Saturday, October 8, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: In Search of Mercy - Michael Ayoob

When I learned that the winner of "Best First Novel" at this year's Shamus Awards was very much an atypical private eye novel I was a little more than intrigued. Although the dust jacket for the first edition is emblazoned with a badge that signifies In Search of Mercy as also winning the Best First Private Eye Novel in a competition sponsored by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur books, the book is not truly a private eye novel. It is more accurately labeled in its subtitle as "a mystery." And that subtitle has multiple meanings to be addressed later. True, the protagonist is offered money to do some investigative work (qualifying for the private eye genre as outlined by the Shamus Awards), but he's a former high school hockey star now working in a produce distributor's warehouse in Pittsburgh. A far cry from that cramped office on Sutter Street with dingy venetian blinds and Spade & Archer on the front door. There's a missing person, too, like three quarters of the Golden Age books of its type, but there's no murder. What? No murder? Is it possible to have a private eye novel without a real private eye and no murder? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is indeed possible. And the book works.

Dexter Bolzjak may be young (some simple math tells me he's about 24 though it's not actually stated) but he's had more than his fair share of troubles and he's saddled with a horrid traumatic incident that continues to haunt him eight years after it happened. Where most private eyes are former alcoholics, divorced, war vets, or burned out cops, Dexter has an abusive abduction that fairly ruined him. He continues to have flashbacks and dizzy spells throughout the story. Only bits and pieces are related to us, but rest assured the nightmare he endured will be described in full detail in a harrowing scene late in the book. He refuses professional therapy. He says it's for pussies and -- my one real issue with the book -- faggots.

Faggot is the favorite slur among the characters in this book. Both men and women use it with with relish to emasculate and insult Dexter. Dexter himself uses it to beat himself up and insult his best friend. Ayoob's book is set in 2001 yet I felt like I was back in the locker room in my high school in the 1970s. Is that word really thrown around so much these days? Emasculation, oppression and abuse, what it means to be a real man are all at the heart of the story. I tried to be forgiving and to see the use of that word in the context of this dark and dirty story, but each time someone used that insult I couldn't help but wince.  I think I have my own traumas I'm still dealing with as Dexter does throughout this engrossing story.

To overcome his status as a "pussy" and finally shed his tarnished reputation as the failed hockey star who let everyone down eight years ago Dexter is given an unusual chance to prove himself worthy. Lou Kashon, the local crazy coot, hires Dexter to find his lost love. She happens to be the former movie star and film noir goddess Mercy Carnahan and no one knows if she is still alive. After becoming a sensation in the late 1940s and early 1950s she abandoned film, attempted a stage career and then suddenly and mysteriously on the opening night of her stage debut, The Crimson Kiss, renounced her life as an entertainer and disappeared. She has never been seen since. Lou wants Dexter to find her and offers him a drawer full of cash in excess of $100,000 as his reward. Dexter takes up the double duty of both discovering Lou's secret reason for needing to find Mercy and the mystery of her disappearance.

There is a lot going on in this book. It's a coming of age story and a thriller, a detective novel and a movie lover's trivia book. Ayoob uses the tropes of the traditional private eye novel to explore the idea of masculinity, failure and success, family secrets and family bonds.  It's awfully ambitious and downright impressive.

One of the most surprising scenes comes when Dexter tracks down the owner of a website devoted to the memory of Mercy Carnahan.  Prior to this scene the book is a dark noir style paying homage to the Gold Medal and Lion Library paperbacks writers of the 1950s. Dexter enters the house and suddenly he and the reader are transported into a bizarre world that echoes the weird menace stories that filled the pages of pulps magazines like Dime Detective. Deviant sex, plastic surgery experiments, and a jaw dropping shocker right off the stage of the old Grand Guignol. This portion of the book shows Ayoob's skill in creating horror but it was just too strange and very jarring in a book that seems to be more gritty realism than sensationalistic dark fantasy.

Elsewhere on the internet there are some interesting interviews from local Pittsburgh TV and radio stations in which Ayoob talks freely about his book.  I learned from one of those interviews that after reading a draft of In Search of Mercy a friend suggested that Jim Thompson must be Ayoob's favorite writer. Ayoob had never heard of him, but he admits that he tracked down a book called The Killer Inside Me and was completely entranced.  Anyone who is familiar with that book will know that Ayoob certainly picked the most chilling of all of Thompson's dark crime novels. He then dove right into the rest of Thompson's work and says that it must've influenced him a bit when rewriting his own book.

Ayoob sadly has no literary representation and his winning the contest landed him only a one book contract.  Let us hope some wise and prescient agent sees the promise of a new writer in this startlingly original and fascinating novel.  I'd read a second book, a third, and more from this fresh new voice.  The future of the private eye novel depends on young writers like Michael Ayoob.  I eagerly look forward to more from him.

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