Monday, January 7, 2013

Andrew Klavan's Hollywood on Hudson

Andrew Klavan, A Killer in the Wind

Inspector Dan Champion, ex-NYPD, dedicated his career to busting a child prostitution ring led by the enigmatic Fat Woman. But he shot a suspect in a narcotic haze, ending the investigation. Creative perjury saved his career, but now he works patrol upstate. Worse, he battles lingering hallucinations, especially lovely Samantha, who nursed him to health. So when Samantha washes up in his new jurisdiction, he cannot explain how his hallucinations have bled into reality.

Edgar Award-winning mystery novelist Andrew Klavan spends the first hundred pages of his newest novel spinning an intricate web of conspiracy, denial, and phantasmagoria. Then he spends the next two hundred pages squandering it. He heightens readers’ expectations through a solid premise and brief hints that he might upend genre expectations. Then he pisses his premise away and hits us with a boilerplate thriller dirty with the fingerprints of 1987.

The problems begin with first-person protagonist Dan Champion himself. He walks, talks, and thinks like second-tier Robert Mitchum antihero. In the first chapter, he hits us with this narrative fragment: “My heart was knocking at my ribs like a cop’s fist on a whorehouse door.” Though this tapers off by the final third, and he starts talking like a person, he never completely stops comporting himself like a postwar noir refugee.

When Champion finds himself confronted with a woman who cannot exist, he misses the most important clues because he fails to grasp that the investigation is really all about him. This character is completely immune to introspection. Late in the book, Champion’s part-time squeeze has to practically grab his lapels and scream at him that he needs to look inward. Until someone tells him otherwise, Champion’s world is entirely external.

Andrew Klavan
Instead of pausing to ask the right questions, Champion surrenders his badge and goes all Charles Bronson on the case. I cannot believe a career cop would make this many mistakes. If you were on the run from your fellow cops, would you go visit your old haunts downstate? Would you continue using your credit cards for gas and motels? Would you pop a hallucinogenic narcotic right before a days-long drive to an unfamiliar destination upstate?

Then, instead of unpacking the psychological depth of his premise, Klavan hits us with a story that might have seemed timely during the McMartin Preschool trial. His setup simmers with potential for the borderlines of reality, the dark side of community, and the fine line between cop and criminal. Instead, the meat of his novel is stapled together from half-digested bits of old Jimmy Cagney films, Raymond Chandler potboilers, and 19th Century white slavery myths.

Perhaps being a reviewer has jaundiced my opinion. I receive so many books, on so many topics, that I have become overeducated for this kind of novel. For instance, I cannot walk back the fact that I understand the difference between hallucination and memory. Hallucinogenic drugs do not produce a coherent narrative or unpack deep psychological meaning. Even where they have shown therapeutic merit, hallucinogens don’t produce one-to-one correlations.

I also can’t walk back the fact that I know noir is changing. Authors like Tyler Dilts and Alan Russell have pioneered a hard-boiled but introspective new mystery field I’ve dubbed the New Noir. These authors create characters who are as cynical about themselves as about the rest of the world, creating a greater field of psychological depth. By contrast, Klavan’s novel feels not just contrary, but downright regressive. History, even literary history, never runs backward.

You might have noticed that I’ve cited several movie actors: Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Jimmy Cagney. Klavan, like Dashiell Hammett before him, writes both books and movies. In fairness, books bring more prestige, but Hollywood has the money. But this book just reads like a screen treatment. I shouldn’t imbue Klavan with my motivations, but perhaps he wrote this one in hopes of a future big-screen payday.

Perhaps being a reviewer has jaundiced my opinion. But I doubt it. I suspect Klavan flinched from his excellent premise because he remembered he has an established genre audience. But that audience reads this kind of literature every day. They know the boilerplates, and they expect better than sixty-year-old big-screen leftovers.

Surely a seasoned, award-winning author like Andrew Klavan must realize how tone-deaf this novel sounds. He proffers a smart, innovative premise, and does nothing with it. The product is not only ordinary, it’s a stark move backward. Mystery as a genre, and Klavan as an author, are both better than this.

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