(Polis Books, 2015).
Ash McKenna is writer Rob Hart’s crime-wise “fixer”: a freelance troubleshooter for the underclass in modern day NYC. Waking from a bender, he finds a message from his semi-girlfriend, the razor beauty Chell, saying a stranger’s followed her and she needs help. As we and Ash listen, both know he’s too late. Chell’s dead. Guilt and anger pull Ash from his numbed existence to try and do right by someone he let down, and so we are led through the high and lows of the Burroughs of New York as Ash demonstrates natural cunning and an underdog’s penchant for survival as he collects clues on that lost last night that warp his image of the past.
There are many freelance anti-heroes-for-hire in crime fiction. But unlike Andrew Vachss’s Burke, Ash is not righteous and impervious to the nightmare and bliss of NYC’s underbelly. Unlike F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack, he’s not a low rent Batman whose anger allows him to kick more ass than a dozen Achilles. Instead, Hart uses the vehicle of the honorable underdog of the underground to create a funny, lazy, occasionally stupid but dogged protagonist whose iced personality allows him to use brain rather than brawn to problem solve. Indeed, like many great amateur detectives, it’s Ash’s local knowledge of the urban jungle, its leaders and slaves, queen’s and fools, that lead him toward the reckoning he craves.
I enjoyed the hunt through the city and its fringes, but I loved how Hart told the story of New Yorked: with detail, skill, and winks to the tropes all too familiar to those of us who have dinned on crime fiction for a good long while. Hart takes stabs at the conventions (fedoras, dangerous women, even a potshot at crap crime novels with padded word counts!) and lets us in on the gag, but with a command of style that doesn’t break the bubble of disbelief but heightens the verisimilitude of the story.
Indeed, while Ash’s story of a numb near-loser expediting justice is gripping, it’s Hart’s command of language that makes Ash real. All too often crime writers rely on the grotesque and sloppy heritage of pulp tradition as an invitation for awful prose. Hart pisses on that invitation by reaching for great specifics, organizing crisp sentences with evocative details for Ash’s worldview, sense of humor, and code of honor. He also employed second-person in a first person narrative to create layers of depth in a character who is haunted not just by the power of NYC as a terminal influence, but the memories and guilt he cannot escape. Superb writers of dark fiction, from Dennis Lehane to Cara Hoffman, have shown how different literary devices can give a crime story depth and resonance. Hart is on his way to join that fast company. A great debut.
All Due Respect Books
314 pp $11.00
“Uncle Dust” is not a nice man. Even for a bank robber and money collector for a local bookie, he has a mean streak, one that simmers. He threatens kids and women, and cheats on his lovers. And yet, Dustin tries to be good. His girlfriend’s nerdy kid (who calls him “Uncle Dust”) needs toughening up, so he shows the twerp some boxing moves. After a night away to fuck a local bartender, he’s sure to come back home and get a beer for himself, and for his main woman too. If some guy is sniffing around the family, or a likely child molester is grooming the local geeks, Dust will put the fear of God into him.
Uncle Dust isn’t your average noir. It’s a slice-of-life novel featuring a noir protagonist. The violence is so casual that Dustin may as well be in an office, making photocopies. The everyday life of an aging badass isn’t exciting and thrilling, but it is dark as hell and exceptionally engrossing. Uncle Dust takes a bold step in separating noir from its mystery/suspense antecedents, to show us what the life of a blue-collar criminal might just be like. Read this one, and be glad you don’t have an Uncle Dust.—NM