Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: One True Sentence by Craig McDonald (4/5)

The Hector Lassiter books by Craig McDonald get points for innovation if nothing else.  Lassiter, a pulp crime writer living in Paris during the 1920s, is an invention wholly of McDonald’s own, but the cast of supporting characters are drawn from real life literary figures from the era.  Gertrude Stein, Alistair Crowley, Ford Maddox Ford, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound—they all make appearances in the novel.  Ernest Hemingway is even cast as Hector’s sidekick, a sure bit of revisionist Hagiography if I’ve ever heard of it.  For his part, Hector is a gruff, hard nosed Texan and a veteran of conflict with Poncho Villa in Mexico—kind of like meta-life (the character of Hector) imitating meta-art (the fictional pulp fiction he writes in the book).  One True Sentence is the fourth in the Hector Lassiter series.  I really enjoyed the story, but there were also some… things.  Instead of handing you a bulleted list right of the bat, let’s start off with the plot summary and allow the bitching to make itself known when the mood feels right.  It’s more organic that way. 

So a group of nihilist artists—self-styled worshipers of “Nada”—have begun killing editors and publishers of the little literary magazines that inundate Paris during the time period.  Gertrude Stein, the epicenter of artistic grandiosity for the large contingent of American artists living in gay Paris, convenes an assembly of mystery writers to ferret out the murderer of her “dear friends” in the publishing industry.  Composing the little task force are Hector, Brinke Devlin (beautiful young lady and author of witty mysteries under the name Connor Templeton), and Estelle Quartermaine (who writes mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie).  Lassiter is reluctant to stick his nose into the case, and, indeed, through approximately the first half of the novel he doesn’t investigate a damned thing.  He talks with other writers, does some writing himself, witnesses a murder or two, and screws Brinke’s brains out during the intermissions.  Did I mention that last bit before now?  Sorry.  Hector and Brinke become an item on the way over to Gertrude’s parlor for the initial gathering of the minds.  I guess that’s just how those writers roll.  Or how they’re supposed to, at any rate.

Now’s probably as good a time as any to tell you something about Hector that you will probably find important.  His penis is made of 24 karat gold.  Not really, but it might as well be for all the ladies that want to get a piece of it (giving a new meaning to the term “gold digger”).  Seriously, it seems as though every eligible and attractive young woman in the book wants Hector to bone them but good.  Even those that don’t come right out and say it eventually succumb to the need.  And the only reason that hector doesn’t have to beat the women off with a stick is because half of the women he knows seem to be lesbians—and if we were privy to their thoughts, I betcha they at least would have thought twice about it.  While the reincarnation of Casanova himself might work as the protagonist for an erotic mystery, an erotic mystery this ain’t.  At least, it’s not supposed to be.  For his part, McDonald works in enough character motivations and plot intricacies to make the circumstances somewhat plausible, but Hector needed a tire iron to beat all those ladies off of him. 

Anyhow, Hector and Brinke’s flowering romance is soon complicated by another of Hector’s acquaintances, Molly, who it is found out has a thing for Hector as well, having actually tried to kill herself months before over his unrequited love (see what I mean?).  Being the freethinking Parisian hipsters they are, the only rational solution for this little impediment, of course, is a threesome.  You may think I’m joking here, but I’m not.  Well, mostly not.  Regardless, love triangle drama ensues.  McDonald lends the conflict some extra panache by seeding the subsequent murders with clues that point to both of his lady loves.  This, of course, induces Hector to get off his duff and start investigating, but just when he finds some definitive evidence, McDonald stuffs it all in a Cuisinart and hits the “puree” button until everything is again a confusing soupy mess.

The plotting, the characters, and dialogue are top notch.  Don’t let my bellyaching make you think different.  One True Sentence is actually a really good book.  The setting, though, is where it really stands out.  A deep and engaging setting is a must for good historical fiction, and McDonald delivers.  You can tell he did his homework.  The historical details, the layout of the city, the real authors and personas that populate the novel—all of it is detailed and spot on, more than enough to suck me into the narrative and see, smell, and feel the setting in my mind’s eye.  He also incorporates the theme of aliases or nom de plumes very effectively, a brilliant plot element as there were so many authors living and writing under assumed names during this time period.  The mystery kept me guessing, too, but in the end I felt that McDonald cheated. 

This is the point in the blog where I plaster SPOILER all over the place in big block letters, so if you’re thinking of reading the book and still want to be surprised, just skip over the big block of redacted text.  On the other hand, if you don’t give a hoot and still want to pollute as of yet untainted minds with spoilers of Herculean proportion, just drag your cursor over the void and say “abracadabra!”

During the entire novel we operate under the assumption that the murders are the work of one group of people.  McDonald seeds the narrative with both viable clues and red herrings, some of which implicate Brinke as one of the Nada-ists, some of which implicate Molly.  Hector is faced with the agonizing quandary of deciding who is guilty, which, to the reader, intrinsically means that one of them is innocent and Hector has only to make the right choice and everything will wind up hunky-dory .  But it’s a setup.   They’re both innocent and they’re both guilty at the same freaking time.  Neither one of them did the Nada murders, but both have killed people before (Brinkr as vigilante acts in other countries, and Molly because she an editor she was sleeping with reneged his promise to publish her work.  Oh yeah, and there was her brother, too, but that was only after she found out he killed a crap-ton of people as the leader of the Nada-ists).  While McDonald didn’t technically do anything wrong, his mystery was so convoluted and the salient details so late in their appearance that determining the murderer through careful examination of the clues was essentially impossible.  In short, he didn’t play fair, and while that isn’t a novel-killing faux pas, it still made me wrinkle my nose and sneer.

There were some other minor nuisances too, such as McDonald’s aversion to personal pronouns (Hector went to a bar.  Hector had a drink.  Hector got sick.  Hector barfed in an old lady’s hat and put it back on her head).  And then there were the two or three unnecessary “boiler scenes” at the beginning of the book.  You know, those intermittent scenes depicting the murderer(s) as he kills some people or does something nasty.  I call them boiler scenes because authors use them to stoke the tension in the narrative and get the reader interested in the story.  And for the most part, they’re wholly unneeded.  But alas, no one listens to me, and boiler scenes are par for the course these days.

Overall I give One True Sentence four stars.  It’s a begrudging four stars, though.  I know, I know.  With as much pissing and moaning as I’ve done for this post, I’m sure you were expecting something a little lower than that.  Despite the flaws, I really did enjoy the book.  Yeah, there were some things that could have been better stylistically, but McDonald is a talented writer, and his tale had me absorbed from the word go.  In the end, that’s what makes or breaks a book for me, and One True Sentence definitely made it—though, the way there was a bit rocky.

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