Jul 18, 2010

Monkey droppings - Precious by Douglas Glover - "I was left hanging, a dumb guy in the snow...mouth open and a one-way ticket to Nowhere."

The Monkey seeks crime in northern climes.

Has there been a murder? Has some stolen a moose? Has someone badmouthed Canadian beer?

So many choices.

by Douglas Glover (2004)
I count it a major personality defect, pernicious naiveté, if you want to give it a name, that after two decades of adulthood, a career in the papers, three marriages, and countless skirmishes with the perfidy of human nature, all I could do was look into her eyes and believe every word she said.
I would not hesitate to proclaim that writing successful hard-boiled noir is probably one of the hardest exercises that can befall an author. The language, the style, the atmosphere, it all has to be done with the utmost precision and care; it's just too damned easy to make the dialogue of the cynical 'seen-it-all' anti-hero seem false and forced, even absurd.

She was all curves, a twisty-turvy road atlas of mountains and gullies and bends and dead-ends. I made a note to buy a map.
See? Actually, that wasn't bad, was it? Really serviceable, in a humourous sort of way. But rather ridiculous.

Which is kind of my point; it's all ridiculous. Nobody is as cool as the shamus' and private dicks espousing equal parts wisdom and wit with the dryness of a perfect martini. It takes a special gift to make such statements credible, even memorable, and way too often a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sensibility can take over. Or worse, a slavish adherence to the form results in a far-lesser carbon-copy of the original, with no sense of an original voice behind the bone-dry narration. When reading Martin Amis' Night Train, I was reminded of a quote from the eminent Charles Emerson Winchester III: "I could play the notes, but I could not make music." Amis, hardly a slouch of a writer, was too constrained by the limits of the form, too scared to let any of his own unique voice into the mix, and subsequently could not make his story sing.

The unarguable masters of the craft (Spillane, Chandler, Hammett, Leonard, Goodis, Mosley) all have radically different styles, widely differing approaches to their subject matter, but their whole-hearted embrace of the genre makes their tales soar. They have the sensibilities for such stories, a sensibility that cannot be faked. You're either a poet, or you're not.

Another example:
She was a little Looney Tunes after finding the body. But she was also pretty and her smile was like an anthology of TV toothpaste commercials, and what the hell, in this world you learned to trust people who let their quirks show; it's the so-called normal ones you have to watch out for.
Now, that, to me, is a fine piece of noir. A voice weary to the point of unconsciousness, rife with sarcasm and bitterness, yet helpless to his base impulses. A reluctant hero who follows every lead because, for better or worse, it is what he or she was born to do. And it in large part is what makes Precious, by Canadian author Douglas Glover, such a damn fine piece of work.

Precious is Moss 'Precious' Elliot, a boozing newsman who is hanging on to what is undoubtedly the last rung on the journalistic ladder, toiling as the Ockenden Star-Leader's women's page editor. But after a life of three failed marriages, a jail term, and a journalist's knack for following leads no matter the cost, Precious is just exhausted enough to see the position as a gift.

Of course, no one as chilled to the soul as Moss Elliot can evade fate forever, and murder will always follow such chaps. In this instance, it is Rose Oxley, town snoop, stabbed to death in her own home. Rumours float about as to her having untold sums of money stashed away, but for Moss, interested despite himself, the only thing that matters is the truth behind the story, no matter the cost to others:
I was sorry, sincerely sorry. But I knew certain feelings wouldn't survive the next day's headlines. Mrs. Ranger had been operating on the principle that bending a sympathetic ear can be therapeutic. But I was no analyst; someone else was picking up the tab.
And as is per usual, the murder is only the tip of the iceberg, as there is a host of unusual characters, femme fatales, and red herrings for both Moss and the reader to sift through. As Precious gathers steam, and the scattered plot threads begin to knit together, the novel begins to resemble a Canadian Chinatown, a northern Long Goodbye. A mysteru with far more up its sleeve than mere murder.

Glover, a former journalist himself and winner of the Governor General's Award for fiction for his later novel Elle, has a great ear for dialogue and a strong understanding that such novels must be lean, mean, and unadorned by excessive language or sentimentality. He also has the gratifying gift for original metaphor and simile, another staple of the genre: "Jerry Mennenga's bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers not far from where the Toronto Star building used to be." "When he spoke, his voice sounded like furniture being dragged across a concrete floor." Lovely bits of business, those.

While Precious had garnered its share of acclaim at the time, it has, like so many other novels, fallen by the wayside, buried under piles of similar works that can only aspire to Glover's talent. It's a shame, and I urge lovers of mystery, tough guys, gritty dialogue and grunting protagonists to seek it out. Elle may have garnered all the attention (and yes, deservedly so), but you cannot undervalue the worth of a great noir.


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