Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: DIRTY SWEET by John McFetridge

There’s good writing, there’s terrific writing, and then there’s writing that doesn’t read like writing. As with Elmore Leonard, John McFetridge’s writing reads as if you’re eavesdropping on the half-formed thoughts and conversations of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. True communication is not about breaking down barriers; it sneaks under the wire, slips in the back door, filters in through wormholes. Both McFetridge and Leonard understand that the best writing bypasses – or appears to bypass – the eyes and the ears, in the process diverting past the brain to address itself straight to the heart.
  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.
  Yeah, Boris thought, and I just need my piece …
  Later, two minor characters take a meeting:
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


Dana King said...

I've read some of McFetridge's short fiction and liked it a lot. He also makes routinely good comments on the Crimespace site. Thanks for the review; I'll have to add this to the TBR pile.

Don Lewis said...

Howdy! I'm Don, and I'm just passing through on an epic journey, back-tracking the 123 meme.



Peter Rozovsky said...

I just finished Dirty Sweet this week. McFetridge has a lot of the growing-up-in-Montreal stuff down pat, at least as far as music is concerned. (I can't judge the other stuff as well because he and I are from different parts of Montreal.) I even knew the keyboard player from one of the bands that he mentions as having played at biker parties.

And Vince's musing about all these bands that were said to have hit big in Montreal before they made it in the rest of America is dead on. I used to hear the same thing when I was a lad and, like Vince, I have no idea whether it was accurate.

I suspect that McFetridge and I attended many of the same shows at the Montreal Forum. God, the shite I spent my money on when I was a kid ...
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"