Aug 7, 2009

Monkey Droppings - Darwin's Nighmare by Mike Knowles

Today, we boil away society, leaving only the hardened nubs of humanity behind.

Darwin's Nightmare
by Mike Knowles
ECW Press, 2008

“People die because I live. I’m what Darwin dreamed of at night. Top of the food chain, no remorse.” – Paolo Donati

Writing hard-boiled fiction is hard.

Scratch that. Writing good hard-boiled fiction is hard.

I saw a woman in a fitted business suit make her way up the stairs. I imagined her at first to be a lawyer or doctor, but her bag was just a bit too shiny to be high-class. I pegged her for a working girl stopping into the clinic. Most of the working girls I knew tried to pinch every penny. No one wanted to work under men forever, and hookers needed condoms like offices needed paper clips.
See? All hard-boiled prose is just a hair’s breadth away from being completely ridiculous. It all comes down to attitude. The author must take the genre absolutely seriously, without a nod or wink of condescension. These are tough guys talking tough talk.

When it works, as in the genre-high works of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, the first Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer novels, or the early Burke novels by Andrew Vachss, it can be a wonderful thing. When it doesn’t, as in the later Vachss novels when he descended into self-parody, it can be a thing easily derided.

Another example:
She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida - the pink ones, not the white ones - except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't.
That’s from the Bulwer-Lytton contest to pen the worst opening sentences from the worst novels never written. As you might expect, hard-boiled prose is a favourite target. It’s way too easy to make the gritty dialogue seem absurd.

The first example, by the way, is an early excerpt from Canadian author Mike Knowles’ debut novel Darwin’s Nightmare, an exercise in the hardest of hard-boiled that comes off wonderfully. Knowles never flinches, never jokes, never shows the slightest hesitation. His tale is one of bad people doing bad things, and damn if it doesn’t work.

Knowles’ anti-hero is Wilson, a hired gun who harbours no pretensions about the life he lives. Wilson is the seedy in ‘seedy underbelly’, the man who gets things done, the man who can utter threats such as “Anything funny and you’ll be dead before you hit the floor. The receptionist will be next, way before she gets from nine to one one on the phone” with absolute conviction.

Wilson’s terrain is Hamilton, Ontario; not the most obvious choice for an exploration of the dark, but Knowles makes it work. Wilson was brought into his line of work by his uncle, a career criminal who (in quite an original teaching method) instructs a young Wilson on how to live the life through a game of Pac-Man:
I watched the take and learned slowly to think ahead of one ghost, then two, then three. After too many hours I began to see the whole table at once. I followed each ghost with my eyes, learning how they moved. Soon I learned how they reacted, and then I survived them. They couldn’t touch me anymore. I made a choice not to let them.
Wilson works primarily for Paolo Donati, doing jobs that require muscle, smarts, and a closed mouth. When Wilson steals a package for Paolo, he thinks it as just another job, but when he finds himself being tailed, Wilson has to pool his resources and work out exactly who’s coming after him, and why.

Wilson’s world is a tangled weave of criminals, people who owe favours, and relationships that can be turned with a flash of extra cash. There are no heroes, only villains. Knowles brings this subterranean world to vivid life, anchored by the possibly sociopathic but definitely intelligent Wilson.

But as violent as Wilson gets (and he gets plenty violent, whoo boy), his associates are indisputably worse:
Tommy Talarese was as scary a human as I had ever met. He was a man who had gotten where he was through nights of blood. He reveled in cruelty as though it were a religion. Tommy had butchered entire families, raped children in front of their fathers, and tortured enough people to fill a cemetery.
As the pages flip by, and bones break, and tendons rupture, and blood spurts, and bullets pierce flesh, the crunchy dialogue and pungent narrative drives Darwin’s Nightmare to new heights of hard-bitten cynicism. Knowles’ Hamilton is one unrelieved by humour or compassion. Wilson is a monster, but he has become one to survive the other, far worse monsters that populate his world. This is kill or be killed, Darwin’s theory put into brutal practice.

Such tales of unrelieved pessimism can easily wear out their welcome, but like the best practitioners of the genre, Knowles keeps his story moving, his action clear, and his character engaging even when he’s been shot and possibly bleeding to death. Darwin’s Nightmare is fantastic, bleak noir of the finest sort. Knowles and Wilson are working together again in Grinder, and if Nightmare is indicative of Knowles talent, it will be a gruesome trip worth taking.

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