Wednesday, April 02, 2008

REVIEWS: Strange Sleuths: Three Novels about Peculiar P.I.s

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Robert Parker's Spenser. Hard-boiled detective thrillers are a venerable and beloved staple of American literature. To be honest, I have never been a tremendous fan of the traditional crime novel. But that is not an issue with any of the three novels below, each of which takes the detective novel is a wholly unconventional direction.

WildClownHijacked.jpgWildclown Hijacked by G. Wells Taylor is the most straightforward of the bunch, which is really saying something given that the novel chronicles the adventures of a spirit, in the quasi-post-apocalyptic world of the Change (in which the dead have arisen to resume their old lives), who possesses the body of an alcoholic private investigator who, in turn, wears clownface greasepaint in order to hide his face -- and thus his past -- from his own gaze.

Wildclown Hijacked is the sequel to When Graveyards Yawn, a novel I absolutely adore, and, perhaps unfairly, the new installment suffers a little bit in comparison. The problem is not with the writing; Taylor's prose continues to be absolutely top-notch. Wildclown's gritty, down-to-earth narration perfectly counterpoints the nightmarish phantasmagoria of life after the Change, and Taylor captures the mystery, violence and horror of this new world beautifully.

Rather, it is the plot that falters. To anyone already familiar with Wildclown's world (or even who has just read the above paragraphs), the title of this novel explicitly gives away exactly what is going to happen. Moreover, beyond the titular event, not much else occurs. As a result, there is very little surprise as events unfold. The details of the journey are everything. The strength of Taylor's writing is such that it is nearly enough. But in the end, Wildclown Hijacked was a little bit too predictable, even with its completely over-the-top finale.

(Wildclown Hijacked is available as a $9.94 paperback when ordered from Lulu through a special link at the book's web page -- go to and click on the Wildclown Hijacked cover there.)

UselessDetectiveCover.jpgOn the surface, Robert Barry Kaplan's The Useless Detective appears much more conventional. Our narrator, a small time P.I. so lackadaisical that he doesn't even get a name, has managed to rouse himself to attend a twenty-year college reunion party at an isolated country estate. Before the night is over, one party goer has been murdered and a sudden storm has cut off all contact with the outside world. No one has any faith that our narrator can solve the crime before the killer strikes again. This, it would seem, would be the perfect opportunity for our hapless "hero" to prove his worth.

But we humans don't always rise to meet the opportunities presented to us. Sometimes, when given the chance to shine, we just stay in our ruts. And so it is with our useless detective, who, in fulfillment of his classmates' expectations, utterly fails to rise to the challenge. And so The Useless Detective proceeds like the novelization of a nonexistent Luis Buñuel film, as ennui conquers all and the partygoers resign themselves to day after day of ever more stagnant food, sex, and ultimate slaughter by the unknown killer.

So if The Useless Detective is just a big existential joke, the question becomes whether it at least is a good joke. On the positive side, Kaplan is a polished writer, and the humor, while bone dry, is very real. But once the narrative settles down into its endless cycle of dreary days and nights, I found myself waiting in vain through for something new to happen. Which, of course, is exactly how I'm supposed to feel. I genuinely respect that effect on an intellectual level. In the final analyis, however, this is a novel that is easy to admire but harder to really enjoy. And I wonder whether that's not fine with Kaplan.

(The Useless Detective is available as a $15.95 paperback from iUniverse, Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Kaplan's homepage is here, and he also writes a drolly amusing blog.)

HeartofMarsCover.jpgChuck Rosenthal's The Heart of Mars is the most out-there of the three novels, both in terms of setting and style. It is four hundred years after mankind was rescued from ecological disaster by benevolent extraterrestrials. Much has changed. There are few pure humans left. There are no machines -- everything is biological, alive. And there is no more writing, or storytelling. It's just not how things are done.

The Heart of Mars is poetic, almost psychedelic. The loose plot, involving half-human Marl's investigation into the hijacking to Mars of a ship full of fish, is only there to give the wispiest of structure to an elliptical journey that involves all manner of strange places and even stranger creatures with still stranger dispositions. The novel is a bit like an Alice in Wonderland in space, except that Marl, unlike Alice, is an intrinsic part of the strange world he inhabits.

In the end, the plot essentially falls away. As Marl gets closer to solving the mystery, the mystery itself becomes less and less relevant, until all that remains is the importance of telling the story. The Heart of Mars may ultimately be too oblique for readers looking for a straight-forward narrative, and, to be honest, I'm not sure I understand it all. But the sustained otherness of the journey is enthralling.

(The Heart of Mars is available in hardcover from Hollyridge Press, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other online retailers for $23.95.)

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