A Nasty Piece of Work by Robert Littell
A Nasty Piece of Work by Robert Littell (Thomas Dune, 2013) takes us on a stylistic journey back to a slightly more innocent time of PI noir. In my early years when pulp was king, there was always room for a wise-guy approach to writing supposedly hardboiled stories of men who fell for the dames who came in as clients and then found themselves up to their necks in trouble. Almost without exception, they all had military or police backgrounds, and were recovering from a usually undisclosed tragedy of some kind. This justified a permanently world-weary outlook and a laconic approach to conversation. What made all these stories, both short and long, so satisfying was the wit in the telling. No matter how dire the situation, there was always the chance of a smile before the satisfactory outcome was achieved. These men would walk down the mean streets and do what they had to do to save the dame and stay out of jail.
So here were have Lemuel Gunn. To conform to the stereotype, he was a homicide detective in New Jersey who found himself out in Afghanistan as a CIA operative. Under normal circumstances, this might have passed off without incident but, as is always the way, his code of honour was out of joint with the army times. His contribution to the reports passing up the chain of command was not appreciated when he reported a minor massacre by US troops. No-one in Washington likes a whistleblower. This left him out of a job without a termination bonus and no pension. His natural response was to acquire a PI license and take up residence in a period trailer down in New Mexico. This allows him to lead the life of a loner, getting infrequent clients through word-of-mouth recommendation. He charges $95 a day plus expenses and refuses to bill unless the client is satisfied. Yes, this is the private eye role as a hobby.
Intruding on his impecunious but peaceful existence comes Ornella Neppi. She was helping out her uncle, who runs a bailbond business and, because she failed to make even the basic checks on a property title offered as security, they may be out $125,000 as a client seems to have disappeared. What makes this sufficiently interesting to persuade our hero into action is the disappearance of all the photographs of this potential criminal (innocent until proven guilty). This is a good trick. When it appears the same man may have engineered his own arrest, the hook is set and, like a fish pulled hither and thither through the ocean currents, our hero must struggle on through the maze until he closes in on the prize at the centre.
As a sample of the PI genre, this ticks all the right boxes and has a well-practiced air about it. For the record, this is Littell’s seventeenth novel so he’s no slouch when it comes to putting a good plot together. As is also required, Gunn is a good all-round performer whether he’s demonstrating sang froid while being warned off by professionals or he’s suggesting to an opponent he might have anger management problems. It’s a nicely put together package. I have only the one reservation which stems from the comments made in the opening paragraph.
Looking at the text, the best way to describe the style is Chandleresque. Now don’t get me wrong. I have very happy memories of reading all the major writers of the pulp era (and many of the also-rans). In those days, I was a fairly indiscriminate reader. But when confronted by a wall of prose in the style of Chandler I found it grew slightly monotonous. Yes, there’s considerable wit on display. I smiled every now and then in the early chapters. There’s a sense of fun about it all. But. . . I think Littell is trying too hard. It would have been better if he’d written in a more modern style with flourishes harking back to iconic writers of the past. So just as he’s updated the sex, i.e. actual sexual activity occurs rather than merely being a possibility in the 1930s and 40s originals, the general plot would have sufficed as a launching pad for adventures in the style of Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, et al.
Gunn is a hero who plots a course by his own compass of values. He has no interest in operating as a cog in the military-industrial complex. He asserts his individuality no matter what the cost. Fortunately, in this book he meets some police and FBI officers who have a similar world view. Collectively, they produce results outside the system because they think that promotes more abstract principles of justice. They don’t care what their bosses might think. In this respect, Littell is actually harking back to the iconic cowboy tradition of the rugged, self-sufficient individuals who lived by their own code and built modern America without waiting for the moneymen “back East” to get into the action. In theory today, we have a society in which everyone is expected to conform to the values imbued by the moneymen. We work for large corporations on their terms. Trade unions and other forms of collective action are marginalised. The moneymen hope they have built a society which is too complicated and does not permit the loner to prosper. Except when people around you are unpredictable, the survivor solves each problem as it is presented to him, limited only by his own conscience. The tough individual can still prosper but it takes a different form of courage to prevail. What’s interesting about the outcome in this novel is that our hero rediscovers the old truth that some people don’t come equipped with the ability to compromise. For better or worse, they are what they are. So A Nasty Piece of Work is a very professionally put together package and, if you like the classic PI novel style, this is very much your kind of book. Indeed, younger readers who have never encountered any pulp may well find this highly entertaining.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.