Saturday, 12 April 2014

Robert Littell: A Nasty Piece of Work

If you’re just starting out on Robert Littell, don’t start here. The Company is a bit much to bite off in one go, so read 1997’s Walking Back the Cat, an almost perfect little spy yarn which manages to mix post-cold-war disaffection with cold-war hangover better than anything else I’ve ever read. The Company  is probably his best book, but Walking Back the Cat is the book which hooked me into reading more.

A Nasty Piece of Work is Littell trying to do Chandler, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours. In principle, it ought to have been a great notion; former CIA operator scraping a living as a private eye in New Mexico gets hired to find a bail jumper, and gets deeper and deeper in over his head as he follows the trail. In practice, it doesn’t quite work because it’s not enough of anything. Littell is a good writer, strong with character and dialogue, but he’s not Chandler; not even Chandler was Chandler every day of the week. No-one before or since has had that ability to toss out a far fetched figure of speech and make it sound just as grounded as Elmore Leonard. Smart writers don’t even try to echo that unique voice.

Chandler’s other great strength was his ability not to care about the ending; stuff happened, more stuff happened, then the back cover of the book slapped you in the face. You might get told whodunnit, but Chandler was never about closure or the neat wrapping up of all the loose ends. At a time when other detective stories were careful to lay out the clues and felt morally obliged to make use of each of them before the wrap-up, Chandler just left the clues alone. Chekhov’s gun would still be rusting out on the sidewalk months after the action, without so much as an aside to say “what? you thought that mattered?” What mattered to Chandler was personality - and slabs of over-ripe dialogue.

A Nasty Piece of Work is, in the end, driven by personality; the crime at the heart of the book is one of those things which makes perfect sense for the people involved, because people do stupid things. Yet it’s weirdly obsessed with using everything on the page; the narrator McGyvers his way out of the final fix using every single random element of scene-setting and character dressing we’ve seen up to that point. If Littell had been making a better job of the characters’ resourcefulness, it would have felt like a real person looking around at what was available and making the most of all of it; but instead it feels like Littell needed all these items for the climax, so he made sure that they’d crop up along the way.

Which is not to say it’s bad; it’s just not good Littell. Read all the other stuff first.

No comments: