Potted reviews: Street 8 by Douglas Fairbairn and City Primeval by Elmore Leonard

Douglas Fairbairn wrote, in the form of Shoot, one of my all-time favourite crime novels (although it is ultimately much more than just a crime novel), so I had high hopes for Street 8, a noir set on the sun-bathed streets of Miami.

Bobby Mead, who runs an ailing used-car lot on Eighth Street, or as the latinos call it Calle Ocho, is given an offer he can’t refuse by Cuban gangsters/terrorists. They will give him a sum of money every month for the use of his garage, no questions asked, or they will kill him and his sixteen-year-old delinquent daughter. Mead takes the offer but realises that dealing with the devil comes with a price.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Street 8 but I didn’t. It has massive gaping flaws of logic. During the novel Mead has zero ambition or a particular will to live (something noted by several characters during the course of the novel) and mopes around for much of the narrative, only for him to quickly transmorph into a gringo Che Guevara by the end of the novel. Mead also has sex with his under-age daughter, which, whilst consensual, hardly endears him as a protagonist, and his proclamation of love for her towards the end of the book leaves a sour taste. I’m not a prude, and can deal with stuff like this in a narrative, but it’s hard to find enthusiasm for a protagonist who has sex with his own daughter, even if he does feel remorse. Also, Fairbairn’s prose, so concise and clear in Shoot, comes off here like a poor Hemingway pastiche. It’s a short novel, but its badly balanced pacing means that nothing happens for long stretches only for it to sputter into life occasionally. Disappointing.

In Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval, an unpleasant and unorthodox Detroit judge is killed by a remorseless killer and thief, Clement Mansell, over a driving incident. Taciturn detective, Raymond Cruz, quickly works out that it may be Mansell’s finger on the trigger but proving it is somewhat more difficult – more so, considering that Mansell walked on a murder charge a couple of years before because of a technicality. Killer and cop circle each other constantly, trying to outwit each other until the noirish climax.

Leonard is always a pleasure to read, probably because he does all the little things well. He’s never been spectacular, in the way that James Ellroy or James Lee Burke sometimes can be, but his 70s/80s work rarely misses its mark. He knows how to pace a narrative, knows how to write killer dialogue, knows how to write detail without it overshadowing the story, and knows how to write characters who, though dark, though unpleasant, don’t tip over into caricature or leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Recommended.

My Favourite Crime Novels – No. 19

Shoot Shoot, by Douglas Fairbairn, is one of those novels that was a bestseller in its day but was slowly forgotten by readers until it eventually stopped being reprinted (in the UK, at least). Frankly, it deserves better than languishing unread on the bookshelves of second-hand bookstores.

Shoot is a strange novel, almost too difficult to categorise, which might account for its current out-of-print status. It is a crime novel, yet not a crime novel – it deals with a crime and its aftermath, setting the reader up for a bigger crime at the climax, but it doesn’t have the feel of crime fiction, even if it does have the spare, clipped prose; It is more suspense than thriller, although ultimately it isn’t quite either – the finale is pure thriller, but the lead-up is all about suspense, and yet it isn’t really either, it seems to be something else entirely; it isn’t strictly a character study, more a study of America’s odd relationship with guns – Rex Jeanette, the narrator, is the only character we really get to know and even he remains mired in obscurity, only really coming alive when he’s discussing guns or previous exploits.

If I had to classify Shoot I would call it Gun Noir. Jeanette and the rest of the characters are unsatisfied with their middle-aged lives; financial success, women, children, sex, consumerism, none of these things quite fill the void that seems to have been left by their wartime exploits. In fact, you get the feeling that none of these men really like each other, despite the fact that they have been friends for years. The only common bond they share is their war exploits and a love for guns.

It is a superb piece of work – a novel that makes you think, a novel with an ending that stays with you – but don’t necessarily expect it to fulfil your expectations. In some respects it reminds me of Harry Crews’ A Feast Of Snakes, but without the element of the surreal which makes Snakes such an original. If you can get hold of it, please read Shoot – it’s definitely a one of a kind.

Best.Cover.Ever

Seriously, how good is this cover? If this was the cover for your book you’d love it, right?

A couple of women (one scantily clad, the other not so much), some Jack Palance-looking geezer with a machine gun and a dodgy barnet, an exploding car, the Miami coastline and a humungous fucking 8. You have no idea how much I love seventies book covers. And this one rocks!