Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dark Detection in 1971: RIDERS ON THE STORM, Ed Gorman

Earlier today, I listened to a reader marvel over a first experience of Dashiel Hammett, author of some of the foundational American hard-boiled detective fiction. This reader was close to 70 years old and a newcomer to Hammett's work, and thrilled. "I understand it's the roots of noir," she added cheerfully.

Indeed. One of the nice parts about American detective fiction is that the roots keep nourishing today's many branches. Reading Ed Gorman's newest release, his 10th Sam McCain investigation, makes it clear that the style of tough men and well-garbed women continues, and Gorman's decision to place the novel in 1971 -- a year when the song "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors poured from every radio -- lets this savvy author frame a story of the grief and pain of Vietnam War veterans, returning to an America shocked by images of war's brutality.

In RIDERS ON THE STORM, McCain, barely functioning again after his own National Guard medical emergency, returns to his home in Black River Falls, Iowa -- someplace close, maybe, to Gorman's own Cedar Rapids -- and rises to a distress call from his buddy Will Cullen. Will's war-related injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are way worse that McCain. And he's got a marriage to try to fit back into. McCain takes on the burden of Will's wife's desperation, as Will gets fingered for a politically charged murder that fits into a local manipulator's election needs beautifully. But suspicious motives for others aren't enough to get Will out of the accusations, especially when he's made a confession of sorts, and motives abound.

As McCain tackles the murder victim's business partner, the Gorman classic noir voice comes into its own. McCain is blunt:
"Seems to me if Donovan was really our friend, you'd want to help me find out who really killed him."

"Right. And Lee Harvey Oswald didn't really kill President Kennedy."

"I wasn't a big fan of Donovan's," I said quietly. "But he deserved better friends than you."

The teeth again. He started to say something, then shook his head.

He said nothing more to me and neither did the sumptuous Annette as I walked out the front door.
Fans of the McCain series will find this a very satisfying round of plot and pursuit, with its own inner sense of justice. Those who feel the Vietnam War was "their war" -- like me -- will also get a sense of replay of the factors that made the time so confusing, and so sad.

Which, it must be admitted, is the perfect ambience for a hard-boiled detective novel, and Gorman works the terrain well. It's tempting to start looking for the earlier nine titles, which began publication in 1999, working from the 1950s forward. I think I might go searching them out. In a hard-boiled sort of way.

No comments: