Line of Sight
by Jack Kelly
Published by Hyperion
352 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Reviewed by Jack Curtin
Line of Sight, Jack Kelly's fourth novel (after Apalachin, Protection and Mad Dog), is a classic noir story: a good man succumbs to the wiles of a bad, beautiful woman.
When we first meet Ray Dolan, narrator of this flawed but interesting tale, it's hard not to like the guy. He's a policeman in the upstate New York town of Mansfield. We learn right off the bat that he's a straight arrow, the sort of cop who won't countenance another officer's mistreatment of a prisoner or go along with any cover-up of such brutality. Not that he's perfect, understand. A bit further on in the story, when Ray, in a heroic if against-all-the-rules gamble, prevents an anguished father from putting a bullet through his captive 4-year-old daughter's head, he's not above administering a bit of "blue justice" with his fists before dumping his captive into a squad car.
For the most part, though, going against the grain -- whether while rescuing a child or knocking a prisoner around -- is not Ray's style. He's a man who prides himself on living by the rules and his personal standards are pretty simple: You don't borrow money from friends. You don't drink before noon. You don't say what you can't back up... You don't mess with married women.
Enter Sheila Travis, the sexy -- and married -- woman next door, who most definitely catches Ray's attention when he spies her parading naked in front of her lighted bedroom window one night while he's out in the back yard with his telescope. Ray's an amateur astronomer whose eyes and mind are often on the skies above (the book is replete with metaphors involving dark night skies and distant stars) and this sudden and very earthy vision hits him like an exploding nova, especially after new neighbor Sheila comes over to introduce herself in her bathing suit the next day while husband, Lance, floats in their pool with a can of beer in his hand. And she invites him to a party the coming weekend.
Ray is torn between his attraction for Sheila and his innate understanding that such an attraction is a situation fraught with dangerous possibilities. "All the windows of the [Travis] house were dark, blank. Yet I stared with the bone-deep interest that I usually turned to the stars," he admits to himself while sitting on his back porch the night after meeting her. "Desire and disaster, both words are based on the word for star. I looked it up once." Desire wins out and Ray finds himself drawn into the Travis orbit, uncomfortably mixing with the likes of the city's politically ambitious mayor and other movers and shakers, learning of Lance's cocaine habit and seeing his brutality toward his wife and teenage daughter, Brie, when he's had too much to drink.
A sexy woman who seems interested and poolside parties with the well-to-do would be heady stuff for most blue-collar cops for sure, but for Ray Dolan, it's an even bigger deal. He's a man with virtually no social life and few pals. Most of the other cops are uncomfortable with his willingness to breach the thin blue line rather than protect a fellow officer with his silence. And his only real friend, detective Frank Kaiser, is sinking into a deep funk because he's convinced his wife is cheating on him and his marriage is over (he's right) and he is not exactly a useful sounding board.
Left essentially to his own devices, Ray finds himself developing a wholly different attitude about the rules by which he's lived his life:
Rules. Of all the pleasures, I thought, letting go of the rules is one of the deepest. You tie yourself down with rules. So many possibilities bloom when you stop clinging to them that it takes your breath away. It frightens you.
Still, he tries to break his obsession with his neighbor by dating pretty young Leanne Corvino, a local TV news reporter who, coincidentally, turned him into a hero when she captured his rescue of that little girl on tape. But Sheila efficiently shuts down this romance by taking Ray to bed for the first time in the middle of a Travis party to which he has brought Leanne as his date.
It will come as no surprise to readers that, once the sex begins, Sheila quickly gets around to suggesting how swell things would be if only Lance were dead. Nor will it come as a shock that she eventually does something about it. That's standard stuff in stories like this one. What puts a memorable twist on the murder is the lengths to which Sheila is willing to go to get away with it. Her frantic call brings Ray racing to the Travis house one afternoon, where he finds Lance lying in his own blood on the kitchen floor. Sheila rejects his suggestion that she plead self-defense:
"But I shot him in the back. I emptied the gun. I wanted to kill him and I did. Nobody's going to swallow self-defense."
Ray Dolan is a long way from a straight-arrow cop at this point and things rapidly become a lot more complicated. Frank Kaiser is put in charge of the case and comments he begins making to Ray on a regular basis seem to indicate that he may suspect his friend's involvement in the shooting. Then, based on Sheila's description of the mystery intruder she claims shot her, the police arrest a suspect, a man who has no alibi. Kaiser is elated; solving this case will jump start his career again.
Will Ray allow an innocent man to go to prison, or maybe his death, to protect Sheila? Or is he willing to destroy his best friend's new lease on life and his own career by betraying his lover? And how does he deal with a steady stream of disturbing revelations about Sheila, not the least of which is a $1 million insurance policy on Lance that she's never bothered to mention? How Ray finally decides to answer those questions sets up the explosive conclusion to this tale, one that is both surprising and violent and which leads to an appropriately cynical dénouement.
All in all, I'd say that Line of Sight is a satisfactory read from a writer who manages to capture the impact and intensity of classic hard-boiled fiction while bringing to it a modern nuance -- one suggesting that there are larger issues than what is happening within the confines of the story itself, from the mundane yet vital question of how the police function within our society to the timeless concerns about the nature of love and obsession. All that said, though, I did refer to the novel as "flawed," didn't I?
Here's why: Kelly unfortunately misses the mark (and it is a credit to his engaging style that this is not more evident and more damaging) in his depiction of the two central characters.
This novel is narrated by and, in a very real sense, is entirely about Ray Dolan, about who he is and about his reactions to events as they unfold. And yet Dolan is surprisingly passive throughout most of the story. He is drawn to Sheila but makes no move toward her until she acts first. He does not embrace the idea of killing her husband, but neither does he strongly act against its happening. After Lance is shot, when we most expect our protagonist to take center stage, Ray becomes even more an observer than he had been in the early going. He does not want Sheila to give a description of her purported assailant, nor to identify him in a police lineup and certainly not to go on television and be interviewed about the crime. But she does all of these things and his anger or dismay is either muted or quickly dissipated. When Sheila insists they go out to dinner the night the insurance check arrives, even though they should not be seen together, he rather easily gives in. Even as new revelations about Ray's paramour make it evident that she is not at all what she had seemed, he continues to drift along with her schemes.
Indeed, something he thought to himself the afternoon Sheila convinced him to shoot her as an alibi might serve to sum up Ray's place in the scheme of things: "Decide? You don't decide. Something like this, it just happens."
The obvious argument for all this, of course, is that Ray is so obsessed with this fascinating, sexy woman that he is incapable of reacting rationally or normally. The problem with that, and the biggest issue I have with the book, is that Sheila Travis never comes across as that powerful a presence in these pages. Given that we see her -- always -- through Ray's eyes, this is a serious defect. There is nothing in the way Sheila is described, in the way she talks, in descriptions of their lovemaking or their moments together, that bespeaks an overwhelming sexual or physical presence that can thoroughly dominate a man like Ray Dolan. In fact, only once in these pages does a male character provide a glimpse into the sort of raw power this woman supposedly wields and that person is not Ray but rather another, earlier Sheila conquest whom she had approached about killing her husband:
He was suddenly earnest. "You're a man, maybe you get what I'm talking about. The broad was a phenomenal piece of ass. But she was taking me right over the edge. First time she mentioned capping the husband, I'm going 'Sure I'll kill your fucking husband. I'll kill every male on this planet, baby, you say the word.' Yeah, she scared me. She scared me plenty."
If that were the Sheila we had seen throughout, Ray Dolan's obsession would have been more believable and a good book could well have become a great one. | September 2000
Jack Curtin is a freelance writer and frequent January Magazine contributor, based in the Philadelphia area.