by Max McBride
Paperback, 286 pg.
Arjuna Books, 2017
Read: December 13 – 14, 2017
Peter O’Keefe is a a Vietnam Vet and a P.I., the head of an agency that’s doing pretty well. He’s a divorced father of an adoring daughter (and really doesn’t deserve the adoration). He’s growing dissatisfied with his life, finding solace in a bottle. His frequent partner and friend, Make Harrigan brings him in to do some investigative work to help with a lawsuit being brought by the victims of a Ponzi scheme. This soon turns into much more — there’s a few murders, some scary criminals running around, and every reason to believe that the Ponzi scheme was just the tip of the felonious iceberg. Throw in a woman who might as well be named Ms. Femme Fatale, and O’Keefe finds himself in deep and deadly waters.
Possibly the best thing about this book is that O’Keefe isn’t a solo PI. He’s part of (okay, the head of) an agency — there are other cases being worked by his office, there are other operatives he can use and rely on. Sure, by and large, he acts like the solo PI that we’re used to reading, but he doesn’t have to — and doesn’t all the time. Just that little bit of fresh air makes all the difference.
The book takes place in 1986, which is a blessing and a curse. O’Keefe can’t just whip out a smartphone and learn something, he can be haunted by ‘Nam and still be believable in the action scenes, this particular Ponzi scheme works better in 1986 than it would today (or even the mid-90s). The curse comes in with the text, I felt disconnected, removed, from the action. I don’t feel that way about older Rankin (or whatever) books, or any of the Grafton books set in that time; Kinsey lives in the 80’s, O’Keefe just happens to be there. I think it’s just the way that McBride deals with the setting — I can’t be more specific than that, sorry — and I might be the only one who feels that way.
O’Keefe and Harrigan started their respective careers with a degree of idealism — maybe by the time they started their careers, they didn’t have much of it, but as kids they did. We know this because they tell each other that repeatedly. It’s gone now, and they use mindless sex and alcohol to fill in that lack. Neither of them has a lot of joy in anything they do, or can find any meaning in it — friends, family, work, none of that does the job for them. This also is something they tell us repeatedly. I love reading characters who have that kind of idealism — who can be compared to Arthurian figures — whether they hang on to it or not — but I don’t need them pontificating about it. I need that to be something that they’re tagged with, that someone else describes them using. Otherwise, the character doesn’t come out as noble, but as a stuffed shirt. (See the conversation between Rachel Wallace and Susan Silverman about Spenser in Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace.)
This lack of meaning, of ambition, leaves O’Keefe open to this weird obsession when he meets (or first sees) Ms. Fatale, Tag Parker — the wife of the Ponzi schemer. But the all-consuming nature of O’Keefe’s obsession, striking as fast and as thoroughly as it did, was hard for me to buy — especially as it seems to be reciprocated.
I don’t think you need to like every protagonist, but I do think it helps with this kind of book, and Peter O’Keefe is hard to like. He’s a self-pitying drunk, with no real reason to be. He really is a lousy Dad, despite what he might intend. That alone makes him hard to like, add in the way he throws out ethics, common sense and professionalism when it comes to Tag Parker, and things get worse. I spent too much of the book waiting for him to get his head on right and in the game — which didn’t come until it was so late that I’d given up on it (and even then, I’m not sure if I could believe it).
There’s a couple of hit men/mob employees (not sure what to call them) that act in a ways I just couldn’t buy. There’s a little petty bickering between the two that gets out of hand — the kind of thing that can work in an Elmore Leonard book, but in one that’s as straight-forward as this, it just flops. One knows where O’Keefe lives, probably his daughter, too, and spends months doing nothing — only moving to act in a sloppy and hazardous way that almost guarantees failure (unlike walking into O’Keefe’s house when he’s in a drunken stupor and shooting him then). I’m not convinced their boss is written much better, but his behavior didn’t bother me as much.
So here’s the thing — despite what you might think from the above, I liked this book. The writing was occasionally rough; I couldn’t buy the obsession; Tag’s character; or the aspirations (dashed or otherwise) of O’Keefe or his friend; etc. But man . . . when the plot was moving, when the O’Keefe (or others) weren’t taking a beat for reflection, I was into things. The action worked, McBride pulled you in and took you for a ride. Given that the book leaned that direction, it was a fun read — it’s only when it tried to be a little more than a straight-forward thriller that it faltered (not that it didn’t get some of that right — just not everything it tried).
I do think that people will enjoy the read, and can appreciate what McBride is going for, and do recommend it. But go in with your eyes open, it’s McBride’s first novel. Hopefully his second — assuming there is one — will be stronger (whether or not O’Keefe and the rest come back for more).
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.