The curious cases of the sleepy detectives
THE LITTLE SLEEP
By Paul Tremblay
Holt, 288 pp., $14
REVENGE OF THE SPELLMANS
By Lisa Lutz
Simnon & Schuster, 384 pp., $25
SPADE & ARCHER
By Joe Gores
Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pp., $24
A wealth of neurologically impaired detectives have found a happy home in crime fiction. We've had detectives with synesthesia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette's syndrome, and now narcolepsy. PI Mark Genevich struggles to stay awake as he walks Southie's mean streets. This down-at-the-heels ex-military man doesn't drive because it would be too dangerous, but he chain-smokes and repeatedly comes close to incinerating himself.
Genevich sleep-walks through an interview with a prospective client. When he comes to, he tries to sort hallucination from reality. The photographs of a naked young woman are real enough. But who brought them to his office, what is he supposed to do about them, and what is the meaning of those squiggles and scrawls that his narcoleptic brain directed his hand to write?
His quest to identify the naked woman draws the ire of a crooked district attorney, once his father's best friend, and whose spoiled, minor celebrity daughter resembles the woman in the photograph. He must be onto something, but darned if he knows what because when he's threatened by the DA's goons, he collapses and goes cataplectic.
Needless to say, his investigation is slow going. Tremblay does a yeoman's job of conveying his character's internal world, constantly teetering on the verge of unconsciousness. This is a fine debut from a Massachusetts author, but if he brings Genevich back for an encore, I hope he gets the poor guy some treatment. Spending nearly 300 pages with a narcoleptic is exhausting.
Meet another sleep-deprived detective, Isabel Spellman, in Lisa Lutz's third series novel "Revenge of the Spellmans." Izzy is on leave from her family's San Francisco detective agency ("No Spellman can resist yanking on the loose threads that make a mystery"), working as a bar maid at the Philosopher's Club, a seedy local bar. She can't sleep soundly in her own bed because she's afraid her brother David will discover that she's moved into his secret basement apartment.
No murders here, but there are plenty of mysteries in the family as Izzy tries to figure out where David disappeared to and why he returned with a broken arm, whether her younger sister, the cheeky and irrepressible Rae, cheated her way to a near-perfect PSAT score, and where the heck she parked her own car. Meanwhile, a man hires her to investigate his wife's bizarre relationship with the wife of a local politician.
The peripatetic plot is narrated in tongue-in-cheek detective-ese with Izzy forever "exiting the premises," or "checking the perimeter." Strung throughout are comic transcripts of Izzy's psychological counseling sessions, which were mandated by the court after she detected a bit too aggressively and violated a restraining order. With its lists and footnoted asides, flash-forwards and flashbacks, and shameless promotion of previous series novels, this book is almost too cute for its own good. But as a romp that shares more in common with a zany sitcom or chick-lit than it does with your average crime novel, it works.
For those who long to return to the golden olden days when detectives were tough as nails, villains were evil, and the treasure at the end of the rainbow might be a jewel-encrusted statuette, you can't do better than Joe Gores's "Spade & Archer." Though the book's opening lines ("It was thirteen minutes short of midnight. Drizzle glinted through the wind-danced lights on the edge of the Tacoma Municipal Dock.") reminded this reader more of Raymond Chandler's opening to "The Big Sleep," from then on the novel fully lives up to its subtitle: "The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon." Hammett's "blond Satan" is back in fine form.
The bombastic, shady Miles Archer who becomes Spade's partner is back, too, along with Archer's blousy wife, Iva, whose passions Spade accommodates. There's Detective Dundy, the blustering cop who wants to get Spade more than he wants to get the bad guys. And Spade's smart, sassy young secretary, Effie Perrine. Spade interviews her (she has sent the other job applicants packing, telling them the position is taken), hires her, and she transforms him from tough guy to avuncular protector.
Each of the novel's three parts could stand alone as a novella. In the first, Spade tries to prevent chests filled with gold sovereigns from being stolen from the ship San Anselmos. In the second and most moving story, Spade investigates a bank embezzlement and tries to save the life of Effie's beautiful (of course) young friend. Though the final part starts off more pedestrian -an investigation to find money that was supposedly raised to support Sun Yat-Sen's bid for power in China - it contains an astonishing twist and a particularly satisfying denouement that wraps up all three sections.
Throughout, Spade pursues an arch-villain and, as in Falcon, "Everyone has something to conceal." Gore nail's Hammett's voice, that omniscient narrator who stands just outside of Sam Spade and records his every move but never a single thought. By rolling another cigarette, he reveals all the reader needs to know. As Spade untangles each case, he strips away complexities and complications, always adhering to advice he gives Effie, "Simple is always best, sweetheart."
Hallie Ephron is author of "Never Tell a Lie" (William Morrow). Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.