(Originally published in Matrix Magazine, Montreal, CA)
Coach House Books
John Golbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, can’t easily be folded into a genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story, not exactly (though some Chandler can be found in there). It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either (but Ames is in there, too). It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”
The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. TheDetective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. Elaine Andrews, his new client, says of her husband, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”
Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe, who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high octane head fog. But don’t let the ham handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. The writing is tight and aware, with a distinct rhythm. Here’s a sense of the timing:
Something’s fishy, I thought, without a doubt. Her lawyer was overly cautious, I thought, sitting on the couch, whisky in hand, contemplating the case. The case of Mr. Gerald Andrews, and a knife in his chest. Their names were so boring, so commonplace as to seem improbable. At the very least, I thought, groggy from the drink, Mr. Andrews’s death, whether caused by murder or suicide or some freak accident, would bring considerable excitement to Mrs. Elaine Andrews’s life.
And so begins the case. The plot of The Devil and the Detective takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex—but the book isn’t just plot-driven. The same could be said for Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition: love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. along with a strong undercurrent of existential inquiry. Indeed, the thrust of emotion fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation, for one, is a key theme of the book, adetective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior. Goldbach negotiates this landscape with clear vision.
Goldbach also has a bent towards philosophical inquiry. These heavy ideas could have weighed down the narrative, but they don’t; they’re relatively bite-sized within the text. This philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the ruminations appear in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first person you’d expect to spout off about a theoretical “Philosopher A” in conversation with “Philosopher B,” but Goldbach makes it work. Here are Darren and the detective engaged in a conversation about death, for instance.
“You live on in other people’s minds,” I offered lamely, and Darren said, “Sure, yes, for other people, not for you. Mere imitations. You’re dead. Your conscious mind is dead, your heart no longer beats and your lungs collapse.” Perhaps, I thought, consciousness is ideology; perhaps it’s that simple and that inescapable. I tried to express that to Darren but couldn’t find the words.
The sum total of the detective-narrator’s contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else—smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve, to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.
Goldbach in places departs from conventional form and style, like a violent dream sequence at a moment when the detective is shoulder-deep in his anxiety, which is, if you’re up for the challenge, apparent only after a bit of detective work on the reader’s part, i.e. flipping back to the table of contents to see that the chapter is subtitled, “Long sleep—Long dream.” (Incidentally, the table of contents is an interesting little work in its own right.)
The Devil and the Detective succeeds, and, ultimately, it does so because it’s a book that’s very good to its readers. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers. The Devil and the Detective was good to me, and I look forward to more from John Goldbach.