Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pychon

At the tail-end of the 60s, as the peace and love generation have given way to something darker, Doc Sportello, a private detective with a serious penchant for soft drugs, is hired by an ex-girlfriend to look into the affairs of her current lover, a Californian millionaire real estate mogul, who she thinks is in trouble. At the same time he’s hired by an ex-con to look into the affairs of his former cell mate, and also by a woman who wants Sportello to look into the mysterious heroin related death of her husband. As the various strands weave together, Sportello realises that there are quite a few conspiracies going involving the authorities and an organisation called the Golden Fang.

Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Pynchon’s back-catalogue (barring Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day) and his stuff is nearly always about conspiracies, power struggles and abuses of power by those in charge. And Inherent Vice is no different in this respect. It has all the elements one should expect from Pynchon: crazy conspiracies, interweaving storylines, stupid character names, postmodern playfulness, made-up songs and lyrics, and some utterly ravishing prose, but it also has a tightness that has been missing from his work since Vineland (to which Inherent Vice seems like a prequel of sorts).

Whenever a well-known literary writer attempts hardboiled fiction the results can often seem like the worst sort of parody (ie. total shit), but Pynchon’s work straddles homage and originality beautifully. He knows his stuff, too. The use of multiple, seemingly different, cases that ultimately become one big case is the kind of thing that Ross MacDonald built his career on. Also, the use of lead characters who use drugs copiously makes Pynchon’s flights of fancy (a surf-pop band becoming ravenous zombies, for instance) work because you never really know whether these things are hallucinations caused by narcotics or by something else entirely. Also, Pynchon generally keeps his previous habit of using long, elaborate sentences well under control, replacing them with tight, hardboiled, declarative prose.

I enjoyed Inherent Vice immensely. In fact, it made me want to finally try and scale the vertiginous, and somewhat difficult, peak of Gravity’s Rainbow in the very near future. Highly recommended.

Loitering with intent!!

I was recently lucky enough to be asked to contribute to Eva Dolan’s excellent criminal classics season on her equally excellent Loitering with Intent blog. It covers literary classics that also double as really rather excellent crime novels too.

My contribution is here – it’s The Outsider by Albert Camus. And when you’ve finished reading mine I suggest you read the rest of them, because you’ll be missing out on some classics otherwise (a lot of far better writers than me can be found giving you the heads up on some brilliant and inspiring novels).

My favourite crime novels – No. 21

Drive by James Sallis – Until recently, Sallis seemed to be one of those writers who was destined to be known within dedicated crime reader and writer circles and nowhere else. Incredibly well read and knowledgeable about crime fiction, highly intelligent and a fine writer. But that situation changed when Nicholas Winding Refn directed his highly stylised and ultra-cool film adaptation of Sallis’ Drive starring man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling. It helped that it was an excellent film, but the job was made easy by the fact that they had a balls-to-the-wall classic to adapt in the first place.

The premise is simple: Driver (we never know his name) is a getaway driver who works freelance for the highest bidder (in addition to a sideline as a Hollywood stunt driver). He is very much a loner, but is forced out of his shell when his female next door neighbour makes friends with him. She is married with a child but the husband is in prison and she appears to like Driver. Their relationship is complicated when the husband is released from prison and forced by people to whom he owes money to perform a robbery. Driver helps out the husband because of his relationship with the wife and son, but when the job goes wrong he is suddenly forced to go on the run from low-level mobsters with an axe to grind. And slowly but surely he turns from the hunted into the hunter.

Describing the plot of Drive doesn’t really do justice to Sallis’ novel, because it’s simply a framework for a fantastic set of characters and a pared down style which simply demands that you read faster and faster. Also, crucially, it weaves Driver’s back-story into the proceedings, which the film doesn’t do. Despite being a short novel/novella, it packs a lot into its pages. It is a beautifully paced and written novel, and in Driver it has one of the most compelling anti-heroes to emerge in modern crime fiction.

Review – Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith

At the beginning of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine its anti-hero narrator, Billy Lafitte, is in serious trouble; he’s in prison on charges of being a traitor, a murderer and a terrorist. His interrogator, Agent Rome, seems to have a personal beef with him and his options are less than zero. From here the novel moves back in time to what got Lafitte in prison in the first place, other than himself.

Lafitte is a very bent cop. Kicked out of the force in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he gets a second chance in the very different environment of Minnesota. Here he doesn’t change so much as get worse. He takes backhanders from meth cookers and dealers, he’ll quite happily lean on those who get in his way. He gets asked by a previous sexual conquest, who he would like to turn into a more permanent thing, to help her drug dealing boyfriend with some trouble from what appears to be outside dealers looking to muscle in on the local action. Lafitte agrees but soon finds out that what he’s dealing with is something more horrific than this, an enemy that cares little for the rules, an enemy looking to do a lot more than just muscle in on the drug scene, an enemy that knows exactly how to push Lafitte’s buttons; leaving him flailing desperately to try and dig himself out of an ever deepening cesspool…

Yellow Medicine has superb pacing and is served up in choppy, stripped-back prose, which serves the story excellently. Lafitte makes for a complicated anti-hero. He’s happy to bribe, steal and coerce and gain sexual favours from his profession, but at the same time he’s the kind of guy who won’t miss an alimony payment to his wife and kids. He’s a man almost without a home, but at the same time he’s prepared to defend his country from a much worse threat than drug dealers when pushed. My favourite character though is actually Lafitte’s brother-in-law, the sheriff who offers him a second chance. At the beginning he seems a bit of a ‘pussy’, but at the end is prepared to risk it all to help Lafitte and his family when things go very badly. He’s an excellently realised character.

The one character who didn’t quite do it for me was Agent Rome. He seemed a bit one-note, but it’s a minor complaint, because everything else is so nicely handled. Plus, I think Rome’s character will undoubtedly be fleshed out further in Hogdoggin, the sequel. I enjoyed Yellow Medicine and recommend it to all those who like their crime fiction served dark and as cool as a Minnesota field in winter.