Friday, September 11, 2009

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell (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.

Is Hard Case Crime trying to expand its audience? Madison Smartt Bell isn't exactly famous for his crime noir fiction, but is probably best known for his novel, All Souls' Rising (the first of a trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a National Book Award finalist. Not exactly the rundown of the average Hard Case Crime author.

A thriller with literary aspirations (the cover quote from Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, clued me in to that), Straight Cut gives us the best of both worlds — although for genre fans, the first two-thirds will essentially feel like exposition.

With an opening that will re-break the heart of anyone who's ever had to put a pet to sleep, Straight Cut tells the story of freelance film editor Tracy Bateman before, during, and after he is sent to Rome for a cutting job. Offered the job by his best friend / romantic rival and the film's director, Kevin Carter, Tracy is suspicious from the beginning, but the money is too good to refuse (another reason for his suspicion).

His Italian is poor, but he manages to make a go of it in Rome. He teaches an assistant, Mimmo, the ropes of film editing while dealing with the recent death of his dog, and his stormy relationship with his wife, Lauren (who married him for an American green card and occasionally runs off with Kevin), while spending a lot of time in trattorias drinking grappa. His reliance on the philosophies of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard doesn't help things.

Neither does meeting up again with Lauren, which wasn't exactly on his agenda, but she shows up unexpectedly, carrying a mysterious briefcase, a false identity, and instructions from Kevin. Tracy is conflicted because he doesn't trust that Lauren will ever be the person he needs her to be (though their physical relationship has never been a problem), but he can see what she is getting herself involved in and doesn't want her to get hurt. That Kevin is so obviously careless about putting Lauren in danger only aggravates Tracy's love / hate relationship with him.

This leads to what most Hard Case Crime readers will have been waiting for the whole time: a continent-hopping drug-and-money exchange, with all the border-crossing problems, fistfights, and gun-crazy Bulgarians that implies. It only covers the final third of Straight Cut, but Bell's prose is so sparse as to make it feel like a novel unto itself. Tracy's thought processes are fascinating to watch and whether he will get himself out of this situation is always in doubt, making the suspense quotient even higher than expected.

On the whole, however, Straight Cut is a novel of character, not of plot. Go into it expecting a tense page-turner on the level of Bust or Grifter's Game, and you'll likely be disappointed — but exercise a little patience, and you'll be greatly rewarded.

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