Tyler Dilts, The Pain Scale
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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