Southside by Michael Krikorian
Too often authors fail to realise there’s something more to writing than putting one word after another. They tend to think they have the craft all nailed down when they manage whole sentences and then learn about paragraphs. The natural storytelling kicks in and off they go with this all-singing-all-dancing plot that all fits together (usually with not a little help from coincidence) and gets them to the end they foresaw when they set off (or at least that’s what they will claim if asked). So picking up a book like this is a pleasure because you get to read someone who understands the range of options available to a skillful writer. Let’s take a not-uncommon possibility: that you have a first person narrator but fit this inside a framework made up with both third-person point of view and omniscient author sections. This means the reader is passed from pillar to post as the story unwinds, each section having the best view of the action available. From a technical perspective, this is also challenging because the author has to balance tone and avoid knowledge bleeding from one section to another unless characters overlap or are seen talking with each other.
However, I’m delighted to say that the tool box has been thoroughly exploited by the addition of two further devices into the text. The first is a transcript of a conversation that was taped in rather ironic circumstances. Usually, journalists carry concealed recorders in the hope of catching the interviewee in a revealing admission. In this case, it’s the interviewee who’s recording the conversation with the journalist. I’ve only seen the ARC so I hope the typesetting is adjusted for the final print run. I prefer to see either a different font or italicised text with different tab settings.
The second device is a series of narrative digressions where the author dives off into explanations or descriptions of relevant background. It has been illuminating to read this and pick up insights both into the practice of journalism and the gang cultures of Los Angeles. To understand the function of digression, consider the nature of this blog. There are currently 1051 digressions, i.e. with this post, 1052 pages which have different content but are thematically related in that they are all reviews or talking about books, films or television shows. So a narrative is a primary discourse, but the author deviates from the strict process of telling the story to talk about other things only tangentially relevant to the development of the plot. When done crudely, we’re offended and term the interruption to the flow an infodump. A digression is rather more subtle and reads more as an embellishment to the flow of the plot. It’s not intended as teleological, i.e. to help us arrive at the culmination of the actions described in the plot. It’s the author suddenly deciding to break off and tell us something interesting, just for the fun of it.
Anyway, enough of the technical stuff, Southside by Michael Krikorian (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) is a rather pleasing first novel from a journalist who’s adding fiction to his writing bow. It’s not in any sense autobiographical. It just happens to be about Mike Lyons who’s a crime reporter on the LA Times — always write about what you know advised some old hack with a typewriter. Here we have a protagonist with a spotty early life, in and out of trouble, but eventually finding a niche for himself writing about life on the mean streets of LA. Given his background, he’s able to talk with active gang members and pick up good stories. The editorial staff are less than enthusiastic about his habit of drinking on duty, but they like the steady stream of stories he’s able to deliver. Insofar as anything can be with a man who lives life on the fringes of a culture that never hesitates to shoot first (asking question before, during or after never arises), his life is at a good point, including love with a beautiful woman. That’s why it’s such a shock when someone shoots him on the street. Now begins a trial of strength. Who from among all the gang members he’s upset would be most likely to attempt killing him? Worried the attacker may return for a second bite of the cherry, our hero is chasing around for leads when a tape recording surfaces. It’s nicely ambiguous, but read the way the mayor and senior police officers direct, it shreds his reputation. Now there’s everything to play for as we canvass all points of view, including that of the “killer”, so we can understand the motives of those involved and all the shades from pale grey to absolute black on the moral scale.
In all this, no-one has superhuman investigative or deductive powers. Everyone bumbles along, doing their best as a team effort of journalist, police officers and, eventually, gang members. It’s good to see everyone finally ending up on the same side for once. With all the information pooled, the killer can be identified and his motive confirmed. It feels credible and, in a thriller with observed police procedural, you can’t ask for more than that. As a package, Southside is very readable and, with the compass points in mind, three more volumes are planned. I shall be watching to see if Michael Krikorian can maintain this high standard.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.