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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hilary Davidson's Latest has a Soft Beginning, But Grabs the Reader After 100 Pages

By Hilary Davidson
(321 pages)
(Forge Books, April 15, 2014)
ISBN: 0765333546

I’m not sure whether Hilary Davidson’s latest novel is a classic mystery with noir touches, or a noir novel that functions as a whodunit.

All I am really sure about is that it is up to her usual high standards with a pair of villains noteworthy for their evil, two major characters whose background is tainted by crime, and a surprise life-saving heroine who emerges at the end to answer key questions about what has happened.

The mechanics of the plot are complicated: Dominique Monaghan, a former fashion model, has hatched a scheme that will ruin her ex-boyfriend, Gary Cowan, a former prizefighter who is married to an heiress. The scheme involves drugging Cowan with a muscle relaxant that will dull his senses and make him malleable, then coaxing him to confess how he has violated the terms of his prenuptial agreement.

There is a touch of racial exoticism that makes the relationship interesting: Dominique is statuesque and black; Gary is muscular and white.

Dominique plans to turn a recording of Gary's admissions over to Zachary Amberson, the lawyer who represents Gary’s wife, Trinity Lytton-Jones. The attorney will use it to break the prenup and leave Gary penniless. For this, we discover, Dominique stands to earn a million dollars.

The ex-model’s desire for revenge springs from her adulterous boyfriend’s pathological dishonesty. Though Gary poses as Trinity’s well-to-do trophy husband, he is a hustler who has pissed away a sizeable chunk of his wife’s money by living well beyond his means.

“He had to have the best of everything,” Dominique observes early in the book. “But if he couldn’t secure that, he’d settle for a hopeless fraud.”  

The first third of the book lays out Dominique’s scheme and a series of events that puts her and Gary under the control of a pair of kidnappers in an isolated house in the Pocono Mountains. Up to this point it seems the story is going to be told from Dominique’s point of view, which is unfortunate because she and Gary are two of the most superficial and least interesting characters in the novel.

But Davidson, a Canadian-born author who has written short stories for publications ranging from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to Thuglit, as well as three novels in the Lily Moore mystery series, has something else in mind: after a surprising plot twist that introduces Desmond Edgars, Dominique’s pilot brother, the point of view of the novel is completely recast and an even more complicated story emerges – a multibillion dollar criminal scheme that Desmond must work out in order to bring the book to closure.

Hilary Davidson (courtesy of Amazon.com)
Even the most superficial explanation of what that scheme involves would reveal critical elements of the story. Suffice to say that in order to solve the mystery, Desmond must track down the kidnappers, figure out what motivates them, confront a crime in his own past that has secretly shaped his life, fight off an assassin who tries to strangle him and take a gunshot wound to the stomach.

To me, the biggest flaw in the book lies in how Davidson portrays two of the primary characters: Dominique and her adulterous lover, Gary.

Neither character is particularly attractive. From an objective point of view, both are liars and schemers whose motivations are base – in Dominique’s case she is driven by her desire for revenge, while Gary’s actions are occasioned by his greed. For this reason, I found both less than compelling as primary characters in the story.

My antipathy to the two characters was also due in part to the superficiality with which they were portrayed. Readers are offered little more than a two-dimensional sketch of Gary and he is portrayed in such an unflattering way that it is difficult to understand what Dominique sees in him in the first place.

As for Dominique, she behaves in a peculiarly naïve fashion for a 30-year-old woman who has been around the block at least once. In part her naivety seems to be deliberate, a way to explain her otherwise inexplicable attraction to Gary and her failure to make any serious effort to extricate herself from the dangerous situation in which she finds herself.

But as the primary characteristic of a central figure in the story, it is not an attractive personality trait.

Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate a character who misbehaves, particularly an original villain such as Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), or Walter Huff (Double Indemnity), but if a primary figure in a story is is a rotter, I want him or her to have enough personality to hold my attention. I simply didn’t feel that was the case with Dominique and Gary.

Fortunately, by the time the reader is around 100 pages into the book, the weakness of these two characters no longer matters: Dominique's brother Desmond becomes the protagonist and his quest for answers is the machinery that drives the novel forward. 

Once the focus is on him, the plot solidifies and the mystery of his traumatic past begins to suck the reader into the story. Corpses pile up and Davidson establishes that Desmond is seriously at risk – both from the killers and the police. At that point the novel becomes a classic page-turner.

Believe me, the remainder of the story is good enough to justify sticking with Blood Always Tells.

The final two-thirds of the book are more sharply plotted and its characters far more interesting than those introduced at the novel’s beginning. Even relatively minor characters spring off the page, conjured deftly without wasting a gesture.

In describing a New York police detective, for example, Davidson writes, “The man was white, with hair the color of a dirty bristle brush cut into short spikes. He reclined in a chair with his chest puffed out under a shiny blue dress shirt that surely had a disco somewhere worried about its absence.”

And while searching a murdered lawyer’s office Desmond finds sloppy disarray:

“The mess inside the top desk drawers suggested pathological hoarding. Desmond didn’t think he’d seen so many sugar, salt and soy sauce packets outside an airport food court.”

As he searches a closet in an apartment, Desmond finds shoes lined up in its bottom “like little soldiers.” The closet’s owner, he thinks, “had loved those Italian designers whose names sounded like money when they came out of your mouth. Gucci and Pucci and Prada, hanging together like spoiled little princesses.”

It’s Davidson’s razor-edged observations like these that make Blood Always Tells so enjoyable and fun to read. Give it a try, but stick with it: you’ll be glad you didn’t let yourself be put off by the book’s weaker beginning.

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