Steal the Show by Thomas Kaufman (St Martin’s Press, 2011) is a classic PI novel which, of course, forces us to consider what elements conspire together to produce a “classic” noir novel. I suppose the first time we see an iconic private eye is when a lone figure stops being the mere gumshoe, shamus, private dick or snooper — a wonderfully pejorative word — as found in the pulps like the Black Mask which promoted the hard-boiled, penny-a-word, detective fiction, and becomes more universal character. The first point to note is that these more iconic figures are not good-looking heroes. They can be short and fat, old and grizzled. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe inhabit seedy offices in run-down city blocks. They drink in cheap bars, struggle to make a living on the streets, but can hold their heads up if invited into the Bel-Air mansions of the increasingly decadent well-heeled. They’ve seen it all before and are not afraid of anyone based on reputation or class. Many have been soldiers or have the soldier’s mentality. They understand the need for violence and, because it can threaten them, they are always vigilant. They have few friends. This includes women. But they are always strongly heterosexual in outlook, preferring the prospect of beauty to the alternative of violent death. In manner they’re acerbic, laconic and wont to make witty retorts. Summing it up, these men are socially rejected by the majority in conventional society, despised by the police and treated with contempt by criminals. They are tolerated only because they perform an essential social service. Their mood tends to be desolate, like the bleak landscapes of New York’s back streets or LA’s soullessness as captured by James Ellroy. This presents the PI as a voice of rationality in a world that’s often a practical nightmare with gothic murderers like Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep and Phyllis in Double Indemnity by James M Cain stalking the street. It’s hyperreal crime literature populated with figures we can say embody evil, hence the universality of the noir novel as good vs evil, the best of three falls to decide the winner.
In Steal the Show, Willis Gidney is struggling to stay in business. No-one is giving him any work. This is making him desperate enough to consider giving up his licence and getting a regular job. What makes his situation all the more precarious is that he’s in the process of trying to adopt a little girl whom he found next to a dead body. He’s an orphan, the product of Washington’s failing child care service, having grown up on the streets learning survival skills like how to lie and steal. Had it not been for Captain Shadrack Davies of the D.C. Police, he would have become a career criminal. Indeed, it was the Captain who named him and began the slow process of reforming him. Now he’s doing his best to put his past behind him and “do the right thing”. Except poverty may force him back into a life of crime, or to protect a client, he may have to break the law. Fortunately, his life skills and a small army of people he grew up with on the streets are consistently there as back-up should he need it.
Needless to say, as a single man, the state is not looking too kindly on his application to adopt a young girl. When he’s refused permission, he needs money to pay a lawyer to appeal. Fortunately a client comes along with cash and what, to Gidney, would be a simple job of breaking and entering. He salves his conscience that the burglary is all in a good cause and the cash will help cover the cost of the appeal. So he discovers evidence of a small factory duplicating a stolen film. When this evidence is passed on to the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Gidney secures continuing work to track down yet more illegal duplication operations. There’s just one problem. He’s upset the gang apparently running the Washington operation and they’re out to kill him. When someone tries to frame him for a murder, he’s even more determined to find out what’s going on.
This is a highly engaging novel that strikes a nice balance between the need to provide a good puzzle for us to solve, enough action to make it exciting, and an increasingly revealing study of Gidney’s character. Having been a victim of uncaring foster homes, he want to keep this girl out of the system. But the force of this need is a distraction from his work as a PI and hampers his survival as the gang goes public in its attempts to kill him. Worse, he’s almost committing himself to love, but his refusal to talk about his past or to share anything of his emotional life drives a wedge between them. Ironically, if they were together as a stable couple, his application for adoption would look better on paper. It seems many sacrifices may be required to solve this part of the puzzle. As to the operation for duplicating films which he disrupts, this gives us an insight into the world of film-making and distribution. It also introduces the two stars of the film being stolen who also turn out to have their own problems. As more bodies pile up and the threats to Gidney get closer to home, the tension ratchets up and reaches a point when several successive revelations show who’s doing what to whom and why. It’s all highly entertaining and the results on all issues are credible and satisfying. Steal the Show is not a happy-ever-after fairy story where people get to end their lives stirring rainbows into pots of gold. Life goes on — a major triumph in itself. So I confirm the excellent promise of the first novel, Drink the Tea and look forward to the next in the series.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.