Jan 11, 2007

Dirty Sweet, by John McFetridge - thoughts

It’s hard to be compared to the greats. Let’s face it, they are the greats for a reason; they have achieved a measure of success, their names are near-synonymous with a certain area of expertise, their works are bandied about and admired both for their individual qualities and for their cumulative effect on the general public.

Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen are two of the greats in the genre of crime thriller. Leonard’s total output—chock full of acknowledged classics such as Rum Punch, Out of Sight, Fifty-two Pick-up, The Big Bounce, Get Shorty, et al.—has ensured him a permanent place in the canon. Hiaasen, while not looked upon as being in quite the same sphere of genius, is nevertheless an equal, and novels such as Strip Tease and Sick Puppy have garnered him a likewise enthusiastic following. Both authors specialize in combining true pop culture sensibilities with a style and wit that belies their subject matter. In their pages, you find lowlifes, dim-wits, hitmen, mobsters, and cops gone dirty, all deluded by their own visions of glory, and all supremely entertaining.

What has all this got to do with John McFetridge? Well, all authors have got start somewhere, and almost all will earn comparisons with works of similar techniques and subjects. And in Dirty Sweet, McFetridge is bound to hear the names Leonard and Hiaasen come up again and again. Not bad company to be lumped in with, but the comparisons could be hazardous.

Is McFetridge up to the ranks of Leonard and Hiaasen, or their contemporaries Westlake, McBain, Block, etc? Well, no, not yet. But he could be. Dirty Sweet is not a perfect book, but its pages hold the guarantee of talent.

The plot can accurately be described as Leonardesque. After a brazen, broad-daylight assassination of a Russian businessman, the last thing on anyone’s mind (except the police, and even that is debatable) is bringing the perpetrators to justice. The main witness, Roxanne Keyes, has aims of using her position to help her in a real-estate deal. The man behind the hit, Boris Suliemanov, now has a hitman uncle who won’t leave, a mother who complains constantly, a reputation with the Russian mafia as a coward, and an upscale strip-club that is in danger from violent take-over bids from rival gangs. Throw in slick cops, a charming Internet pornography entrepreneur, several various seamy characters of the unlawful variety, and you have a meandering, dipsy-doodle narrative that always entertains even while the reader tries desperately to play catch-up with the convoluted plotlines.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like an Elmore Leonard novel, what does?

Not to damn McFetridge with faint praise, but Dirty Sweet is not up to the levels of Leonard, Hiaasen, et al. Not their best works, at any rate. His characters are likeable to a point, but none quite so memorable as, say, Judge Bob Gibbs, Leonard’s maniacal title character in Maximum Bob. In Leonard’s works, the characters and dialogue are the main attractions, and while McFetridge tries, there’s something missing. McFetridge weaves his plotlines competently, but the machinations are too rough, the characters too numerous. He has tremendous ideas, but at least three personalities too many. Roxanne and Boris (and especially the porn king Ryan) are sterling, but there’s a lack of depth that keeps them from becoming truly outstanding.

But Leonard and Hiaasen are not perfect. Their lesser works are uneven at best, and Dirty Sweet is more fully realized than Leonard’s Be Cool, and almost on par with his entertaining Mr. Paradise. Hiaasen’s Double Whammy is like Dirty Sweet in its promise of exceptional talent, and its uneven execution.

Dirty Sweet holds such promise for McFetridge as a true heir to the greats, not simply an imitator (for examples of bad quality simulations, see Dave Barry’s Big Trouble, a good concept buried underneath a too-self-conscious style). It equals the lesser works of the giants, and to help rank it, it is miles above Brown’s Requiem, the first novel of James Ellroy (another crime writer who has gone so far past his early works that American Tabloid should have earned him the Pulitzer). McFetridge’s storytelling talent is terrific, and with a little seasoning, he will have earned a place among the greats.

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