Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tyler Dilts' New California Noir

Tyler Dilts, The Pain Scale

A Congressman’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren are murdered in a manner both gratuitous and pointless. Long Beach homicide detective Danny Beckett thinks he’s seen everything, but even this is more than he expected. Just back from a year-long medical leave, Beckett has survived a disfiguring attack that leaves him in constant racking pain. But at least his physical pain gives him something to think about, besides his psychological pain.

Tyler Dilts makes good use of traditional noir boilerplates, upending readers’ expectations in ways that keep us wanting to pay attention. Instead of relying on our familiarity with traditions, like the sarcastic loner hero and the villain for hire, he creates them anew, giving us characters who want to rejoin the human race, but for whatever reason cannot. His attempts to imbue old stereotypes with new motivations revive the noir tradition for today’s generation.

Detective Beckett doesn’t want to hold the human race at arm’s length. He remains friends with an old case witness, tries to keep good working relations with his fellow LBPD detectives, and has a puckish sense of humor. And he isn’t a conscious “man outside his time.” He reads widely, savvies technology, and gets liberal arts in-jokes. His learned indie hipster persona resembles nothing so much as, well, me.

But his personal history is studded with suffering. He lost both his father and his wife violently, which plagues him, but also gives him remarkable sympathy for the victims he must investigate. His last major case left him a scar running the length of his left arm, so pain marks every moment of his life. In other words, unlike your typical smart-mouthed noir hero, Beckett has unusual cause to fend off the world with sarcasm and arrogance.

Also unlike typical noir heroes, Beckett understands himself as damaged. Where Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe think themselves honorable for alienating others and nursing grudges, Beckett realizes the trials he puts others through. He tries to make amends, but finds himself impeded by his constant pain, which prompts him to lash out at the worst possible moments. This alternating presence and absence of awareness gives Beckett’s edge real human dimension.

Dilts writes with a striking tenor that shows at once his familiarity with mystery standards, and his refusal to be bound. For one, his chapters are unusually long for genre fiction. He offsets this, however, by subdividing each chapter into short, action-driven scenes, many of which flash past with the urgency of a 1980s TV drama. This lets him linger on important developments as long as he needs, while still keeping the pace brisk.

He also numbers his chapters, not sequentially, but according to where Beckett stands on the titular pain scale: from one to ten, how bad is it? The worse Beckett’s pain, the more terse his language, so that, in chapters numbered above seven, sentences are often little more than noun-verb. Lower-numbered chapters have more introspection, studded with sudden moments of touching humor.

In the best noir tradition, Dilts avoids the simplest answer. After all, his murder victim is related to a Congressman, so how could anything be merely straightforward? Dilts’ intricate layering of conspiracy with psychological depth gives us three false endings, because each solution only opens more problems. I know I keep mentioning Sam Spade, but not without reason: this story has more cantilevered threads than anything I’ve read since The Maltese Falcon.

Some parts of this story will certainly bother certain readers. Beckett’s remarkable frankness can be off-putting. Though there’s no sex, his descriptions of violence spare no particulars. This comes across especially in the crime that drives the novel, a triple murder, including two child victims. Beckett spells out details with a clinical detachment that thankfully prevents him getting needlessly florid. Dilts essentially warns the squeamish to get off this train right now.

If I had to fault one issue, I’d pick Dilts’ strange reliance on brand names to set the tone. It gets overwhelming. In one scene, discussing a Porsche Panamera, Beckett keeps calling it a “Panera.” His partner corrects him, reminding him that Panera is a bakery chain, which Beckett calls “Starbucks for bread.” Layering works well for story elements, not so well for hipster nods.

But of you push past his brutal frankness and brand name dropping, Dilts crafts a story melding noir storytelling with New Millennium accuracy. Call it “noir procedural.”. Dilts both keeps within his genre, and stakes out territory entirely his own. In a crowded field, that makes him distinctive.

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