Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle
Well, this is going to be a novelty. Today’s book is Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and, for once, I’m going to write two shorter reviews. The first will be for younger readers. The second will be for geriatric curmudgeons like me. Why two reviews? Because this is a hardboiled novel somewhat in the style of Raymond Chandler. Some of you reading this will know the name but never have read any of his shorter stories or novels. The first review is for you.
Think of a man with a past in which something terrible happened. In this case, he was wrongly accused of murder. He manages to avoid prosecution but runs away and finds somewhere to hide. Think of this as entering a pupa state in which he will lie relatively dormant until the metamorphosis is complete and it’s time for him to emerge. As the years pass, the chrysalis hardens and much effort is required to break out. When the process is complete, what entered the papa state as a police officer will emerge as a fully adult PI. This is the key characteristic of a Chandler hero. That he is, first and foremost, a detective. Nothing changes that reality. That’s why he never has any private life. Although he has a place to sleep, it’s not really a place he will convert into a home by marrying. Indeed, apart from casual sex, he’s unlikely even to have a girlfriend. This book starts with a series of relatively minor incidents at the restaurant he manages. He encounters a girl. Later he has sex with her but this is almost immediately complicated. Two heavy hitters ask him about the girl. His refusal to answer results in pain. Then by one of the coincidence needed to get hardboiled stories like this underway, her ex-husband turns up dead in the room she had at a local motel. He may not be a PI (yet) but he has a client and she needs him to work out what’s happening. On the way, there’s some nice laconic wit and plenty of interesting plot developments. Put all this together and you have the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new series as our butterfly hangs out his shingle as a PI and looks for business.
The second review should start with the reminder that Chandler didn’t actually start writing professionally until he was fired from his job as an oil executive in 1932. For the record, The Big Sleep made it on to the shelves just before the outbreak of war in 1939. We’ve had PI Philip Marlowe embedded in our public consciousness ever since. I grew up in the 1950s devouring secondhand pulps like Black Mask, reading back through all the excitement of life in this violent but interesting country called America. For a kid growing up on the north bank of the Tyne with nothing more exciting than drunken brawling between the crews of the fishing fleet when the weather forced all the different nationalities to shelter in port, and occasional gang violence, the magazines offered a view of a radically different place where crime was endemic and the characters were not a little romantic. Chandler, Hammett and James M Cain ruled the roost in those days but there were a vast number of wannabes who crowded out the pages of pulps and novels, all hoping for the market to recognise them as the next big thing. In the end, I got bored by the repetitiveness of the plots. In the early 1960s I moved on from the detective/mystery genre into science fiction, fantasy and horror. Today, the only people I rate as having continued the Chandler style of PI novels are Robert B Parker and Walter Mosely even though both Spencer and Easy Rawlins break the mould and have fairly serious relationships. It’s the implicit attitude that counts.
So this is a book that does absolutely everything right. It has an excellent plot which carefully provides us with a choice of villains, the cops are unknown quantities (most assumed to be prejudiced and hostile), and Melody has that slightly arch, vampish quality that marks the transition of a “type” through time. Insofar as we can have a modern Bacall, this would be her. The only trouble is that this tough guy with an urge to be protective of anything wearing a skirt that muscles in on his life is too much in the classic mould. I didn’t feel he was truly a contemporary figure for all his backstory in the police and his current loyalties to those helping him rebuild after the”disaster”. He feels “old school”. The reason why I like Mosely and miss Parker is their heroes moved on. Even though Mosely set his novels in the past, they are still contemporary novels.
Frankly, I don’t think younger readers will notice or care. I think they will read this first-in-a-new-series and demand more. But for me, the senior who’s seen it all before, it lacks a contemporary spark. It’s an excellent example of a PI novel I would have hoped to read twenty years ago. So if you’ve never read Raymond Chandler or any of the other period hardboiled writers, you’re going to enjoy Yesterday’s Echo. Older guys like me will think it a good shot at a Chandleresque PI novel that just misses the bullseye. Hopefully the next in the series will have a more modern tone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.