Friday, November 14, 2008

Small Crimes Dave Zeltserman

Ed here: I got an early copy of Small Crimes and I've been pushing it hard ever since. Apparently I'm not alone in seeing it as a major novel. This is on-line at the Wash Post today and will be in the Sunday book section.

SMALL CRIMES By Dave Zeltserman | Serpent's Tail. 263 pp. Paperback, $14.95

I don't know about you, but with the world in financial free fall I don't feel like reading comic mysteries or cozies or even espionage thrillers. I don't want escapism. I long to immerse myself in literature that captures the all-encompassing anxiety of the times. There's only one type of mystery that fits that profile, and that's crime noir: the jittery genre, born during the Great Depression, about saps and grifters who ain't gotta barrel of money and just can't get a break; the genre about a world gone wrong and the greedy bumblers who made it so.

James M. Cain was one of the first writers to explore this little tributary of mystery fiction, and though some followers -- notably Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy -- have pulled off stories almost as good as Cain's, nobody, at least for my money (fast dwindling though it may be), has ever bested Cain at his best. Pulp morality tales like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce hold their own against any of those highbrow novels the awards committees are always slapping ribbons on.

But there's a new name to add to the pantheon of the sons and daughters of Cain: Dave Zeltserman. If Zeltserman keeps writing novels as terrific as Small Crimes, and if the economy keeps nosediving, he may churn out a corpus that rivals Cain's. Oh, and Small Crimes is a paperback original, so fans don't even have to shell out the big bucks they no longer have for this piece of crime-noir genius.

This tale is told by a first-person narrator who's one of fortune's fools. Joe Denton is a crooked ex-cop in Bradley, Vt., who's just been released from jail after serving seven years for stabbing the local district attorney, Phil Coakley, 13 times in the face with a letter opener. Joe was coked up at the time, and he was rifling the d.a.'s office trying to find documents that fingered him as being part of a police corruption ring. Unfortunately, Phil turned up just as Joe was pouring gasoline around the office. Here's how Joe explains his side of the story:

"The funny thing was I had always liked Phil. I always thought of him as a solid person, a good family man, just an overall decent human being. If I'd had a real knife, like a fishing or hunting knife, I would've killed him that night. The letter opener wasn't sharp enough. I did damage -- Jesus, did I do damage -- but I didn't kill him."

If you're new to the conventions of crime noir, you might well think that Joe sounds like a reasonable guy and that he's ready to start over now that his debt to society has been paid. Wrong. What's past is never past in crime noir. No sooner does Joe step out of the jailhouse than cosmic I.O.U.s begin to rain down on his head. First, the grossly disfigured Phil greets Joe right outside the slammer. Phil perkily breaks the news that Manny Vassey, the local crime kingpin, is dying, has suddenly found religion and is likely to clutch at redemption by confessing his crimes.

Manny's 11th-hour mea culpa could send Joe straight back behind bars, since Joe (a gambler as well as a cokehead) was known to be in debt to Manny (and, thus, in his vile employ). Then Joe gets a "welcome back" phone call from the sheriff, who still runs the ring of crooked cops that once included Joe. The sheriff tells Joe that he needs to finish the job he started in Phil Coakley's office lo those many years ago, because if Manny squawks to Phil about all that's rotten in the little burg of Bradley, Joe's head will roll. What's a loser like Joe to do in a no-win situation like this but go out to the local tavern, where he digs himself into a deeper and deeper mess?

The plot of Small Crimes is a thing of beauty: spare but ingeniously twisted and imbued with a glossy coating of black humor. Zeltserman takes up all the familiar tropes of the formula -- femmes fatales, frighteningly dysfunctional families, self-destructive drives and the death grip of the past -- and shows how infinite are the combinations that can still be played on them.

1 comment:

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, I was once on a panel with Terence Faherty when he argued (very persuasively, I thought) that the British and US reactions to the aftermath of World War 1 and Depression were very different. With the UK, you got the Golden Age, and in the US you got the pulps, Hammett etc. Of course, it's a massive generalisation ('Payment Deferred' in the UK, Van Dine and Queen in the US) but still very interesting. And it will be interesting to see how writers react to the current economic meltdown - noir or escapism? - as well.