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Friday Five: Gateway Smut

Underground Reading: Dutch Uncle by Peter Pavia

This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. We're back in the United States this week with #12 - Peter Pavia's Dutch Uncle.

Dutch UncleDutch Uncle (2005) is a Hard Case Crime original, and, appropriately, after the last few books, it fee like we've been flung forward about fifty years. Peter Pavia pulls us out of vintage noir and flings the reader straight into the sprawling neo-noir epics of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Charles Willeford. 

Of course, Dutch Uncle takes place in Florida, which doesn't hurt the comparison...

Weird aside: I've never truly gotten into the Miami crime fiction scene. I mean, I get it - the authors above are certainly at the top of the field, but Florida's never been my favourite. Perhaps, and I'm just throwing this out there, the Miami 'archetype' is a bit... wacky. Authors seem to spend a lot of time establishing Miami's special magic sparkleponiness, how it is the goofy/unique center of the universe. (By contrast: New York pretends its behaviour is normal, LA doesn't actually acknowledge the rest of the universe, Las Vegas is goofy/unique and Texas is whatever Joe Lansdale and Kinky Friedman tell us it is.) Call it a matter of personal preference. An inconsistent one too, given how much I like John D. MacDonald's stories from the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, back to the sprawling neo-noir thing... Dutch Uncle is, indeed, sprawling.

Harry is a (very recently) paroled ex-con. Leo is someone he served time with - a minor drug dealer in the Miami scene, spending his hard-unearned cash on good clothes and gullible women. Manfred Pfiser is a "Euro-wiseguy", a Dutch importer who visits Miami a few times a year to party with beach boys. Beaumond and Fernandez are Leo's goons. Vicki is a fading starlet who keeps them company. Aggie is a 'citizen' (as The Wire puts it) - a hard-working waitress that gets tangled up in the story. Lili Acevedo and Arnie Martinson are cops, trying to figure out why the above cast of dozens keeps dying.

For a short little book (256 pages is only fat by Hard Case Crime's abstemious standards), Dutch Uncle packs in a lot, arguably, just the tiniest bit too much. The stories are interlinked but, for the most part, discrete. Harry's arc is perhaps the center of the story, if only because it is the most familiar. He agrees to an errand of dubious legal quality and winds up falsely accused of murder. Harry goes on the run (but not far) and, while hiding out under an assumed identity, he falls for a lady. The cops are circling, his doom is nigh, what will happen?

Leo's experiencing another familiar story - he's the bad guy with ambitions. He sets up a heist then falls out with his companions one after the other. Leo's convinced that he's a criminal mastermind, but as the book unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that he's falling apart. There's a certain inevitability about his fate, with the only question being which sword falls first.

And, if Dutch Uncle has one lesson, it is, oddly enough, inevitability. Harry, Leo, Lili, Arnie, Aggie - everyone... their storylines all resolve through a chain of circumstances so coincidental as to border on predestination. This makes Dutch Uncle a slightly frustrating book. There's a deliberate absence of agency in these pages. If anything, it is when Harry and Leo make active decisions to change their lot that things get worse for them. When Harry gets brave enough to ask for help, he learns how little help is available. (Arguably, when he does receive help, he loses all his agency again - everything's immediately taken out of his hands.) Even Harry's final, redemptive denouement is ultimately a choice to preserve his status quo, rather than act. Leo's stuck in a sort of sleazy (but pleasant) status quo, it is when he actively seeks to better his situation that things start falling apart. The cops are 'good guys', grinding away and trying to make a difference, but it isn't until they accept random chance that things break their way.

Yet, at the same time, Dutch Uncle's butterfly effect makes for great reading, watching all the tiny twists and turns spiral further and further out of control. The reader is in a privileged position, as only we can see how what results from any one character's the actions (or inactions). In some ways, noir is the study of circumstances and we respond to them, and Dutch Uncle puts this under the microscope - examining every single ripple. Despite the epic cast and seemingly high stakes, this is ultimately a novel about very little things happening to largely insignificant people.

Another neat cover - R.B. Farrell this time. I'm guessing that's Leo (nice 1996 fashion!) and Vicki, but the best touch is the cocaine typeface. Nicely done.