My Darling Detective by Howard Norman. (Novel, 2017).
I’m really ambivalent about this book. The author is an experienced novelist with several major literary nominations and awards to his credit, yet this novel (my first exposure to his work) left me largely unimpressed. It’s certainly not terrible and kept me reading, but generated little overall satisfaction and no strong emotional connection, even to characters that I mostly liked.
So what’s the problem?
Actually, there are a couple.
To begin with, the way the book is presented amounts to something approaching false advertising. This (please note) is the fault of the publisher, not the author.
Given the title, the cover art and inside-cover blurbs that variously call it “a witty, engrossing homage to noir,” “provocative,” “haunting” and “uncannily moving,” one reasonably goes in expecting a mystery/crime novel mixed with a bit of romance. And the plot elements are certainly there. The first-person narrator’s soon-to-be-wife is a police detective. A puzzling crime (an inexplicable act of vandalism committed by his mentally unbalanced mother) sets off a chain of events that eventually uncovers a disturbing family secret and leads to the reopening of a three-decades-old unsolved double murder. That cold case eventually comes to a violent resolution.
Sounds like the possible makings for a classic, page-turning thriller, right?
Only the author’s intentions and interests lie elsewhere. And there’s nothing wrong with that: Putting genre-specific elements to use different purposes can work fine. I just don’t think you should try to make it look like one thing, when it’s quite another.
The fact that this is most certainly NOT some dark action/adventure piece is abundantly clear long before the ultimate cop vs killer shootout takes place ENTIRELY OFFSTAGE and doesn’t even directly involve the three central characters (they’re all kind of busy with the emergency delivery of the couple’s first child in the same offbeat location where Jacob himself was born).
No, this is a book about evolving relationships, self-discovery and emotional acceptance.
I just wish I found the central characters or their situations more compelling.
Jacob is a decent enough guy, but maybe a bit emotionally timid. He and fiancee Martha share a fascination with an old radio crime drama whose cliched gangster characters and plots provide a slightly lame tie-in with traditional ‘noir’ fiction. (The other connection, beyond the date of the unsolved crime, comes in the pair of older male cops Martha works with–alleged tough guys with the prerequisite hearts of gold.)
I liked steady, occasionally sardonic Martha better. She had more courage in facing tough situations–wasn’t some out-of-control hero cop, but a believable person.
Jacob’s mother was a basically sweet person, bad choices back in the day notwithstanding. The hint of lingering problems at the very end of the book was realistic and a mature choice on the author’s part.
But the setting (Halifax, Nova Scotia in the 1970s) never came fully alive or added anything particularly distinctive for me.
Like the book as a whole, it was okay–but no more than that.
This one is a take it or leave it matter for me.