In His Shadow by Dave Zeltserman
Review by Mario Taboada

A good way to invent an era is to give it a name that sucks. We call post-noir the era that started in 1961 with the publication of Charles Willeford's vicious Freudian parody, The Woman Chaser. Like noir, its deadbeat and far too earnest father, postnoir has crawled into our consciousness through peepholes rather than burst on the scene with photo ops and co-branded magazine covers -- not surprisingly, since such fiction is disturbing, often lacks any positive message and does not reassure the underrepresented, the displaced or the insecure.

The old genre and its descendant share most of the props, and one can count on instant reader recognition: the camera and lighting are the same, the subjects are older by way of anthologies, movies and a thesis or two, but shutter-magic is still possible when eye and finger are attuned to the sensibilities of the day. That is, the post-nineties hangover, which is a so-twentieth-century way of saying "I should have told me so", a bastard ethics of deflated expectations and guilts suddenly glaring.

What we have with Dave Zeltserman's new novel, In His Shadow, is an improbable cross between the classic PI novel (threadbare from use, an archetype) and the feverish fantasies of Jim Thompson (the crazies), David Goodis (the doomed) and Charles Willeford (the lucid on their way to the scaffold, but they go poetically). Feeding noir literary Viagra to the Marlovian dick is an act of faith, with consequences unpredictable and no warranty or extended-care plan available. I am happy to report that, for the most part, Zeltserman and his hero, Johnny Lane, perform with admirable panache.

Johnny is an experienced private eye with a successful practice in Denver, Colorado, In his spare time, he publishes a column based on real cases in the local paper. He is well connected and liked. Old ladies ask for his autograph at the local laundromat. An attractive chick who serves at the local diner mothers him and runs the occasional errand for him.

A few pages into it, Johnny starts sounding too smooth, too good to be true, too boring to be intentional. Ponders this reader: a Marlowe clone, plus Denver locale, minus some quirks, plus good business sense, minus a bad relationship with the police, same bottle in the same drawer, same shabby office, same lone-wolfishness, a tough dude with a touch of Old Benevolence. In this first act, Lane does not reveal what drives him, an unsettling, out-of-focus effect which disturbs the nominally nostalgic scenario.

This is a novel with fathers. In the first leg of the plot, Lane is hired by a man to find a missing teenage daughter, which proves to be a simple task. When the girl confesses that her father has been sexually abusing her for years, Lane meets with him, collects his check, beats him viciously and orders him not to go near his daughter again.

In a second case, a wholesome, attractive young woman hires Lane to find her biological parents. A quick investigation reveals that the case is tied to Lane's past. Here starts the second part of the novel, in which, gradually, the PI becomes the protagonist. Many surprises await the reader who wants to follow Johnny Lane through a series of increasingly convoluted maneuvers as he and the case (he and the past) dance a hysterical tango of life and death.

Chapter after chapter, Johnny unveils himself in a feverish first-person chronicle of his life; the novel picks up its pace. We learn that Lane is under his father's spell -- the shadow alluded to in the book's title -- that the present and the unexamined (or suppressed) past are so tangled that a clean break is impossible. Thematically, there is a strong echo of Ross Macdonald's Freudian dramas, but the voice is unequivocally Thompsonian. It oscillates, sometimes uneasily, between overt imitation and a reasonably spontaneous recreation.

Have we heard all this before? Is Zeltserman's appropriation of Thompson's style artistically legitimate? This is a point on which dedicated noirists are likely to disagree, and it may well be what makes or breaks the success of In His Shadow. I was bothered enough and interested enough to reread it.

A second reading dispelled most of my doubts: the magic worked when the surprises (there are many) were no longer such; the narrative hung together, the irony and the knowing heavy-handedness that make this a postnoir work became more evident. A writer who can produce bad Jim Thompson with such fluency deserves to be read.

An impudent triumph, then, a new P.I. on the block and the promise of a new voice.

In His Shadow by Dave Zeltserman
Published by iUniverse, 2002
Buy this book

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised edition of "Fast Lane" has been subsequently published, with"most of the clunkiness and silliness removed," according to the author.

Review submitted by Mario Taboada, October 2002.


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