back, reading that original edition was like entering a secret world, known only to the inhabitants of the book.  What I also liked, and still like, about the book is it's refusal to conform to the dictates of what constitutes a biography. Instead, it's as much about the author's investigation, as he tries to locate the cultural remains of a writer who, up to that point, has proved elusive and close to being forgotten. In true noir fashion, Garnier hits the road, digging through archives, traipsing through the streets of Philadelphia, tracking down anyone who knew the man. Typically for Garnier, there's no shortage of information, even if some of it might at first glance seem tangential. Which, for me, makes his subject all the more interesting, though it no doubt infuriates anyone seeking a more conventional biography. It's those tangents that I've always enjoyed in Garnier's writing, here illustrated by an assortment of side trips, be it his short history of Gallimard's Serie Noire imprint or memos written by producer Jerry Wald regarding the film The Unfaithful and the never to be filmed Up Till Now, both of which Goodis worked on, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and commitment.

Writing for an American audience also allows Garnier the opportunity to set the record straight and settle some old scores. For one thing, he does his best to debunk some time-honoured myths regarding his native country's over-the-top adulation of Goodis, as well as other noirists, the more neglected and purportedly dissipated the better. Conversely, Garnier pricks the myth to which some Americans still desperately cling regarding  France as the ultimate arbiter of hardboiled tastes. Of course, only a sometimes cranky Frenchman living in America could get away with it. And well that he does, because it  allows him to give us the lowdown on Serie Noire's eccentric editorial policy- cutting novels to a specific length, insisting on a uniform style and vocabulary, title changes, etc.- and to  make light of the French obsession with pulp fiction in general. But Garnier doesn't there. He also has an understandable a moan about those who, over the years, have purloined his work, often without citing the source. Not quite cricket, but I suppose it goes with the territory. After all, his book has always been one of the only sources on Goodis. And to drive his point home, Garnier has a further dig at armchair Goodis pundits, maintaining that few if any have bothered to follow up on his work or gone to the sources he visited all those years ago.  

As Garnier points out, when the book appeared in France not a single Goodis novel was in print in the U.S.. Still, one can't help wonder what would have been the result had this edition appeared in the early 1990s, around the time Black Lizard and Zomba were reprinting Goodis's novels. As perhaps the first book on a noirist written by someone from a  new generation of readers, publishers at the time were hesitant, apparently unappreciative of not only the book's subject but its approach.  I remember a highly regarded independent publisher who'd been offered Garnier's book telling me some fifteen years ago that he turned the book down because  it was more about Garnier than Goodis. Of course, my estimation of that publisher took an immediate nose-dive. But the book does rely on the author's intervention, but, for me, that only adds to its flavour. In a sense, the book's style bears some relationship to so-called gonzo journalists, not so much by Hunter Thompson as Garnier's late friend  Grover Lewis (see Garnier's 2009 Freelance: Grover Lewis a Rolling Stone, published by Grasset), a writer who, like Garnier, like to place himself on the margins of his stories, and willing to go wherever the story might lead him.

In managing to capture the story behind story, Garnier skilfully provides a context, if not all the details of Goodis's life.  In fact,  most of what informed punters know about Goodis- from his work to  his dilapidated car, his troubled brother, his eccentric personality, or his penchant for large black women- derives from  Garnier's book. After thirty years, A Life in Black and White remains essential reading and, along with Polito on Thompson, Sallis on Himes, Freeman on Chandler, one of the best studies yet of a hardboiled writer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Plot and Story: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness

A few weeks ago I heard the novelist Percival Everett make a passing statement to the effect that story is not necessarily the same as plot, that plot represents the story, or, at any rate, possesses a metaphorical relationship to it.  I was thinking about Everett's statement while reading two recent novels: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness.  Because both  manage, through their plots, to make the stories embedded within them crystal clear.

I first came across Mike Nicol's writing in the early 1990s with his book A Good Looking Corpse- The World of DRUM- Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. For me, it was an eye-opening book that took me into the world of underground black culture during the Apartheid era. Naturally, when I  heard that Nicol was writing crime novels (he also wrote Mandela: The Authorized Portrait) I knew I had to read them. Though I haven't yet got around to his earlier novels, Of Cops..., set mainly in Cape Town, has a story to tell, and as evocative of the region as it is politically incisive.

Illustrating that corruption, greed and violence know no colour or party line, Nicol's novels begins with a hilarious theft of rhino horns from a Cape Town museum, then quickly moves from there to cover-ups, Apartheid era death squads and a narrative that moves between the past and the present. Along the way one meets characters of various classes and colour, including protagonist, Fish Pescado, a blond, surfer-investigator, who comes across like a Don Winslow character by way of George Pelecanos, while Fish's formidable girlfriend, Vicky, is a lawyer with a gambling problem.  Together they find themselves up against the powerful, and those who do their bidding, who, for the most part, turn out to be as  stupidly comic as they are brutal. In fact, it seems that in the new South Africa, with its racial mix and recent past, it is, as the title suggests, difficult to distinguish the cops from the robbers. Meanwhile, traces of the past continue to linger.  

Of Cops... is a slow burner of a novel, whose investigation that doesn't really kick-in until some two-thirds of the way through. Prior to that it's all about back-story and scenes that establish the relationship between story and plot, none of which can be said to be irrelevant. While bits of argot  might be unfamiliar  to  American or British readers, the vernacular only adds to the richness of the novel. This deceptively complex and political novel shows that Nicol is right up there with new wave compatriots like Roger Smith and Deon Meyer, and, for outsiders, a book that will give you an entirely different slant on modern-day South Africa.

At one point in Nicol's novel, the reader's attention is directed towards a photograph of Mark Thatcher. It's a signifier of gaping proportions. After all, not that many years ago young Thatcher,  was convicted in South Africa  for an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. Sir Mark's view of Africa as a place to be exploited was perhaps something he inherited from his mother who despised Nelson Mandela almost as much as she hated the former National Union of Mineworkers' leader Arthur Scargill. Which brings us to Maggie's warped world and a novel by the always excellent John Harvey.

For me, Darkness, Darkness, to be published in May, ranks as one of John Harvey's best, mixing, as it does, the  personal and the political, and featuring the world-weary Harvey copper Charlie Resnick.  If this is, as advertised, Resnick's final appearance, at least, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham,  he goes out in style. Darkness..., like Nicol's novel, switches between the near-present- Thatcher has recently keeled over at the Ritz- and the past, namely the 1980s miners' strike. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, Darkness... is evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

Harvey has a good eye when it comes to portraying that part of the world, whether urban Nottingham or the pit villages, which are now bleak reminders of what they once were.  Like Nicol, Harvey presents the reader with an array of characters, from the picket and soup kitchens to police constabularies. But here's it's the women who hold the narrative together, much as they did the during the strike. Not only Jenny, a first-time activist married to non-striking Notts miner, whose body is found thirty years after the event, but Catherine, of Nigerian descent, in charge of the investigation. She is handed the job because the last thing the brass want is for the case to make waves. But once Catherine brings Resnick on board, waves are going to come regardless. After all, Resnick knows the players, and back in the day he was the officer responsible for gathering information on striking miners. Together he and Catherine interview the relevant parties, their investigation taking them back in time when, for a brief moment, there was a glimmer of hope that the pits might be saved and Thatcher toppled. It was also an event that altered gender relationships in mining communities. However, just as  women would play a large part in galvanising the strike, so they would eventually bear the brunt of the subsequent decimation of those communities. Times have changed for everyone,  but some things have remained the same. Thirty years later, Catherine a black policewoman in Nottingham might be in charge of an investigation- unheard in the 1980s- but she's no less  susceptible to male violence and domination.

For me, the portrayal in Darkness... of the circumstances, or the story surrounding the crime, is as interesting as the crime itself. This even though I was never able, as I usually am, to guess who might have murdered Jenny. Which I suppose is as it should be. On the other hand, if I had any criticism, it would be the novel's over-reliance on local accents and syntax, which, regardless of their accuracy, sometimes comes across as parody. I've always been of the Lawrence Block school, believing one should deploy regional accents and colloquialisms sparingly. But more importantly, in an age when history can so easily be erased, Darkness... is really about memory: the memory of  those involved in the strike, Resnick's memory of the woman he loved, Catherine's memory of the reasons she wanted to join the police. A few years ago I mentioned the strike to a woman in her mid-thirties. She looked at me and said,. "A miners' strike?  When was that?" Everett was right, plot is not the same as story. However, Darkness... and Of Cops... contain plots that make their stories crystal clear, and manage to accomplish that with no small amount of style.