BRADLEY SPINELLI – The Painted Gun. Akashic Books, trade paperback, March 2017.
The author’s previous book, Killing Williamsburg, was called by someone, “… the first visionary neo-Romantic novel of the twenty-first century,” and there’s the problem right there.
This one is a surreal take on Chandler with an overabundance of plot and almost no understanding of what Chandler, Hammett, and the original Hard Boiled school of writers were trying to do in the first place, the equivalent of trying to write the great New York novel and setting it in Manhattan, Kansas.
What we have, is David “Itchy” Crane, a knebbish who runs an information consultancy business, not exactly likely to crack the Fortune 400 since it is 1997 and the age of the Internet has begun. Alcoholic ex-reporter Itchy gets an offer of $50,000 dollars from a shady eye to find a missing girl named Ashley who painted a portrait of Itchy having never met him.
So far so good. Itchy starts on the trail and of course the cops try to scare him off, goons beat him up, and he’s framed — none too believably — for the murders of a Guatemalan hitman. Itchy has to get tough then and find the girl and clear his name.
The problem is Itchy is never for a moment believable. Despite the fact that Spinelli can write, and there are good bits in the book, he makes the mistake of most writers with no grasp of what Chandler and Hammett were trying to do with the language of the crime novel — he concentrates on what the words say, and not whether they sound authentic..
He almost lost me on page one with this overheated bit of sophistry disguised as a metaphor:
“By 4:19 the cigarette was burning out in the brown glass ashtray, sending a lone last tendril of smoke in a sacred mission to the ceiling.”
“Sacred mission”? What the hell is he talking about? And so it goes, by turns a fair dinkum Chandler imitation then turning into once of Eliot Paul’s absurdist Dadaesque mysteries, then gaudy pulpese, and too arty by half, then … well some of it I can’t describe.
I didn’t and don’t dislike the book, only that despite one blurb calling the plot a “Swiss watch” that “explodes like an RPG.” It’s simply too much and too little at the same time.
Of Ashley’s artist biography, It “… read like a ransom note from another dimension.”
It doesn’t help it’s 1997, and Itchy sounds as if he fell out of bus in 1950 and cracked his noggin open absorbing a slightly distorted version of Spillanese.
“His face was a pinched melon of embarrassment …” Again, what the hell does that mean?
“…Al wasn’t a cautious kind of guy. He threw the door open and, not seeing anyone, stuck his fat face out. I shoved my .45 into his pug nose.”
“… a plump blonde was waiting, wearing glasses with the geeky black-plastic birth-control frames that had inexplicably come into fashion forty years after never having been fashionable in the first place ..” Who works that hard for a metaphor and a wise crack? At times I could swear Spinelli is trying out for a chapter in a third volume of Bill Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek series.
Other times he reverts to a stream of consciousness that makes no sense, as this one while he is having sex in a parked car: “Better times, before the alcoholism began to take its crippling toll, when I still fantasized about winning a Pulitzer, when Herb Caen was still alive and kicking, on the page and off, before he died and I wasn’t even invited to the wake.” That isn’t even a sentence really.
Thomas Pynchon did this better, so did Thomas Berger and Jonathan Lethem, and they managed surreal and absurdist without prose that stops you dead on the page like a grammatical stubbed toe.
There are good things about the book. Itchy had potential as the protagonist, the essential mystery when you get down to it makes more sense than many of Chandler’s, there is a pretty good ending, and surprisingly he is good on dialogue. I just wish he hadn’t made me work so hard getting there. All I could think reading it was, this is why Thomas Wolfe needed Maxwell Perkins.
And they aren’t all misfires:
“There are always birds chirping in the trees, strange, alien birdsongs, and on the rocks, near the lake, the sporadic skitter of lizards.”
You can believe the man that wrote that read his Chandler and maybe his Macdonald as well.