Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Russel D. McLean's The Good Son

Private eye has seen a renaissance in the last few years. But the hero doesn't wear a trench coat anymore and he's not a wisecracking smartass, like Philip Marlowe or even Spenser. Instead, in most of the newer private eye books he's just as hurt as any of us. He's haunted by his actions and his thoughts. He can't be a hero anymore. I'm talking about writers like Sean Chercover, Dave Zeltserman, Reed Farrel Coleman, Dave White and Ken Bruen. There's lots of them around - private eye is all but dead.

Sometimes it feels, though, that the private eye's sadness and vulnerability becomes a bit too much. There's too much grief, too much sadness, too many broken lives. I mean, just how much can one man have in his own life? This is the case with Scottish writer Russel D. McLean's debut novel, The Good Son (Five Leaves 2008). It stars PI J. McNee whose life is a mess, mainly due to the fact that his girlfriend was killed some years ago and he hasn't gotten over it. He's a recluse and it seems no one really cares for him. His friends disappeared when he was thrown out from the police force. The Good Son puts him against some London gangsters, who show no mercy wanting something from McNee and his client, a man who found his long-lost brother hanging dead in a tree.

It's an interesting novel and the premise is intriguing, but the book is also flawed in many respects. First, there are several people in the book that I don't really buy. For example, McNee's client never feels like a Scottish farmer he is, even though McNee mentions many times that the man really looks the part. There are also some old school tough guys who I didn't find very convincing.

Second, I was a bit disappointed at how McLean tells important plot points, by narrating them through people who tell the stories to McNee. Some of them don't feel authentic and have some narrative conventions that don't fit in with the backflash structure. And this narrative device also makes McNee look like he's actually doing nothing to solve the mystery of the dead man hanging from the tree. (Which of course goes on to show how much of a loser McNee is.)

And I think McLean stresses McNee's personal grieves just a bit too much. Get on with it, for Chrissake! The ending especially has too much of this stuff.

But having said all this, I can say I enjoyed the book and am pleased to notice that it's been bought for an American release and that the same US publisher has bought also McLean's second novel, The Lost Sister (out in October).

And I'd really like to press a point here. Russel McLean has published lots of stories in the net, in publications like Spinetingler and Thrilling Detective. The Good Son was published in the UK by a small publisher, and now McLean is being published in the US by St. Martin's, which is a big (or biggish) publisher.

Similar things have happened with Dave Zeltserman, whose first novel was self-published and it became later Fast Lane, published in PoD by PointBlank, and who ran his own website, Hardluck Stories for short stories and to promote his own work, and Allan Guthrie who also published first through PointBlank. I'm sure I could come up with more examples (and I did, earlier today, but I already forgot who it was). Websites and PoD publishers and self-publications, not to mention e-publishing, which I think will be developing into something worthwhile in ten years, are the pulp magazines and paperbacks of today, a forum in which a writer can hone his skills and gather following and learn his trade. They are nothing to laugh about.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice analysis of the state of the art. Thanks.

Frank Loose said...

For my taste, I like PI stories that are mostly about the case and not about the PI. I'm reminded of something that Ross MacDonald said about his detective Lew Archer. Something to the affect of, when he turns sideways he disappears. (at least i think it is a RM quote) The meaning is clear that RM thought the detective was the vehicle thru whom to tell a story, but was not the focus himself. I like that approach. I also like short books like they wrote back in the 50s and 60s. Stories that come at you like a rife shot.

Juri said...

Frank: I'm with you here, but I can understand that it feels clichéd to modern readers, given how much psychobubble we are fed through different media all days of the week. And I think your quote comes from Ross Macdonald, writer I have great admiration for.

Patti: you're welcome. I'm not sure if I said anything original, though.

Juri said...

And I of course meant to type "psychobabble", not "bubble". But hey, that's a great name for a band!