Sunday, March 28, 2010

NOIR, from the French for "Black": Dave Zeltserman's KILLER Takes It Darker

KILLER released in the United Kingdom in January, and it finally comes to the US on May 1; it's the third of Dave Zeltserman's much-praised sequence of crime fiction probing, "What happens after prison -- if the released prisoner has soaked up the psychopathic world of crime and murder?"

Zeltserman, a Boston Red Sox fan and Kung Fu expert, is one of today's most prolific voices in dark  novels. Mere months after KILLER comes to US readers, it will be followed in mid August by THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD, a truly creepy dance of "what if" and "here it comes." When he visits Kingdom Books in June, we'll get him talking about both of these, and about why and how he writes so much and so well.

But for today, let's just look at KILLER. Like its pair of predecessors, SMALL CRIMES and PARIAH, the voice meeting you at the door is that of a prisoner shaped by a life of brutality and violence, in which the approval of crime bosses substitutes for that of a father. People in Zeltserman's cruel cities don't say "ouch!" when someone hits them -- they hit back, fast and hard. It's the code of life.

For Leonard March, about to leave prison after 14 years, the only surprise is when people around him don't grasp that code. It made perfect sense to him, negotiating through his lawyer with the district attorney, to trade knowledge of the most vicious crime boss around Boston, Salvatore Lombard, in order to have a chance at getting out of jail alive. Forty-eight years old at sentencing, and not known to have organized crime ties, he was facing 30 years to life -- heck, at that point, 30 years is life, more or less. So bargaining down to 14 years at least gave him a chance, provided he could dodge Lombard's hired muscle inside the prison walls for all that time.

And as KILLER opens, that's exactly what Leonard March has done. There's a humble janitorial job, an insect-infested basement room, and a pittance of settle-down money available to him. It's cold, it's nasty, and it's easy to feel sorry for this man, now 62, working a gritty night job and despised or feared by anyone who's seen news of his release.
I needed to distract myself from the memories that were pushing through the silence, and I forced myself instead to think of my pop, to remember what he was like and how he would react if he were alive now to see me cleaning bathrooms. It had been a long time since I'd thought of him, but I knew he'd be happy to see me at a real job and I knew what he'd tell me: "Nothing wrong with an honest day's work, son."
Flashbacks to 1968 and 1978 eventually reveal Leonard's family and upbringing, and the reasons he became a hired killer. He's caught now in threats of death from multiple directions: from Lombard's enraged forces, and from the families of the 28 men he'd killed -- mostly undiscovered by law enforcement until a rash promise of immunity to Leonard drew him into revealing his own past, along with that of the crime boss he ultimately betrayed.

Zeltserman's skill is in painting this wounded lion as sympathetic, as comprehensible. And when the inevitable violence does explode around Leonard, it's easy to say, "Oh, that poor animal, so tormented and in such pain." But even Leonard knows enough to be scared of himself:
... what a dream. If that's what they were like, I was grateful that was the first one I could remember in over fifty years. For a good ten minutes I sat silently before I trusted myself to move. Only after the pounding in my chest subsided did I pull myself off the bed and shuffle off to the bathroom to splash cold water over my face and dry the sweat off. I made sure not to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I didn't want to risk seeing those same hollowed cheeks and dead sunken eyes that that man in my dream had.
Brace for it: Behind this smoothly narrated page-turner, there are levels of pain and loss that wait, along with the hardened criminals around Leonard, for a chance to strike. It won't be pretty. But it sure will be a compelling read, if you're up to all the darkness. Maybe it would be a good idea to leave a couple of lights on tonight, and make extra sure the door is locked, and the windows, too. Someone like Leonard could be out there now. In fact, it's almost a dead certainty.

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