Dec 2, 2007

Houdini's Shadow by Leo Brent Robillard - Review

Houdini’s Shadow
By Leo Brent Robillard
Turnstone Press, 177 pages, $19.95

In his review of the under-rated modern noir Johnny Handsome, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert opined that stereotypes are not always a bad thing. Sometimes, he believed, a story is better when it acknowledges its roots.

I felt the same way after reading Leo Brent Robillard’s uneven yet entertaining novel Houdini’s Shadow; here is a novel of dark, pulpy, noirish themes, yet it would be a better story if it acknowledged itself as such.

Despite an opening chapter detailing one of Houdini’s famous escapes, Houdini’s Shadow does not concern itself with the magician. Rather, Robillard follows the path of Jake, a young boy who witnesses Houdini’s cheating of death, and becomes enamoured with the prospect of becoming an escapist. With a boxer father on the take, however, it isn’t long before Jake’s life departs from the glorious illusions of youth, and enters the gritty reality of a life of crime on the streets of Montreal.

Soon, after an aborted life as a professional thief, Jake takes up as a driver for Israel, a local mobster who isn’t as big as he’d like. Israel has taken up with a fetching young lass named Louise who, in classic femme fatale fashion, takes up with Jake on the side, says her name is really Lulu, and begins playing all the angles to suit her own mysterious needs. “[H]e understands in some oblique way that she is like a mirror. Only, rather than a likeness, she reflects a yearning. She is what you want her to be, and is therefore perfect.” If that isn’t a dangerous woman straight out of Chandler and Hammett, it ought to be.

Robillard displays a fine knack for crafting evocative moments that effortlessly capture the essence of mystery. At one point, Jake observes a man and woman sitting at the other end of a train car, when the train enters a tunnel; “when the light crashes through the windows on the other side of the tunnel, they are where he left them. Only something is different. A smudge of blush, perhaps. A loose lock of hair. And suddenly he understands something important about the dark.” Passages such as this tinge the plot with hints of indigo sadness, pushing the noir to its limits.

The problem with Houdini’s Shadow (other than a third act that unwisely abandons its third-person singular narration) is its unwillingness to fully embrace its pulp origins. Robillard rarely pushes hard enough, trying to find the artistic slant to his slim plot rather than delve into the darkness that his tale truly requires. It’s too much surface, all gloss and polish, when what is needed is a healthy dose of grit. Robillard needs to commit to the stereotypes of the genre; the somewhat-dim hero, the deadly dame, the aggrieved gangster. These are the tools of the trade, and while Robillard understands their uses, he is unable to build more than a façade that looks good, but has little depth.

For Houdini’s Shadow is fully in the vein of the recent Hard Case Crime publications, and would make a good fit with the classic reissues of Donald E. Westlake and Ed McBain. Robillard has the moves and the technique, but he needs more seasoning to fully bring Jake’s sordid world to life. Houdini’s Shadow is an enjoyable story, but it’s a b-movie among b-movies.

1 comment:

John Mutford said...

It sounds like Robillard was a bit tortured during the writing- trying to balance pulp with some outside notion of what art should be. Seems like too much awareness of critics ended up killing the tale. Of course, not having read it myself, I'm basing my perceptions on yours!

Great review.

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