reviewed by Matthew da Silva
The book’s hardboiled style lets you more vividly imagine the past in which the narrative is placed while simultaneously allowing the author to obscure the sometimes stark divide in Ben Hughes’s characterisation where his illness slips into view. It seems that sometimes Hughes is lucid and controlled – as when he’s working Frankie over – and at other times he’s consumed by panic and fear – as when he meets Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) in the office of Chief Sullivan. But the hardboiled nature of the pose – all glaring edges and sharp angles – allow for this sort of contrast to be less obvious, or at least it matches it for drama.
And drama is what we all crave, whether it’s in a crime novel (as in the case of the book being reviewed currently) or a midday soap opera. Personally, I’m a big fan of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ which I watch most afternoons at 4.30pm just before the evening news. Hardboiled an innovation of a time of change and progress, when the shuddering perverse realities created by unjust laws of an older, less progressive age came up against the morphing present with a smack like the sound of a fist on a streetwalker’s pretty face.
Dealing however with modern issues like racism and dementia, PTSD and corruption of office Golds mixes the past with the present in a curious but compulsively readable melange. As you progress you’re always checking yourself to try to understand the feelings that emerge, and you wonder if it’s cognitive dissonance that formulates the drama’s rich appeal. So, for example, when Ben talks with Li Yu in her room in China Town you feel sympathy for her and an equal quantity of concern for crooked Ben and you wonder if the pleasure you sense inside you as you contemplate the possibility of more violence means that you are a man like him even though you don’t suffer from PTSD and even though you could never shoot a man out of anger because you disliked the way he sniffled as you sat at a bar. In fact the idea of holding a gun fills you with horror. Yet you understand and, in that moment of clarity, are transported, as when you watch a disaster unfolding in the evening TV news.
Addressing modern concerns in the context of the past — a time 70 or 100 years distant in time — lets you feel pity, which, it seems, is the brother of contempt, and by examining your own conscience you’re able to feel an echo of pity also for yourself because, like the people depicted in the novel, you are human. The story has this redeeming quality, letting you feel sorry for yourself while feeling sorry for obviously flawed characters as they appear in the story. It’s cathartic. Though reading doesn’t make you drunk you can feel clean and new again for a while in the same way that the second glass of wine might give you a temporary high whereas the fifth will just sit heavy in your gut, though Ben Hughes, who carries a whisky flask around with him for comfort, might continue to feel a benefit past that point, the dullness anyone would feel from drinking a bottle of chardonnay precisely the thing he seeks when he tilts his head back to take a draught. That is if he ever tried drinking wine. I gave up alcohol two years ago and I haven’t read a novel like this for longer than that. Placing the story in Boston is also evocative as the links between England and Massachusetts are ingrained in popular culture as deeply as are the tropes of Dashiell Hammett. When I was young I read John Fante, whose tales of life in Los Angeles illuminated the darkness I experienced at that time in my long and eventful life, and Ben Hughes has a dream of relocating his life – such as it is – to that city, the allure of California and the West Coast entering Golds’ story also in Kennedy’s proposal to use Hughes for a social and business event in Salt Lake City so that the whole of the North American continent is alive in Gold’s breathless imagination. And we know what happened to Kennedy’s son.