DIRTY SWEET concerns itself with three main characters. Roxanne is a real estate vendor working in a depressed market, owing big and keeping her eyes open for a score to boomerang her back into the good times again. Vince is an ex-con with a quietly successful internet porn business humming away in the building he rents from Roxanne. Boris, a Russian immigrant, runs a strip joint as a front for the various scams he has going on, chief among them the export of stolen cars. When Boris orders a hit on a lieutenant who’s been skimming too much off the top, and the murder – in the middle of Toronto, in broad daylight – is witnessed by Roxanne, a chain reaction is set off that will have seismic repercussions for all three, particularly when it attracts the attention of cops Price and Loewen and the gang of Hell’s Angels who are looking for any opportunity to legitimise their dirty money …
Notwithstanding the fact that McFetridge is a veteran screenwriter, DIRTY SWEET is an astonishingly assured debut. Laced throughout with a dark but understated black humour, the story opens in the wake of the hit and quickly, but almost invisibly, ratchets up the tension page-by-page. For a crime novel there is precious little violence on display; McFetridge is accomplished enough to thrive on threats, nuances, suggestions. Instead we get subtle character development, each personality growing in stature via their interactions with the others, and what their dialogue doesn’t say rather than what it does. McFetridge understands the power of suggestion, the tease, how the what’s-left-out exerts a compelling squeeze on what he puts in.
As is the case with his second novel, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWWHERE, Toronto itself is one of the main characters of the story. On the fact of it a beacon of multi-cultural integration, the city is something of a candy store for the world’s criminal fraternity:
This is a new city, a new country, and it’s so fucking ripe. People have been coming in here and taking what they want since the fucking fur traders. They took it all, every damned beaver, they took all the fish, they’re going to cut down all the trees, drain all the water, this country is so fucking stupid they’re just going to let it all go.Later, two minor characters take a meeting:
Yeah, Boris thought, and I just need my piece …
They were sitting on the patio of one of those Foxhound and Fricken places, this one out by the airport, so the only view was of an eight-lane highway and an endless stream of trucks. But patios were the only place you could smoke in this town now.In two short sentences McFetridge sketches in a strip-mined environment, the pretensions of the upwardly mobile, the false frontage of the franchise-riddled city, and the black joke of two Hell’s Angels, willing and keen to rape the city and murder anyone who stands in their way, meekly obeying the no smoking laws.
DIRTY SWEET is a classic example of why crime fiction is the most important genre in literature today. It offers an entertaining page-turner, certainly, and one crafted by a rare talent. But what makes it vital is its portrayal of its milieu, which is as vividly depicted as that of Chandler or Ellroy’s LA, or Pelecanos’ Washington DC, and how everything – laws, rules, history, morality, lives – is fair game when money hits a boomtown. Toronto, of course, is only a metaphor for Canada itself, and Canada is only a metaphor for how the First World is dealing, or not dealing, with the issue of criminality emanating from the Second and Third Worlds. Not for nothing does McFetridge twice mention America’s prohibition era, and the rise of Canadian bootleggers to take advantage of the demand for booze.
DIRTY SWEET is itself potent stuff, an illicit brew that’s as dirty as it’s sweet. It may kick like moonshine but it’s very much the real deal. – Declan Burke