Thursday, June 01, 2006

OVEREXPOSED: 'Tween Noir and Nice

Sometimes there's a thin line between noir and cozy.

No, really.

Scrape away the tone, the mood and the genre affectations and the plots are often strikingly similar. Noir's "man in a bad place" just isn't that far a toss from the cozy's amateur sleuth who finds him or herself in an equally bad -- but slightly more genteel -- bad place.

That's certainly the case in Michael Blair's most recent novel, OVEREXPOSED. It's stuck somewhere in the middle, a comedy of manners one moment, a tragedy of errors the next. A few steps to the left and it could have been a dark and bloody tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and more than a little black humour, with nice guy doofus/Hamlet figure Tom McCall's hesitancy and indecision finally rising up and biting him on the ass. Or a short jog to the right and it could have ventured even deeper into cozyland, toning down the nastyness and pumping up the mystery factor with more clues and more ever so quirkly suspects, tying it all up with a prettier bow at the conclusion.

But no, Blair has it both ways, not bothering to pitch his tent in either camp. OVEREXPOSED finds McCall, the easy-going Vancouver shutterbug last seen in IF LOOKS COULD KILL, once again trying to sort out his freefall of a life. The morning after his fortieth birthday party the very hungover McCall finds the very dead body of a well-dressed man on the roof deck of his floating home (please don't call it a boat) that he keeps moored in Vancouver's trendy, touristy Granville Island. Nobody seems to have a clue who the guy is or who invited him to the party, but that's just the start of McCall's problems. His struggling commercial photography studio has a potential new client who could save their bacon, if he doesn't drive them insane, his bitchy ex-wife wants to take their daughter off to Australia for an entire year and the latest love of his life, a star in a cheesy sci-fi sword-and-sorcery TV show currently being filmed in B.C., has even more problems than he does, including an ex-boyfriend drug smuggler who wants back in her life and a stalker who's been leaving mutilated action figures of her TV character laying around for her to find.

At this point it could go either way, but Blair steers a sure and steady course right down the middle between dark and light, between self-consciously "gritty" and deliberately "delightful." The violence is real, but not in your face. The characters' lives are complicated enough to interest, but they're not soap opera cartoons. There are guns and drugs and stolen gems and psycho stalkers and bombs and nasty people doing -- or at least threatening to do -- nasty things, and there are kind, decent people, such as his plucky daughter Hilly, his charming business partner Bobbi and all his buddies and neighbours in the marina, most of whom you wouldn't mind getting to know a little better.

As McCall gets dragged deeper and deeper into this mess and the cops (and the bad guys) keep pounding on his door, asking him increasingly difficult questions he can't answer, you almost feel sorry for the guy.

What pulls it all together is the writing. McCall, who narrates, has a nice dry wit about him, and the plot unfolds in a natural, easy-going manner that nonetheless rarely drags. Blair plays fair with the reader, spicing up things just enough action to hook those who like it hard, but making sure there's no unrelenting grimness to scare away those who like it a little softer. And when he wraps it all up with the expected gathering of the usual suspects, he does so in a pleasing, almost farcial manner -- a jaunty concoction that's at least as much television's FRASIER as it is Agatha Christie.

An added bonus is Blair's use of the picturesque Granville Island setting and his depiction of the laidback Canadian West Coast lifestyle -- they ring absolutely true. Sorta makes you wanna leave the world behind and climb up the ladder to the roof deck to join Tom for a nice cold Kokanee and maybe a little Scotch and watch the sun set.

Soon as he gets rid of the stiff, of course...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

KBS: What happened to ThrillingDetective???? You're six months behind. I love your blog or whatever you call it but Thrilling Detective is often the only reason I bother going on line, given the vast amount of crap that appears. I suppose it's nice to be democratic, but blogs tend to prove why it's easy to become elitist.
Pass my screed. Keep up the good work and tell me what's good in PI fiction. I keep forgetting.

1:01 PM, June 02, 2006  

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