Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review of The Blue Cheer

Cities, in the popular imagination, are sinister places, where innocents are corrupted, everything has a price and vice rules the day. The city stands in stark contrast to rural America, where people go to church, say "please and thank you," and love their spouse and only their spouse.The association of the city with vice and the country with virtue is alive and well today even though more Americans now live in cities than in rural areas. One does not have to look far in the news to see some talking head blathering on about how Blue State Liberals are a grave threat to Red State Dwelling Salt of the Earth.
This false dichotomy has done more than give vapid suits something insubstantial to talk about on 24 hour news channels. It has limited the setting of detective novels. The detective novel is an urban phenomenon. Be it Sam Spade in San Francisco, Lew Archer in Los Angeles, or Matt Scudder in Manhattan, the fictional PI is a character at home surrounded by concrete and steel.It is true, cities do make a menacing, suitably indifferent backdrop to most detective novels, but anyone who thinks the same kind of menace cannot be found in a small town or down some sparsely populated mountain hollow has never spent a significant amount of time in either of those places.
Frank Lynskey's novel The Blue Cheer (PointBlank, 2007) is a pleasure largely because it takes the private investigator genre and sets it in the middle of nowhere. Private Investigator Frank Johnson can't catch a break. Having moved to the (fictional) town of Scarab, West Virginia for some clean mountain living, he walks out of his cabin one evening in time to see a stinger missile blast a drone out of the sky. He goes to the crash scene and finds evidence of the stinger's firing, only to be hit over the head and knocked unconscious. From there, Frank and his neighbor, Old Man Johnson, and ex-CIA agent, are off in search of the source of the missile, which they soon learn is a shadowy organization known as The Blue Cheer.
Lynskey is not new to crime fiction. He has published a slew of Frank Johnson short stories and one other novel, The Dirt Brown Derby, but this novel should raise his profile and get him some much deserved attention. He is a good writer who can nail a character or a setting with simple, well-placed details. He nails small-town Appalachia cold. One of the most enjoyable facets of the novel is the way Lynskey describes the mountains. Anyone who's spent any time there knows the details he throws in; deer munching crabapples, mushy persimmons hanging from tree branches, hawks sitting on power lines, water discolored by coal mining pollution. It all serves to firmly ground the novel.
Lynskey is no less astute with his characterization, and the people who populate Scarab are believable, and Johnson himself is a worthy protagonist. The shadowy organization at the center of the book is another story, however. While Lynskey does drop in a twist, making the Blue Cheer something other than what the reader may be expecting, their motives and plans are never fully explained. Indeed, the reader never really learns the full scope of the organization at the center of the novel's plot. Are they a vast conspiracy, or a bunch of backwoods yahoos? Is the ambiguity intentional? It's difficult to tell, which is frustrating.
The plot also could have been more involved. From the opening it seems like Lynskey is going to have Johnson racing against the clock to foil a terrorist plot to use the missiles. This is not the case, however, and while The villains are truly vile, they never live up to their potential, and the climax is less complicated than it should be.
Despite its flaws, however, The Blue Cheer is a worthy effort. Lynskey has created a good character and taken the PI out of the city, proving that evil lurks in the hearts of men, no matter where they are.

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