by Sam Reaves
Published by Carroll & Graf
274 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Now this is more like it. I've had a thirst for a good stiff shot of crime fiction for a long time now, and Sam Reaves' bracing new thriller, Dooley's Back, sure hits the spot. It goes down real smooth, but ends up kicking like a mule.
Right from the first taste, you know you're in for something that'll do you right. Ex-cop and widower Frank Dooley is barely off the plane, back home in Chicago after an eight-year "sabbatical" in Mexico, when he gets involved in a little nastiness involving a would-be rapist, a switchblade, a five-story drop and a shopping-mall food court. It ends with Frank's grim observation that "The punk had let go of the knife in midair, and it hit the floor and bounced at the same time he did, proving Galileo right once again."
Gee, high school physics class was never like that (unless maybe Dashiell Hammett was your professor).
You see, Frank's been cooling his jets south of the border as a sort of self-imposed exile/act of contrition. Eight years ago, his wife, Consuelo, was raped and murdered, and in their enthusiasm to nail the perpetrator, the police bungled the arrest big time, leaving the killer to go free on a technicality. Not that the guy subsequently lived a long, happy life, savoring his narrow escape from justice. Shortly after his release, someone blew his head off, and the next day our boy Frank resigned from the police force, deciding to take a prolonged vacation. Just a coincidence, mind you, and the victim was no great loss to humanity, evidently. Even the cops didn't look too hard into the shooting.
Of course, it's never that easy to escape from one's torment. There's a grim fatalism that runs through this book like a river. When asked if running to Mexico helped, Frank ruefully admits that it only helped "... a little. Nothing helps much. Except time."
Now time has passed, and all Frank wants is to come home, to be with his family and friends. The problem, though, is that time has passed. As Frank philosophizes later in this story, "People passed on, and the ones who were left had to go on making the best of it in a world with a lot of rough edges."
And some of those edges are brutal. His partner and best friend, Roy Ferguson, and Ferguson's wife, Andrea, are now divorced, and still mourning the accidental death (by drowning) of their young son. When Frank asks what Andrea's doing, Roy's reply is as hard and cold as they come:
"She's a cocktail waitress. She works at some hotel out by O'Hare. She's got a fuckin' master's in education and she's waiting tables, letting drunks feel her up and sleeping all day. She went to pieces."
Roy has found his own refuge from grief. He started gambling, and racked up debts no honest man could pay. As a result, he owes some serious coin to Johnny Spanos, an ambitious bagman for the mob who's more than willing to let Roy work off his debt in "favors." But Spanos is a nasty piece of work, a ruthless young Greek with a head full of ideas, swimming in a pool of old-style Italian gangsters who don't quite trust him, and never quite let him forget it. As mobster Vinnie Bonifazio puts it, "Johnny, for a Greek you're a hell of an Italian."
Frank finds out about Spanos' attempt to get his old partner to tamper with evidence in a murder case, and convinces Roy to do the right thing, instead, to own up to the department and confess his sins. But things go horribly awry, and Frank finds himself once more out for vengeance, determined to take down Spanos at almost any cost.
You would have thought that after eight years of exile, Frank would have learned that vengeance is a bitter drink to swallow, and that it never quite quenches that burning thirst.
The extended drinking metaphors in this review aren't accidental, by the way. It's hard to read Dooley's Back, and not start to see things filtered through a shot glass. Because this is one booze-soaked bit of noir -- people drink in this book constantly. They work in bars, they play in bars, they gamble in bars, they fight and love and die in bars. And they speak in terms of booze, as though alcohol is some sort of universal yardstick by which all human endeavors and emotions can be measured. And in this book, maybe it is. The alcohol seems to flow here even more freely than the blood.
When Frank's older brother, Kevin, a hotshot rising through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department, his eye set on the deputy chief's job, asks him what Mexico was like, Frank's reply is a blunt "I liked it OK. The beer's cheap."
When Roy invites Frank to stay with him, the invitation is a good-natured, "Shit, Dooley, just keep the refrigerator full of beer, you can stay forever."
And when Dooley meets his sister, Kathleen, for the first time in eight years, she pours him a coffee and tells him to "have some of this. I'll put a little Jameson's in it, and we'll celebrate like Irishmen."
Not that drinking is ever the answer -- it's just a temporary release, and the characters here know it; however much they booze, there isn't any way out, not really. Nor is drinking here reserved exclusively for the sons and daughters of Erin. Uh-uh -- everyone seems to drink in Dooley's Back. The book even kicks off as a sort of bittersweet, shaggy-dog bar story, though it soon turns into one wild tale, full of crooked cops, vengeance, brutal mobsters getting all misty-eyed about the good ol' days, Mexican money launderers, a little love and maybe, just maybe, a shot at redemption. But even that's a crap shoot. In this novel, not only does everybody seem to drink, but everybody hurts, as well.
This isn't the high, arch, arty cinematic noir of Touch of Evil or the designer lust of Body Heat -- this is working-class noir, in which people grind their hard lives out, their only refuge love, if they're lucky, and maybe a shot and a beer at the end of the road. They raise their glasses to each other in grim toasts like, "May the road come up to meet you when you fall."
Like fellow contemporary noir writers Scott Philips (The Ice Harvest) and Bill Pronzini, who also mine the black vein of crime fiction, Reaves spins his tale in the language of the streets and bars, in workmanlike prose that's more saloon than salon. When Spanos, shaken by Dooley's relentless game of cat-and-mouse, decides he'd better get a piece, he goes looking for "[s]omething for personal defense, I don't care about silencers, any of that bullshit. I want something to put a hole in someone."
It ain't necessarily fancy, and he's not exactly breaking any new ground here, but like the characters in this book, Reaves gets the job done. He doesn't need "any of that bullshit."
If he can't quite maintain the bleak noirish mood and black humor of the opening right through to the very last page, it's not the failure of language or nerve, but simply a case of the storyteller being swept along by his own story, and bringing his audience with him. And if a little sentimentality creeps in at the end ... well, hell, it's basically just a bar story, told over a few beers, anyway. It's almost to be expected.
American Reaves (whose real name is Samuel Allen Salter) has written a variety of books, including A Long Cold Fall (1991) and others in the Cooper MacLeish series, about a Vietnam vet, philosopher and hard-boiled Chicago cab driver. He has a second series, as well, written under the pen name of "Dominic Martell," which features Pascual Rose, a haunted ex-terrorist living in Spain and trying to come to grips with his past. All of these novels have been praised for their hard-hitting action and unflinching tone. Dooley's Back, though, was my first exposure to his work. To which, all I can add is ...
Set 'em up, Joe. And someone buy this guy Reaves a drink. | November 2002
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently lurking around the Los Angeles area, defying Chandler's red wind and trying to get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.