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
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
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
Published by iUniverse, 2002
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,
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