by Curt Colbert

Published by UglyTown

287 pages, 2003







Emerald in the Rough

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


Curt Colbert is back with Sayonaraville, a second slice of mouth-watering retro-pulp featuring his series hero, hard-drinking, hard-boiled private dick Jake Rossiter, whose turf is the mean streets of post-World War II Seattle, Washington. And once again the bad-boy publishers at UglyTown have served him well, wrapping up his latest literary offering in a suitably eye-catching package. The Japanese Internment Notices that serve as endpapers are a great (and timely) touch, as is Colbert's back-page note of gratitude to "the veterans of W.W. II who made sure America was still here when I was born."

Like Rat City (2001), the Shamus Award-nominated novel that kicked off this series and introduced both Rossiter and his irrepressible, unsinkable "girl Friday" (now junior partner), Miss Jenkins, Sayonaraville is chockfull of good old-fashioned private eye action and rat-a-tat dialogue. And like its predecessor, this new adventure offers colorful depictions of a rough-and-tumble, late-1940s blue-collar port town that seems miles away from the courteous, scrubbed and java-slurping Emerald City of today.

It's simply a blast to dig into these pages, and be transported back to the bad old days when men were men and everyone else pretty much got out of their damn way. Or something like that. This is retro-pulp the way it should be written, with the emphasis on action and passion. Colbert's a smart and savvy Seattle writer whose big-shouldered prose style is more than up to the task -- he knows how to keeps things popping. Good thing, then, that narrator Jake is "ready for most anything" -- which we find out almost immediately, when the gumshoe goes to visit an old "pal," carrying a stiletto, a .45 automatic in a shoulder rig, a tiny .25 in his vent pocket and a blackjack.

And Jake needs them all. As Sayonaraville unfolds, he's beaten up, knocked down, dragged about, shot at and wounded enough times to qualify for a Purple Heart.

Oh, did I mention this isn't a cozy?

* * *

The plot finds Miss Jenkins on her "first real case." She's trying to determine who has it in for the Hashimotos, a Japanese family newly released from one of the wartime internment camps. (Such camps were established in the American West shortly after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Among their Japanese-American prisoners were about 9,600 Seattleites, all deemed "potential spies.") The Hashimotos, whose store was destroyed by a suspicious fire, are struggling to rebuild their lives in Seattle's Chinatown. Rossiter and Stanley "Heine" Heinselman, his equally distrustful and hard-nosed partner, don't give much of a damn about the Hashimoto family's misfortunes -- both men are recently discharged war veterans with little love for anything Japanese, American-born or otherwise. But when Miss Jenkins' life is threatened, unless she backs off the Hashimoto case, the overprotective Jake decides it is his business after all, and takes over the investigation.

Still, Miss Jenkins persists, being a very determined, idealistic and thoroughly modern kind of gal (and also slightly anachronistic, if you ask me). And soon enough the Rossiter agency is in over its head in a messy inquiry that involves such creaky but satisfying pulp goodies as a thoroughly corrupt police force, a high-flying gunman and his psycho moll, two-fisted war heroes, a beheaded insurance agent (thanks to an Japanese ceremonial Samurai sword, no less), an overly amorous widow, assorted inscrutable Asians, gambling dens and enough secret passageways beneath Chinatown to make you wonder if the whole city's going to sink out of sight one of these days.

There is much to like about Sayonaraville. It contains gum-snapping wisecracks and tough talk aplenty, and its Truman-era details flow almost effortlessly -- like Jake's lawyer being described as "big as a Sherman tank and just about as tough." There's even a bit of unconditional patriotism. I mean, how retro can you get?

I also love the fact that Rossiter, a former rumrunner and ex-Marine, is not exactly a Boy Scout, nor is he a sanitized Superman. He's actually a bit of a jerk at times, displaying more stubbornness and pettiness than common sense, and on occasion he lapses into excessive violence. Jake isn't the most enlightened of men, either. He uses enough racial epithets here to assure everyone that they're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Yes, it makes sense that Jake, who's recently returned from fighting in the Pacific theater, should be more than a little down on the Japanese. (At one point, when asked about some bruises on his face, the P.I. replies, "They're just old war wounds I got in the Pacific ... never healed.") I wouldn't expect Jake, who's mostly rough around the edges, to suddenly start being all coy and mealy-mouthed about how he feels.

But (you knew that was coming, right?) I'm not so sure this is a good thing.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to get all politically correct on anyone's ass here (and believe me, I've heard far worse and more offensive stuff than anything Jake spouts in Sayonaraville). Nor have I particularly enjoyed some recent authors' attempts to view the past through socially corrective lenses. But just by coincidence, I've lately been reading a few novels that were written during approximately the same time period in which Colbert's fiction is set (including a couple by that great pulpster Norbert Davis), and the difference in emphasis couldn't be more obvious.

Too often, modern hard-boiled crime stories that employ the recent past as their backdrop are gleefully, self-consciously politically incorrect, as if being offensive were a point of honor. (James Ellroy's work comes immediately to mind.) But those efforts come off as artificial and forced, whereas the real stuff -- American tales that were actually penned in the 40s, for instance -- tended to present the biases and prejudices of their day straight up. No apologies, no explanations, no shame -- just facts of life. Those old yarns didn't hammer endlessly on the prejudices. In contrast, a lot of today's would-be hard-boiled fiction reads like a kid who's showing off in the schoolyard by mouthing "bad words."

Jake Rossiter is not exactly a man full of nuance. As he himself puts it, "I like my mysteries black and white, not all gray and ambiguous." And that's more or less what Colbert serves up here. His protagonist's rants about various ethnic groups -- particularly the "Nips" -- are about as un-gray and unambiguous as you can get. Which is understandable. But they quickly become not so much offensive as merely tiresome. Once it's been established that Jake has all this residual hatred and distrust boiling inside him, we don't need to hear him vent it every chapter or so.

Nor do we require constant reminders of what year it is. Oh sure, I have no doubt that Colbert gets all of the details of his historical atmosphere right. But that's precisely the problem. There are just too many details provided here, and some of the period jargon is laid on pretty thickly, as though the author doesn't quite trust his readers to remember the year in which Sayonaraville's action takes place. The result is that all of Colbert's research finds its way onto the printed page, and at times it gets in the way of his storytelling.

For instance, it's not enough that Jake jumps into his partner Heine's car -- he has to mention that it's a "brand-new '48 Ford [with a] powerful L-head V-8 revved up and raring to go." C'mon, Jake, while you're painting this picture, the bad guys are getting away!

We're also told that Jake smokes Philip Morris cigarettes and takes Bayer Aspirin, and that Miss Jenkins is "a real Crackerjack" with an "I just ate my Wheaties" face. Is this period detail, or retro product placement?

Now, I love the old stuff as much as the next guy. But these piles of particulars too often pull the reader out of the action, like so many speed bumps, just when we should be racing along to find out what happens next. Trust us, Curt -- we're right behind you. Don't keep stopping to see if we're still there.

* * *

I don't want to nitpick too much, though, because despite its obsession with details, Sayonaraville ultimately delivers the goods. There are plenty of kick-ass thrills here, and even a (possibly unintentional) nod to Roman Polanski's Chinatown, perhaps the ultimate in retro P.I. flick-chic.

But make no mistake: Regardless of its postwar drag, this is actually a very modern book, as much a product of 2003 as of 1948. Although Colbert once again spins a suitably hard-nosed and entertaining historical yarn filled with murder and intrigue, he also tends at times toward modern-era introspection -- and, yes, a fawning attention to detail -- that simply wasn't part of the standard M.O. for the 1940s pulp writers he so clearly seeks to emulate. Hell, Colbert even tosses in some "take-it; it's good-for-you" moralizing at the end: Jake's prejudices are exposed for what they are, and Miss Jenkins is shown to be no dummy, after all. All very 21st-century stuff, really, complete with an unambiguous, flag-waving Hollywood-type ending. And the developing romantic relationship between the cynical sleuth and his idealistic junior partner (will they or won't they?) suggests that we haven't seen the last of these two.

As it is, Sayonaraville spends a lot of time revving its engine. Next round, maybe Curt Colbert will relax a bit, pay a little less attention to the period-perfect details and a little more to the narrative drive of the free-wheeling era he so obviously loves. In other words, he should kick it into gear, and really let 'er rip. | October 2003


Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently in the Los Angeles area, trying to conjure up the ghost of Philip Marlowe.