Sunday, September 6, 2009

Dutch Uncle by Peter Pavia (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

His third day out on parole, Harry Healy runs into Leo, his one-time weekend cellmate. Leo offers Harry some work, but it's the kind of job that could put Harry right back into the clink; he refuses. But then Harry's "Dutch Uncle," Manfred Pfiser, presents another offer: just make a delivery and collect some cash. Easy, right? Well, it seems simple enough, and what's a favor between friends?

After a clumsy opener with a lot of exposition to handle, Peter Pavia's debut novel Dutch Uncle (he is the author of two non-fiction works: the lauded The Other Hollywood and the upcoming The Cuba Project), takes off ... sort of. The first corpse shows up on page 28, but apart from a few distinctive scenes (the photography session was especially inspired), Pavia simply can't maintain the creativity or the speed necessary to make this kind of book work. This made it easy to put down and hard to pick up again.

Pavia seems to have patterned Dutch Uncle after the works of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen (Leonard goes by "Dutch" and it takes place in Miami, Hiaasen's familiar stomping ground). At least he aims high, unfortunately he doesn't come near to their quality and pure entertainment satisfaction. He is much better than they were starting out (some of Leonard's early novels are particularly unreadable) — and this gives him a definite head start on longevity — but he can't match Leonard's liveliness or Hiaasen's wackiness.

Pavia has a good grasp on his setting and a terrific ear for dialogue, but his attempts at zany characters seem to rely solely on silly personal quirks that do little more than take up space, like one policeman's need for sensitivity training. And while quirks certainly flesh out characters, it's hard to build a real human around them. Even so, Dutch Uncle's main problem is its pacing. It drags in many spots, is merely slow in others, and I often found myself waiting for the story to "get on with it," leaving me sitting there with what suspense I could muster remaining unfulfilled.

It's a fairly simple narrative — there are a lot of distractions, but nothing truly complex takes place. This should have made it easy to pick up the pace, but it takes too long to get anywhere. And that's just not what I want in a crime novel that purports to be about criminals "on the run."

On the other hand, this cover is one of the best Hard Case Crime offerings yet. Richard B. Farrell (The Confession, 361) is fast becoming my favorite of their artists, and he comes through again with an evocative illustration that portrays the essence of the novel without giving away too much of the plot. The cocaine-fueled title is singularly inspired.

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