Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Night Life

Night Life Night Life by David C. Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the ambition here, and I like a good slice of the accomplishment. This is James Ellroy territory: a tough cop, ambiguously moral enough to toss a fellow cop out a window, finds himself caught up in a McCarthy-era plot to blackmail high-level government people with gay sex photos. Things move generally well and the characters have some legitimately interesting motives and dilemmas.

The strongest parts here are its pace (especially early as Taylor gets a lot of balls in the air) and its evocation of its Cold-War world. Taylor seems to know his setting very well. A lesser writer might well show that research off, going into digressions about forgotten details of the period. Taylor goes the Ellroy route, though; if we don’t follow the implications of his scenes, it’s our fault. As a result, there’s no condescension. It’s a solid writer telling a solid story.

And I enjoyed most of the story. Michael Cassidy is tough and clever. Yeah, it gets a little clich├ęd when he seems to be a step ahead of the FBI, CIA, and Russians all by his lonesome, but he gets nicked up along the way, and he makes enough mistakes not to feel like superman. That’s the nature of genre: a tough guy in this sort of situation is always going to seem a little larger than life.

This falls short of the great bleakness of Ellroy (though just about everything does) when it shows Cassidy conveniently being able to help his father at the same time as he supports American interests and gets to give the metaphorical middle finger to those great villains of 20th Century America: Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover. That is, however tough his early choices are, his eventual ones all line up. All the bad guys are on side of the equation (even if they’re at odds with each other) and all the good guys on the other. There’s a loose end we get tied up in a final, short chapter, but there too he gets to fight different bad guys at the same time as defending his sister.

In general, this is solid noir work, and I’ll be open to more of Taylor’s work down the road. I ding it an additional star for some clumsy narration – scenes unnecessarily from the perspective of one of the CIA thugs – and for an annoying late tick where he withholds information from us. (When he gets “an address” in one chapter, do we really need to wait the two pages to be told, once he’s on the scene, that it’s Hoover’s house? Just tell us up front.)

Still, most of this works pretty well. There are still some gems to mine in a 1950s noir setting, and Taylor digs them up.

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