Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dirty Sweet Words

By Jay Stringer

(Pulled a bit of a switch on you again this week, eh? What can I say. We’re sneaky like that.)

So, you’ve heard McFet’s latest book SWAP was released -after being processed through the babel fish for those of us who don’t speak Canadian- as LET IT RIDE in all good U.S. bookstores yesterday (that’s me making with the funny again) and to the online outlets such as the amazons.

If only there were some way you could link to things on a website.

With the new book hitting shelves, I thought I’d continue the theme and take a look back at his first two, Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. There are song references in both of those titles, for those keeping score at home.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to start for the past week, and failing each time. Then Joelle gave me the answer with her debut DSD post on Sunday; voice.

John’s books have plots. Very good ones. And I’ll get to them in a minute. But the plots are not what made me pick up another of his books as soon as I’d finished my first one. It was that vital element, the thing that separates your favorite authors from the rest; voice.

Voice is a tricky sell in fiction. Especially if your tastes match mine, and you want your author to be as close to invisible as possible. You don’t want their opinions their sarcasm or their accent getting in the way. You don’t want their worldview beating you round the head, even if it’s a view you agree with. What you’ll find in a John McFetridge book is that perfect balance. The characters do the talking, the plot does the moving and the book does the reading. You’re never in doubt who the author is, but he never steps in to talk to you.

I know the easy trick is to mention Elmore Leonard, but I don’t really see it the way the other reviews do. It’s not really there in the dialogue, and, okay, it’s urban crime so yes there are crossovers. But where it does hold true for me is in the same way it holds true of any number of top writers; The work is addictive. So I could also reference folks like Lawrence Block, Scott Phillips or Charles Willeford. You wouldn’t really say these guys write alike, but they all have that same power in their writing, that same Laid back confidence. When you start reading the first line, you won’t be aware of time passing until you’re a few chapters in, and by that point you know this is a book you want to finish.

And I better mention the dialogue. This is probably something that’ll make one of Dave White’s hit lists one day. Every reviewer wants to tell you how their guy has the sharpest, crispest, most believable dialogue. There was a meeting about it somewhere, I think, and it was made into law. I don’t know, DSD don’t get invited to those meetings.

So all that aside, what am I going to tell you about the dialogue in these books? Well, I wasn’t aware of reading ‘dialogue’. I wasn’t hit with crispness, sharpness, or realism. All I noticed was that these characters could talk, and I never for a moment doubted that they would say those things. It just flows, and never waves at you to look how cool it is. That set a new standard for me to try and aim for. In fact, it was one that stopped me writing for a little while. I started a couple of projects straight after finishing Everybody Knows.. and found myself writing in McFets voice and not mine.

Now that was a good trick.

Okay, the books themselves. First up is Dirty Sweet. If William Goldman had written a Toronto crime script instead of a western, it may have been something like this. It’s got a Russian criminal who secretly wants to be a businessman. A Canadian businesswoman who secretly wants to be a criminal, and a guy who makes porn who…well…he doesn’t really know what he wants to be.

It’s not giving away anything that has been mentioned on this site before to say that the story starts when the woman, Roxanne Keyes, witnesses a major crime that involves the Russian, Boris. And rather than report him to the cops, she decides to see how she can make money out of it. This has been a running theme in the books so far, and one true of all cities; everyone’s just looking for ways to make a buck. To try and find an angle, she hooks up with Vince, who runs an Internet porn company. He might not know what he wants to be, but he thinks maybe he’ll find the answer somewhere beneath Roxanne’s skirt. So the three of them enter into the game, circling each other, and being circled by the cops, waiting for one of them to figure out the perfect scam.

The following book isn’t a direct sequel. But what it does to is expand the same world. All of these stories are taking place in the same city, the characters move round each other; they probably drink at some of the same places. It reminds me of the old school marvel universe, in the days before publishers wanted to take money from you through crossovers, they just let the characters all hang out in the same space.

So Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere both expands on the first book and also ignores it, in all the right ways. Many of the cops who were supporting characters in the first book step up here to carry the book. A gang war that was bubbling away in the background of Dirty Sweet picks up apace, and a major investigation by the RCMP bridges the two. But none of that is important to reading the book, they’re just fun easter eggs. The book starts with a dead body –to say anymore than that would ruin one of the best openings I’ve read in ages- and the follows both the cops and the criminals as they plot coups, murder and profit.

There is the same sort of game as in the first book, with a bunch of people circling each other waiting to find the right way to make some money, but it plays out in a fresh way. I’ve seen a few comparisons to The Wire and, though they’re doing different things, I think I can see that comparison. This is a crime novel that’s not so much telling you a single story as it is giving you a bit of a city, showing how things work and how the pieces are put into place. You come out of it not wanting to know more about a couple of characters, but wanting to know more about everyone, about the whole city and where all of the political maneuvering leads to next.

Let It Ride I’ll be with me in a couple of days, and I’m looking forward to it.


Declan Burke said...

LET IT RIDE / SWAP is a terrific book from a writer operating at the top of his game. Seriously, if McFetridge is this good three books in, what's he going to be like after 10? Elmore Leonard is a good jumping-off point, but I think McFetridge is funnier and darker, which is no mean feat. Do yourself a favour and buy LET IT RIDE; it'll be one of your best reads of the year.

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

I'm about halfway through LET IT RIDE. The phrase that comes to mind is McFetridge writes the way people think. You don't think with a lot of adjectives and adverbs, and you don't mentally describe everyone you meet or everyplace you go. That wastes thinking time, and you have other things to think about, too, so let's get on with it. You don't hurry--mistakes get made that way--neither do you navel gaze.

He writes like that. As Declan said above, darker than what Leonard has become known for, and he's showing a little George V. Higgins influence in LET IT RIDE. I'm digging it.

Jay Stringer said...

I definatley agree, darker, funnier and better.

That's a great description, just right.

Raymond M. said...

I'm a young criminal defence lawyer in Toronto and I devoured Swap when I got my hands on it.

What I love about McFetridge's work is how real it is, whether dealing with plot situations or locations. John captures my hometown better than anyone I've ever read.

For example: that opening scene in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I not only know which building that is, but I actually grew up a half a block away. Knowing the neighbourhood, that scene felt completely real to me.

With my experience as both a Torontonian (born and bred) and a lawyer (both direct and indirect experience), there's nothing in his work that rings false. McFetridge is one of my favourite authors and I can't wait for the next book.