Friday, May 16, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: "The January Corpse" by Neil Albert

Perfect timing, Jeff.

Here I am up to my eyeballs in a Lawrence block piece, a slew of reviews and sundry other overdue projects when Rap Sheet head honcho J. Kingston Pierce sneaks up on me and bitch slaps me with a hell of a challenge.

Evidently it’s my turn to ante up for Patti "Don't Call Me 'Cake'" Abbott’s new tag-team Friday blog series, highlighting “books we love but might have forgotten over the years” and then challenging another writer to do the same.

What can I say? At least after chipping in, I get to inflict -- I mean, spread the joy – to another writer…

The irony, of course, is that I CAN’T forget the book I’ve chosen.

In the pantheon of unjustly forgotten private eye writers, the late eighties and early nineties were responsible for a staggering amount of candidates. The usual names bandied about are Stephen Greenleaf, Arthur Lyons and Jonathan Valin, but you could toss in several other lightly more obscure but no less enjoyable authors, such as Gaylord Dold, Rob Kantner and the late Ben Schutz.

All wrote tough, savvy, literate and even poetic private eye tales, always solid and often memorable mysteries full of compassion and hard-boiled integrity, stuff that could cast an unflinching eye upon the mean streets of society one moment and break your (manly) heart the next.

Unfortunately, most of their books are long gone and long out of print, vanished into the black hole of publishing, victims of mainstream indifference and sales that were never quite enough, helped along perhaps partially by the then-popular female private eye boom (which itself would, predictably, grind to a staggering halt in a few years).

But none of the books by any of those writers, all these years down the road, remains as memorable to me as The January Corpse by Neil Albert, the novel that introduced Philadelphia private eye Dave Garrett.

The book came out in 1991 to, as far as I know, pretty solid reviews. The New York Times cited it as a "tantalizingly twisted first novel" and Publisher's Weekly deemed it an "exceptional first mystery... driven by a baffling plot (that) comes to a surprise ending that passes the Holmesian test: after the impossible is eliminated, that which remains, however improbable, is the truth."

It was subsequently nominated for a Shamus for Best First P.I. Novel and even sold well enough to spawn a handful of sequels (The February Trouble, Burning March, Cruel April, etc.), each appearing approximately a year apart and each spouting a month of the year in its tile. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the series ended with Tangled June. Presumably the author, an attorney himself, kept his day job.

Although, based on the promise shown in The January Corpse, one time he coulda been the champion of the world. Because the audacity, the sheer effrontery of his corkscrew of an ending was a challenge to a genre that, even now, still has not responded.

Don't get me wrong. The entire series -- such as it was -- is worth reading. It's smart and literate and subtly-written, with an appealingly fresh voice and an engaging world view. The books will certainly appeal to fans of Ross Macdonald or Stephen Greenleaf, in particular. But that first book is really something special.

And, damn it, I can't even discuss it's ending without destroying much of the effectiveness of this book. Not that it's so original and shocking a plot twist that it's never been used before -- or won't be spotted well in advance by some of the more jaded tabloid junkies out there. Hell, I can think of a couple of mystery novels myself, one dating back to the thirties, that have used it before, but the ending, and particularly its startling denouement, still have the power to provoke and raise eyebrows after all these years.

Dave Garrett is a disbarred lawyer turned private eye, not exactly setting the world on fire. He drives a Honda Civic with more than a few years and miles on it, and he owns two guns, although he confesses he's never really had to use either. His disbarment is, likewise, not the result of any sort of high drama but simply a rather sad set of circumstances and poor judgement -- he got caught trying to take his wife's final law exam (she suffered from anxiety attacks). So he lost his job... and eventually his wife.

Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it, Dave's become a man of principle; an obsessively honest, decent man working as a detective, intent on doing the right thing. Oh, he's still willing to bend a few small rules, if he has to, but he tries to keep his word, and he's uncommonly loyal to his clients, and his small, one-man agency has thus earned a good reputation in Philadelphia law circles.

In The January Corpse, he's hired to find a stiff.

That's right -- the dead man's mother is convinced her lawyer son, Daniel Wilson, is already dead. Long dead. Now she just just wants proof of it, so she and her daughter, Lisa, can collect on Daniel's life insurance and so that they get on with their lives. But it's Danny's former employers, a prestigious law firm, who are the actual clients here, and their motives are a little less obvious. It turns out Danny was something of a hotshot, a mover and a shaker, practicing mostly civil law, but possessing more than his fair share of rather unsavory clients with rumored connections to organized crime. He disappeared seven years ago, leaving behind only his car, "found empty, shot full of holes, and full of blood."

If Dave can provide presumption-of-death evidence in court and prove that Danny didn't simply skip town with the $100,000 he allegedly had in his possession at the time of his disappearance, the family will be able to collect.

It seems like a slam dunk that the man's dead -- there's been no trace of him in all that time; no evidence that he's still alive. But there's more to the case than meets the eye. A well-known local detective agency has already refused the case, all that money is still missing, and Dave has begun to receive threats, warning him to stop poking around.

But Dave, possibly exhibiting more pie-eyed determination than common sense, is soon traipsing all over the Keystone State, from the “sad, worn-out country, full of dead hopes” coal fields to a white-knuckled car chase through Amish territory. Fortunately he’s got Lisa, Danny’s sister, along for much of the ride and she proves to be a surprisingly resourceful and pragmatic (but not always truthful) accomplice, a sharp counterpoint to the idealistic but at times hesitant young private eye. It’s the sort of pragmatism that leads to Lisa coolly shooting a gunman in the foot as a “warning.” An unexpected but entirely believable relationship between Lisa and Dave begins to develop, and it’s the sensitive and deftly handled details of this at-first-unlikely relationship which provide the emotional foundation of this novel.

And then all hell breaks loose. Before the book is done, stereotypes are blown away and tropes flattened, crimes exposed and secrets unearthed. Flabbergasted readers knocked off-balance will find themselves re-evaluating what they've just read, and flipping back and forth through the pages, trying to figure out managed to pull the rug out from under them.

But he did it, alright; fairly and squarely, and it was no fluke or happy accident. As evidenced by "A History of Private Eye Fiction," a thoughtful and provocative short piece Albert once wrote for, the author clearly knew his stuff.

So anyone who enjoys the traditions -- and even more so, the possibilities of the private eye genre -- should track down a copy of The January Corpse post-haste. It's too good a read to let slip by.

There's a conversation still to be had about this book; one a long time in coming. Alas, it won't be here. Even commenting on a plot "twist'" is problematical -- revealing its mere existence will get readers thinking out of the box. It's best if you discover it on your own. (On the other hand, the "COMMENTS" section here may be just right.)

No, really. Read The January Corpse for what it is: a great little private eye novel, and then marvel at the author's skill and pluck. And then try to forget it.

I dare you.

And speaking of dares, I'm throwing one out to one of the genre's more eminent men of letters: Dick Adler. Come on, Dick, pick up the stick for next week.

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