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Reel Stuff by Don Bruns

November 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Reel-Stuff-3D

One of the delights in reading so many books is you get to see all the narrative tricks played out in their different forms. One of my favourites is the use of the unreliable narrator. When an author sets off down the track of a first-person point of view, the reader is limited to what the protagonist sees, hears and understands. So when our “hero” is not paying proper attention or is distracted, we also miss vital clues from the environment. Of course, the omniscient author can play the same game simply by choosing not to tell the reader or to limit the salience of information so the reader will pass quickly by without noticing. Trickery by omission or misdirection is standard fare. But the least unfair way of paying this game is through a first-person narrator. In Reel Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we have a particularly elegant way of presenting a puzzle for solution. To understand this bold assertion, a few words of explanation are required.

This is the seventh in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore, the narrator, James Lessor, his partner in a not wholly successful PI business, and Emily, Skip’s rather good-looking girlfriend. This time, our dynamic duo have picked up a job providing security on a set being used to shoot an episode for a moderately successful television series. Skip is beside the director while a stunt is being set up. A big star is doing a cameo which ends with him falling off a scaffolding structure. All the safety angles have been worked out. Even though this is a seventy-foot fall, there’s a very impressive inflatable bag to absorb the impact and lower said star safely to earth. It’s therefore a surprise to everyone when, during a rehearsal, he jumps off the scaffolding and falls twenty-feet to one side of the bag. The body is rather spread around by the impact. Of course, this looks like a suicide. Except perhaps it isn’t. The puzzle, of course, is how a scene being filmed (this production company uses old-school technology) could actually be a murder. Indeed, having been there and seen what happened, Skip is firmly of the opinion that it can’t possibly be a murder. As I said, it’s set-ups like this that make reading such a joy. As experienced readers, we know this will be a murder. The only question is how to overcome our hero’s failure to understand what he saw. In defence of poor Skip, it’s not his fault he thinks this is a suicide. In takes days for his certainty to weaken and for the investigative genes to kick into play. Of course, his partner’s willingness to take an advance to prove it a murder does set him on the right track.

Don Bruns and Dick Smothers celebrating stuff

To discover what happened, the team is forced to divide its forces. Skip and Emily go to Los Angeles. The victim’s wife runs a talent agency so our couple “go undercover”. Emily pretends to be an actress. Skip is her manager. They fake a resume and union card for Emily, and she dazzles them with her smile. Much to Skip’s annoyance, the agency is immediately on high alert and arranges an audition. Within twenty-four hours, Emily is on a high. She has a part in a new television series and finds well-established stars hitting on her. This is not the response Skip was looking for. Their relationship comes under pressure and the pace of the investigation slows a little. Fortunately, Skip eventually makes the breakthrough and, with various attempts being made on his life, grows confident he’s on the right track.

Reel Stuff is a superior example of the form of writing I describe as amiable mystery. Don Bruns is one of these laid-back authors who makes the craft look easy, propelling the reader rapidly through the mists of uncertainty until our hero emerges into the light of understanding with the solution. As a whodunnit, this is satisfying. It also works as a gentle thriller. Perhaps of equal importance, the dynamic of Skip’s relationship with Emily is developing rather nicely. Too often the immediate mystery dominates and limits the space available for us to watch the characters live their lives. Reel Stuff gets the balance right and leaves us with a bittersweet ending. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next episode.

For a review of another book by Don Bruns, see Hot Stuff.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hot Stuff by Don Bruns

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Hot Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2012) is the sixth in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore and James Lessor who’ve managed to aspire from being deadbeat losers with a used box truck into officially licensed private investigators with a used box truck. Except, because they find it hard to do anything properly unless you count finding body parts when they haul stuff in their truck, they still work for a travelling carnival show or go treasure hunting when stuck for something to do by way of earning a living. This time, Skip has found his true vocation, scraping the food off plates and feeding the dishwasher in a high-end French restaurant while James actually gets the chance to prove that not every minute of his four years at university was wasted. He’s earning biggish bucks as a sous-chef. They’re working undercover to find out who murdered the sous-chef James is replacing. And, within minutes, they remind themselves how hard it is to ask co-workers questions without exciting suspicion. And by the end of the first day, there’s what may have been a death threat to James — for once not a response to his laid-back charm.

The fun thing about this pair is the balance between competence and incompetence. Neither is really interested in the material side of life although, in his more mellow moments, James does admit it would be good to become rich. It’s just the lack of work ethic that holds him back. Skip finds his mind engaged and, with a bet involving a large quantity of beer riding on the outcome of their investigation, he’s really getting into the dishwashing gig like his life depended on it — well, perhaps his life does depend on it if the murderer realises he’s not a real dishwasher but a PI working undercover. Of course, work of this kind always involves perks. In this case, free swimming lessons have been included together with instruction videos on the uses and abuses of paperclips.

Don Bruns and Dick Smothers celebrating stuff

From this, you’ll understand Hot Stuff does something simple rather well. It entertains. Any author will tell you writing anything intended to be even vaguely humorous is a minefield. Fortunately, Don Bruns is not trying to write a comic novel as such, but the intention is to generate a smile or two on the way. This flows naturally from the set-up. Neither Skip nor James matches the conventional expectations we readers have about PIs. Instead of tough guys who can duke it out with the villains and generate those laconic one-liners we always wish we’d thought off, this pair is rather wimpy and prone to foot-in-mouthisms of rare quality. Indeed, if there’s any explanation for their success, it’s that no-one meeting them would ever take them for investigators and would most likely underestimate them. The only element that, perhaps, does emerge from this book to their credit is that James is not only a lot more conscientious than you might expect as a sous-chef, he’s also quite good at it. While, for reasons you’ll understand when you read the book, he can’t go back to work at the restaurant where the murder is committed, this experience should encourage him to look for a better position in a good kitchen. That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t get some decent paying work as PIs. Well, perhaps that’s not so much an assumption as a strong probability. I mean, who in their right minds would willingly employ this pair as private investigators?

So putting all this together, Hot Stuff is a good puzzle and our battered truck owners do get to the right answer, albeit by a somewhat circuitous route. I’m not wholly convinced by the way the book ends. It’s a bit too melodramatic for my taste. But it does have the virtue of neatness and leaves everything set for the series to continue. Something I’ll look forward to reading.

For a review of the next in the series, see Reel Stuff.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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