Sunday 28 December 2014

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell

I'd never heard of Madison Smartt Bell, but two things drew me to this novel. Firstly, it was published by Charles Aradai's Hard Case Crime. As I've discussed before, this has long been one of my favourite publishers. Recently I have been even more favourably disposed towards this imprint because my brilliant editor Miranda Jewess at Titan Books is also the UK editor of Hard Case Crime.

The second factor which compelled me to read Straight Cut was a quote on the cover by Walker Percy, a novelist I admire hugely. So I promptly obtained a copy of Bell's book, and I'm very pleased that I did.

Straight Cut begins with an affecting and involving sequence in which the hero Tracy Bateman has to kill his (terminally ill) dog on his farm near Nashville — like Walker Percy, the author is a southerner. 

This touching, disturbing scene establishes the character of Tracy and sets the dark tone for what is to follow. When he is summoned to New York, it turns out that Tracy is a film editor — the details of his work are superbly described and are one of the great strengths of the book.

Tracy's business partner in film making is a distinctly dubious character who has ensnared him more than once before in some very dodgy — and dangerous — drug deals and when it looks like this might be happening again and, what's more, involving Tracy's ex-wife (whom he still loves) the plot is up and running.

The characters and situation exert considerable attraction, but what is really notable about the book is the quality of the writing. Here is an assessment of Kevin, the dodgy partner: "this innocence of his was simply a vacancy, a vacuum. And the winds which whirled around it could do all sorts of damage to anyone in the near vicinity."

When Tracy flies to Rome he tells us, "the stewards pulled up all the blinds and startled the drowsy passengers with the sudden light of  Italian morning... with the Rome airport floating up under the wings." And here is the description of a deeply stoned Roman junkie, a girl with a "bright empty" smile: "The smile ended abruptly, like a light bulb burning out." Elsewhere we have the forger whose "hands made spidery shadows under the high intensity lamp."

Moving back and forth across Europe and the USA in the 1980s, Straight Cut it is a little far-fetched at times, with some deeply convenient happenstance (the hero's old friend turns out to be an expert sniper), and a silly sequence involving a block and tackle, but that doesn't seriously affect the novel. 

Bell's novel reminds me of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, though I think it is even better. Straight Cut is an intelligent, sardonic, beautifully written, engrossing thriller and I commend it to you. 

Meanwhile, I am going to start a serious campaign of exploring Madison Smartt Bell's other novels. And I'm pleased to say there's quite a few of them...

(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

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