Move over Rebus, here comes Blake…
Detective fiction is a little like drinking wine: there is a lot around and everyone has their favourite. When something new comes on the market, the drinker or the reader, looks longingly to their favourite brand or book and says, "I hope the new one is like the old one..." It's not an exact science of course: there is a chemistry to it. The reader can like a new detective story, and then the reader can love a new detective story.
I am a fan of detective stories. I began with Agatha Christie back when I was eleven. I read Sherlock Holmes and moved onto the feminist detectives in the early eighties. It's a little hard to define what I like: sometimes I think that reading anything is really a love story and so is undefinable, but....
I picked up American Crow by Jack Lacey and was hooked. I love American Crow. The character of Sibelius Blake is strongly written and interesting. Blake’s back story comes out through the novel. The plot ending ties beautifully with the beginning: it is very well structured.
When we first meet Blake, he has just quit his job as a tracer after having suffered a tragedy. He is alone. Sibelius Blake comes from a long line of detectives who have issues: Dalziel of Dalzieland Pascoe, and Inspector Morse from Colin Dexter, are recent versions. We like these wounded detectives for their peculiarities (their cryptic crosswords, their drinking, and their morose moods) because they fight for the truth. They are right, despite the odds, and they are good at heart. Blake is cast in this mould: despite telling “everyone he'd quit for good”, Lenny, his boss, can still track him down and know that Blake will find Olivia Deacon, or if he can't, do his darnedest.
This is search and find detective fiction: we aren't looking at bodies as in the Cornwell/Scarpetta type of novel. Rather, we are searching for something lost, in this case a person. This search serves as an introduction to a Private Investigator with a great back story. It also gives Lacey scope to show us Blake's ability as a detective. Lenny tells Blake that he can "mix it with the worst, blend in with the riffraff... You know what I mean? You're not some stiff Columbo type in a mackintosh.... That' why you gets results."
Like a large number of his kind (Millhone and Dalziel) Blake is alone, without family. The reasons for this makes a really interesting plot line which is well structured and kept me reading. It resolved itself well at the end and, along the way we are introduced to an interesting mix of minor characters: the cafe owner, Blake's boss Lenny, Lenny's family members, and an odd, and occasionally, scary bikie and truck driver. I felt that, not only were these minor characters well drawn, but also that a number of they had good scope for further stories. I'd be interested to know what happens to them, to see what other meals Blake has at Sheila's cafe.
Place is important in detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes's London, Agatha Christie's drawing rooms. In the modern stories the city is the backdrop: Ian Rankin's Rebus novels are set in Edinburgh, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone drives the streets of Santa Theresa in California. Blake is an English PI, based in London, but American Crow, as its name suggests, takes Blake to various parts of the US. The novel sends Blake from place to place, searching. This is an excellent metaphor for the personal search that Blake is on. He doesn't like England; he doesn't like himself. The various locations in American Crow make interesting backdrops: Essex is wet, with rain hammering down, St James's Park in London has inquisitive ducks, Cedar Avenue is a dilapidated tower block. These places reflect the journey that Blake is going on to find Olivia Deacon. As the locality changes, so does the mood of the novel.
Travel to the US allows Lacey to explore another aspect of the detective novel: the reason, the meaning, the social issue. This is an interesting aspect of the modern detective novel: the awareness of social issues: feminism, the environment, class. Unlike modern fiction, modern detective novels often declare their vision. In the U.S., both Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are feminist detective writers. Their characters are feminist and the stories are seen through an avowedly political prism. American Crow does not tackle gender, but it does discuss the environment, environmental activism and various concerns including the role of the company, political activism, individual and corporate responsibility. This environmental theme isn't done in any high handed way: it is integral to the plot and the action follows.
Although American Crow's primary focus is not gender, the female characters in the novel are interestingly drawn and there is a varied range of roles and actions for various women. The women are activists, scientists, researchers, victims, agents, and some play different roles at different times.
Detective fiction requires certain constraints: there's usually a baddie as well as a goodie. The male characters in American Crow are less inclined to be good, excepting of course, our hero and a couple of his friends. Overall, though, I found the characters compelling and believable.
The setting of this novel is terrific. Who will Blake meet? Where will he go? Will he use his contacts or his wits? I couldn't wait to turn the pages and to find out what Blake would do in order to find Olivia Deacon. The characters are intriguing, and the social issue of environmentalism adds depth. Like many great detective novels, I finished it really quickly and I can't wait for Jack Lacey to write the next instalment. American Crow is very highly recommended and I am happy to rate it as 5 out of 5 stars!