Cheap as Beasts by Jon Wilson
5 stars - Highly Recommended by Kate
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Released: Feb 2015
Guest review by Kate Vane
Declan Colette is a private investigator in 1950s LA. When a young woman is killed on her way to an appointment with him, he comes under suspicion. To extricate himself, he must solve the mystery of her death, while entangling himself with a powerful family, obstructive police, resentful rivals and local gangsters. And a redhead. But the redhead is male.
This is the setup for Cheap as Beasts. It’s classic noir in the Chandler vein and yet it isn’t. It faces the eternal challenge for the genre novel – give us what we know, what we want, but give us something surprising, moving, new. And for me this book really does.
Everything about it is subtle. The prose is clever and laconic. The characters are all fluent in subtext. Colette has the obligatory world-weary take on the world. People may think they can take him in, but he’ll work out what’s going on. When he quotes Shakespeare he doesn’t stop to explain it. You’ll get it. Or you can look it up. (I had to look it up.)
It’s clear that, whatever Colette is telling you, there’s a lot more he’s keeping back. Colette’s ironic detachment comes, you sense, from a feeling that he’s living in a world he no longer believes in.
The book takes on themes that are controversial or ambiguous or sublimated in Chandler. When Colette sees a black lawn jockey, an image taken from Chandler’s The High Window (okay, I had to look that up too), he thinks of the humiliation of the black servant who has to polish it. It’s the same world, but from a different perspective.
Ideas of masculinity are questioned. Men judge each other, not only on their words or their strength, but on their war record. Colette’s sexuality is acknowledged, with varying degrees of acceptance – as long as he can pass those other tests.
World War Two and its aftermath are at the heart of this story. The man Colette loved was killed in the war. Clubs and bars are renamed to conceal their Japanese ownership. The case Colette is investigating turns in on itself, testing family alliances against wartime bonds. War and loss subtly suffuse everything.
Chandler himself wrote about how he struggled against the constraints of genre. This book, in turn, takes on Chandler and creates something new.
Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End. She lives on the Devon coast in the UK.