(Spoiler alert: You might want to save this for later if you haven't read the book yet—ed.)
I am not sure, but I am sure that Bruen is a well-read guy, as well as a real aficionado of music. And movies (like Sunset Boulevard, of course) and even American cop shows. So is Mitchell, come to think of it. He gets through about a book a day while he is doing a three year stretch in prison for beating a guy nearly to death while in an alcoholic black out. He references a host of British and Irish and American crime writers, some of which I have heard of, and many of which I haven’t. And he even references Camus: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Mitch may aspire to this existentialist transcendence, but he never does surmount fate, not even close.
And he not only references those writers, he mimics them, but not in a way that is mere imitation. He takes them and turns them into something dark and terrifying, or more dark and terrifying. And while the novel starts out as a kind of exercise in fatalism, it eventually morphs, at least partially, into a mystery. In some weird and delicious way, it is a mystery that the novel is going to turn into a mystery. It’s great stuff, and I am going to gamely try to tell you why (even though the best way to be convinced is to read it yourself).
The Mitch character has the kind of insubordination problem that Philip Marlowe does, but not the moral code. He likes to get stoned, wasted, doped up and always eventually passes out on any kind of drug or booze he can get his hands on, but the thing that really gives him a rush, puts him into the kind of ecstatic clarity of a holy monk, is violence, and the nearness of death. In this sense, he is kind of like Travis McGee. Unlike McGee, however, he is more likely to take a life than to save one.
The minute Mitch gets out of prison, you wonder how long it is going to take him to get back in. He is picked up by Norton, a thug who was the one who actually beat the guy into a coma, and who let Mitch go down for it. When an old man unwittingly drops his wallet in the line of sight of both Mitch and a ticket taker, Mitch gives it back, but tells the reader: ”I know myself pretty good. If the ticket collector hadn’t seen it, I’d have kept it.”
Right at the beginning of the first person narration, Mitch says ”you believe you’re making choices, and all you’re doing is slotting in the pieces of a pre-ordained conclusion.” Of course, if you believe you’re fated to make the same mistakes over and over again you lose hope, and give up trying, and so you do, but that is beside the point.
The real point for me was that I was convinced this was to be a tale which would hold my interest not because there was a mystery about what had happened or would happen, but because I wanted to see just how Mitch’s tale would reach its inevitable brutal conclusion. I thought I was going to merely be a witness to Mitch’s descent back into hell, or his transit from the depths of hell (prison) to a slightly higher level of it (Southeast London) and back down into the pit, or into the oblivion of death. And I had no doubt a lot of people would die along the way.
Bruen has the ability to use English in marvelously arresting ways. These were not complicated ways, but nevertheless brilliant: “The bread was fresh and crisp like an idealized childhood.” “The next morning I was deciding what to wear for extortion.” “If MY WAY was the anthem of chauvinists, DESPERADO was the rationalization of convicts.” It’s great stuff. And he’s got the same smart mouth that a lot of hard guys in crime novels do. When the warden gives him a kind of exit interview on the day of his release and tells him that repeat offenders are obsessed with jail, Mitch replies “I think you’re confusing obsession with compulsion.” And then Mitch “explained the difference to him.” Having bested the warden at verbal combat, Mitch is told by a guard that it’s not a bright idea to give the warden lip, so Mitch gives the guard some: ”What else did I have to offer?”
Mitch is a product of Southeast London, a cesspool of casual and deadly violence, and in a way he is perfectly suited for it, although not for the politer society that produces places like they were byproducts of its economic digestion. Norton immediately furnishes Mitch with an apartment, and Mitch becomes a leg breaker for an enterprising loan shark named Gant. He also hooks up with and his old friend Jeff and robs a bank, and pokes a young mugger in the eye, in a failed attempt to remove it. The fair damsel that he saved from said mugger has an Aunt who needs a handyman, and Mitch ends up fixing more than the aging actress's clogged gutters. This Gloria Swanson stand-in manipulates Mitch into bed with a still compelling sexuality, and when that begins to fail she uses money and guilt. Again, Mitch is fatalistic, this time about his chances of ever escaping her (or Southeast London).
When Mitch finds Ainsley, whom he thinks is the love of his life, Lillian Palmer (the old actress) tries to commit suicide. He goes to her bedside, feeling like a well-trained mutt, and reassures her he will never leave her: “I felt exactly like I did when the judge said ‘Three Years.’”
Still, there is the dream Mitch has of a kind of wedded bliss with Ainsley. The relationship is one of the few places where he practices compassion (he also loves his near insane sister and mourns the loss of the street peddler who sold him his daily paper. When the paper-seller is murdered by a young soccer prodigy, Mitch shoots up his legs so badly that he will never play again ). Ainsley represents everything that Mitch never let himself ever dream of having.
But Mitch gets into a beef with Gant when he turns down an offer for a leg-breaking promotion and tries to leave his employ. In short order both Norton and Ainsley are killed, and Briony commits suicide. Gant sends an evil Eastern European assassin to kill Mitch, but Lillian’s chauffeur, named Jordan, turns out to be an ally, and the duo quickly dispatch both Gant and the Slavic hit man.
And still I was thinking this is a tale in the Dreiser fashion, a tale of cruel fate, and I am waiting for Mitch to die or go back to jail, waiting for him to explode into the kind of violence he can’t seem to control, especially now that he has lost the little he had in the world.
And that is where the old worm turns. When Jordan and Lillian Palmer go out of town, Mitch discovers in one of her drawers the collar of Briony’s little dog, another apparent victim of the psychopath Gant. And everything that happened transforms magically into something else. Jordan, who had once been Palmer’s husband, has been protecting her by doing everything he can to make sure Mitch never leaves her. The Butler killed Ainsley because he was afraid Mitch would leave Palmer for her. And he killed Gant to keep Mitch from being killed, again for the great love of his life. He even killed Briony, because she was trying to take Mitch away from Southeast London. And so our “hero” kills Jordan and the faded starlet, and finally the penny drops for me too. It doesn’t matter if Mitch goes back to jail or dies, because he is already either dead or in hell.
© 2014 Mike Welch