Sunday, May 02, 2010

Has Declan Hughes written the greatest P.I. novel ever?

City of Lost Girls does not so much surpass the classics of hard-boiled P.I. fiction as it invokes them and brings their spirit back to thrilling life.

In Declan Hughes' fifth novel featuring Dublin private investigator Ed Loy, Hughes:
  • Sets major parts of the story in Los Angeles, complete with breathtaking and melancholy scenery.
  • Gets inside the head of a serial killer.
  • Sends great torrents of yearningly romantic prose tumbling onto the page.
  • Offers up any number of wisecracks and world-weary observations.
Crime writers have done all that for years, so how does Hughes keep it fresh? By the sheer exuberance of his prose, including some gleeful stomping on Bono's reputation. By the angry topicality of his observations ("...you're the only one who gave a damn about them, Ed. Nobody else noticed they were lost. Although no doubt once the TV gets going on the Three-in-One Killer, all manner of traumatized parents and siblings will emerge, weeping and wailing for the cameras like a bunch of bought-and-paid-for whores.") And mostly by the high respect he has for mystery.

Hughes pays subtle, effective tribute to the old-time mystery tradition of lining up suspects one by one, but it's mystery of a deeper kind that underlies the story:
"You can't extrapolate from someone's childhood and background that he would step over the edge and act in this particular way," Loy tells us. "That's what I find so problematic about criminal profiling: it's magical thinking, when you boil it down, a kind of elaborate system of guesswork and hunch-playing. Nothing wrong with that, I operate pretty much the same way. Every detective does. ... We just don't dress it up the way the criminal profile boys do, calling it behavioral science and making claims for its near infallibility."
That's a nicely contemporary expression of the traditional hard-boiled P.I. world view. More to the point, it's just one example of the book's touching philosophical humility. Nothing human is ever certain or definite in Ed Loy's world or the killer's.

The tentative reconciliations at novel's end are all the more affecting for that fragility. And that is one hell of an update of the hard-boiled P.I.'s romantic side.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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45 Comments:

Blogger Margot Kinberg said...

Peter - Thanks for this review. I've not read a lot of Hughes, but he is an very, very talented writer, and this one sounds like a good 'un.

May 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read and enjoyed his first and third novels. His fourth was a leap forward from those, and then this one is something special.

May 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I've only read the first, which I really liked. Why the heck can't I keep up with anything?

May 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Give yourself a break. There are lots of good books out there.

I'd say you're at least as well off making a determined effort not to keep up, then being delighted when you do stumble upon something especially worthwhile, as I did with All the Dead Voices and City of Lost Girls.

May 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

One of the perils of working in a bookstore is that you are fully aware of how much you're missing. And unfortunately, that it might make a difference to a writer that you've missed something that you might be able to help get a few more reads for.

May 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, we complain good-naturedly about our towering to-read piles. You have books looking down at you all day, taunting you and reproaching you.

You know, I always liked seeing staff member's picks at a bookshop. Now I see that these might be especially important, as might be a staff of diverse reading tastes to make the picks.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It makes no difference when there is some bigger name advocating for them, but for people who haven't hit the gravy train yet, it's one of the ways they stay in the radar.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like to think blogs like this are another way, as is the recent Spinetingler Awards, which go out of their way to recognize novels from newer authors.

Staff recommendations are a nice personal touch, especially welcome in these days when the economy is concentrating more and more power in fewer, bigger hands.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Blogs are indeed another way. I think that bookseller recs and blogs such as yours are a kind of small antidote to big marketing campaigns. Or at least a little ray of hope.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think even chain stores are allowed one expression of employee initiative and individuality per fiscal quarter.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Actually, having been employed at a chain store at one point in my chequered past, and having known several people who've worked in some since then, I'm pretty sure the employees aren't the problem there.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't doubt it. In fact, I was guessing that its head officers that restrict freedom at individual stores.

I reached that conclusion when, knowing what the answer would be, I asked why James Baldwin, one of whose essays made an especially profound statement of what it meant to be an American, was shunted off to African American studies, with no copies in literature.

"Coporate-level decision," I was told.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I do have to say, though, that all of us who work 'on the floor' find it both convenient and (usually) true to answer complaints by referring to decisions taken at a "higher level".

But yes, James Baldwin's essays are absolutely brilliant.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

City of Lost Girls takes Declan Hughes onto a whole new level, Peter, no doubt about that. And he was plenty good before ...

Cheers, Dec

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was noticing technical things he was doing in this book and "All the Dead Voices" that he had not done before. He's not writing the same book over and over. It's exciting to see.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Mr. Hughes might be surprised to learn that it's already in my library way out here, and that there are 10 readers ahead of me on the waiting list.

Thanks for the pointer, Peter.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's like me to whine about corporate control without considering the great benefit it confers of being able to shift the blame on up.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, it's nice to know that word is spreading about a good book. The novel is only very recently published, I think.

May 03, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

That's what I find so problematic about criminal profiling: it's magical thinking

Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting piece in the New Yorker a few years ago on that con-job known as criminal profiling, on the similiarities between it and the cold reading techniques of psychics and astrologers.

When the sniper John Allen Muhammad was terrorizing the Washington area back in 2002 the profiles said he'd be a white male in his thirties working alone but he turned out to be a black male in his forties working with a partner.

Of course, calling it a con-job is probably a little unfair as the profilers were likely deluding themselves just as much as anyone else.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Knowing what I do about profiling, which is next to nothing, I'd say it's more a mass delusion than a con job. Your man Ken Bruen has this passage in Calibre:

Ever see that profile shine they pedal [sic]?

Me now, they'd
typically pin as:

White (true)
Late twenties,
early thirties (wrong)
Loner (mm...mmm)
Isolated
(nope)
Impotent (hey!)
Narcissistic (well okay, I'll
give them that)
Low-paying job (nope)
No partner
(wrong again)
Quiet (I'm a party animal).

May 03, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Typical Bruen, Peter. Funny, terse and to the point. I like that 'pedal', though. Have you ever thought of getting in touch and offering your services?

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

When the sniper John Allen Muhammad was terrorizing the Washington area back in 2002 the profiles said he'd be a white male in his thirties working alone but he turned out to be a black male in his forties working with a partner.

Solo, some years ago we had a case here in Philadelphia in which a man held a mildly retarded woman as a virtual prisoner in a hotel room for some ungodly long time, claiming he was caring for her and so on.

I was surprised to see the perp was a black man, and I realized that I'd associated that type of crime with white men. I'd say I was guilty of racial profiling, except that term had been apropriated for other purposes.

May 03, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I think racial profiling has always been the black sheep (I hope that's not sheep profiling) of the criminal profiling family. But it's all the work of the devil, if you ask me.

I was reading about Arizona and its new immigration bill recently which is where I came across a reference to a car sticker people over there use: 'I'm a Mexican — pull me over.'

(I tried to publish this comment a minute ago but it didn't seem to work so I hope I'm not repeating myself)

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that's a bumper sticker with wit.

May 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have offered my services to a few authors, and some have taken me up on it. I have made no such offer to Bruen.

He could use some proof-reading, though. His books get names and words wrong or even give the same character different names in different places more than any writer ought to, particularly one who is otherwise so good at what he does.

May 04, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I'd like to think a compatriot has, but it would have to go some way to top 'The Long Goodbye', which is not only my current No. 1, but also, off the top of my head, one of my 10 all-time favourite books

(btw, I wonder is the title of a previous book, 'The Wrong Kind of Blood', inspired by a legendary British Rail announcement, about the wrong kind of snow,...or was it the wrong kind of 'leaves' (on the tracks)

May 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In the sobering light of day, I realize that I haven't read nearly enough to answer my own question. (Among the holes in my reading are the novels of Ross Macdonald, Hughes' closest model among American hard-boiled writers.) But "City of Lost Girls" is a hell of a book. I love authors who can respect a tradition while building on it, adding to it, working within it and keeping it fresh, and I can't remember a novel that does that better than this one.

"The Wrong Kind of Blood" applies to at least two aspects of the novel of the same name. Whether that additional resonance for British Rail riders was intentional, I don't know.

My recent reading of Hughes plus a timely birthday gift have me reading Chandler. I was thinking about digging out "The Long Goodbye."

May 09, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I've just gone out and bought three Declan Hughes books, - all at knocked down bargain prices, based on your evangelising of him.

I'm now 130 pages into 'The Wrong Kind Of Blood', - in one sitting: I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first couple of chapters and the Celtic Tiger cliches were inducing yawning, but I'm now convinced this will be a great one.

Its the way he's developed his characters, and the fact that they're not lazy ciphers, but well-rounded characters, and the way they're driving the plot.
And I particularly loved the scene in 'Hennessy's' bar

I strongly suspect, though, that he'll have known the body that was buried in the foundations, and this will have been 'behind' everything that has been happening.

I'm currently thinking a cross between Carl Hiassen, - without the humour, of course, and Arthur Penn's 'Night Moves'

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Chosen One has left a new comment on your post "Has Declan Hughes written the greatest P.I. novel...":

I've just gone out and bought three Declan Hughes books, - all at knocked down bargain prices, based on your evangelising of him.


Wow, that's a weighty responsibility to bear.

Here's some of what I wrote about "The Wrong Kind of Blood":

"All through my reading of Declan Hughes' violent, funny debut novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, a television mini-series kept breaking out, complete with family secrets, portentous symbols and dramatic revelations. Thing is, the storytelling is good enough that the weightiness rarely gets in the way, and when it does, Hughes has a knack like none other I've ever seen of blowing away the heaviness with a laugh-out-loud funny line."

You can see that I didn't think it a perfect book. And don't forget the slammer of an opening line. It's with the two most recent books, "All the Dead Voices" and "The City of Lost Girls," that Hughes really takes off.

I don't remember being bothered by Celtic Tiger clichés, but then, they might not have seemed to clichés to this non-Irishman.

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

.....and what about,... "tosses in a dash of 'the Molly Blooms', for good measure"?

June 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"tosses in a dash of 'the Molly Blooms' for good measure"
==============

I don't remember that, I must say, but out of context, I get a kick out of it.

June 27, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Anne, the girlfriend, has a (relatively short) chapter of solitary musings: about Ed, mainly.

At about the midpoint of the novel.
I'm sure it must be 'Molly Bloom'

I've another 50 or so pages to go so I'll give my 'ten cents' later but that struck me immediately as I was reading it: whether it was unconscious or unintended on Declan's part is another matter of course.
(and I'll say whether I guessed the killer right or not: did you?)

June 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll keep silent on killers; I don't often guess at them.

I wonder if Declan Hughes is especially prone to musing upon or perhaps poking fun at notions of Irishness. He's spent a fair amount of time in the United States after all (I used to play softball with his niece's husband.)

June 27, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I don't think, in this case, at least, its so much poking fun: perhaps part homage, or part wanting to mark it down as an Irish novel, rather than,- by virtue of its familiarity of LA locations, and PI conventions,- being lumped with every other LA PI novel.

I wonder is that what he thinks of Bono, though?
I'm not that 'Irish Times' columnist!

June 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll say that he seems aware of Bono's reputation among his critics and may well share their opinions.

June 27, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

When a friend saw that my list of Top Ten Film Noirs included Max Ophuls 'The Reckless Moment', she said to me "but that's a 'woman's picture'!".

Given that it was also suggested to me that Anthony Mann's 'Raw Deal', a long-time top ten resident, is also a 'woman's picture', I guess I'd have to say that 'City of Lost Souls' is the written equivalent of that hybrid genre, and a marvellous example
(as I will still maintain that both films are superior noirs, even if in key respects they should rightly be considered as classic 'woman's pictures')

Its a definite step up in quality from 'The Wrong Kind Of Blood': I thought that in his debut there was far too much 'revelatory' dialogue and exposition in the final third or so of the novel for my liking, even if it was a wonderful read.
He had greatly improved on that this time around: I'm almost sorry I didn't read them in order to watch him develop, in case the intervening books are let-downs.

His major strength, I think, is character development through dialogue but as with 'Blood' I thought it took about 50-60 pages or so to really get going.

As for the best PI Novel?
Its a wonderful variant on the classic prototype, but he's still a way to go to match 'The Long Goodbye', I think.


And I guessed wrong!!

June 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't seen either of those movies, but given that American movies now called films noirs were originally called melodramas, the connection with "women's pictures" is not so far-fetched.

Granted that I wrote the "greatest P.I. novel ever" is a burst of enthusiasm right after I finished the book, Hughes does get better and better. Be careful about using the shorthand label "Blood" for Declan Hughes' novels, though. His first three books have "Blood" in the title in their U.S. editions, two of them in their U.K. editions.

June 28, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think the classic prototype 'film noir' features a devious, and often murderous 'femme fatale' whereas films like 'The Reckless Moment' and 'Raw Deal' had a more sympathetic femme lead, who for whatever reason has gotten involved with criminal male leads in trying to better themselves, and/or their children.

Which is why I made the comparison with 'City of Lost Girls' which has many sympathetic female characters, and not just the serial killers' victims.

Where would you now place it among your list of great PI novels?


off topic: it looks as if my Brazil will be meeting Adrian McKinty's tip, Netherlands in the World Cup Quarter-Finals

June 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And at least one unexpected team in the semifinals (Uruguay or Ghana) plus the possibility of Spain finally living up to its billing or another unexpected team in Paraguay or Japan.

I don't know where I'd rank "City of Lost Girls" among PI novels. I tend to rank books by the writing and not by genre or sub-genre, further evidence that that headline was out of character.

June 28, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Its just a pity Holland were drawn in the same quarter of the draw as Brazil: I had tipped them as the 'dark horse' that were Brazil's greatest threat but, although they have enough quality players, and, most importantly, a compact unit, to cause an upset, I just think Brazil is far too strong, all over the park

I think Japan might just surprise Paraguay: their enthusiasm and hard-work are their biggest assets but they've one or two quality players that can make the difference.
I'd hate to think South America could end up dominating the tournament.
I think they're helped by the length of their qualifying campaign, which helps in creating team unity.

I've got two other Declan Hughes/Ed Loy novels: I'll probably put them on hold for the moment but I've no doubt they'll be immensely readable.

btw the killer's house would only be a couple of miles from here, and all of the Dublin locations, and most of the general LA locations, would be familar to me

June 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brazil-Germany final? Brazil-Spain?

I'm not all that familiar with Los Angeles or Dublin, but I thought Hughes did a convincing job with Los Angeles locations in his most recent novel.

There has been talk on the Guardian podcasts about England's having been handicapped by the timing and structure of its club seasons with respect to the World Cup. I think someone had said the Germany club season was more conducive to World Cup success.

June 28, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm not fully convinced by this young German side: if that goal had been allowed yesterday it might have caused a crisis of confidence in the side, even if, in every other respect, they were the better team.
It was suggested on RTE by ex-Scotland and Liverpool star, Graeme Souness, that England's altitude training might have been the cause of their seeming collective lethargy.
I don't buy the 'long season' excuse.

I know it sounds like a mantra but I really can't see anybody threatening Brazil, so its a moot point as to who else makes it to the Final

Apart from my excursions to Venice Beach, and the usual tourist haunts, what I'll always remember about LA is joining the freeway 'conveyor belt' from the Mojave Desert and setting my car on cruise control at about 57 mph, or whatever was required to maintain an equidistance between the cars in front of and behind me, for the 100 miles or so trip to the Ocean, and recalling that I frequently wondered what would happen if somebody up ahead suddenly jumped on the brakes.

June 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I defer to just about everyone when it comes to football/soccer, but 4-1 was a sound thumping, though consensus might say that result owes more to the quality of the Germans' opponents.

I ought to explore the coast when I'm in California for Bouchercon.

June 28, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Liverpool were 3-0 down at half-time in the Champions League Final a few years back, but came back to eventually win on penalties.
It wouldn't just be jingoism on the part of English fans if they maintain that if they had got it back to 2-2, the momentum swing could have been significant.

The mental factor could have been significant given the respective ages of the teams, but I just couldn't see it ever making enough of a difference yesterday.
England just never showed up, this World Cup


I also drove up from LA to San Francisco, and drove back the coast road before turning off to Vegas
(and checked out the Hearst Mansion, en route)
I just got out before the earthquake, back in '89

June 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd agree that, depending on one's nationality, England was (or were) rubbish (or shite), and the Guardian's podcasts have provided some entertaining listening on this score, especially at John Terry's expense. One supposes any number of the bad calls could have altered the outcomes of games.

June 28, 2010  

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