It’s been a couple years since my last visit to the Nightside, and that is the only factor I can think of to explain how disconnected I felt from Simon Green’s supernatural noir series when I jumped back into it with the fourth book, “Hex and the City”.
I cannot imagine that the first three books were as poorly written as this one. They couldn’t have been. I wouldn’t have continued reading them. Would I? Ok, ‘poorly written’ may be unfair, but at the very least, this book was awkwardly written.
Was I struggling to get back into the world of John Taylor and the ‘Nightside’, or was Green struggling to remember how to write these characters himself?
Halfway through the book, I glanced at the cover and saw that ‘Dresden Files’ author Jim Butcher had offered a quote. If that had been on the cover of the first book in this series, I’m not sure I would have started it. “Hex and the City” read very much like “Storm Front” in that it felt more like a fan of supernatural stories trying to prove he’s a bigger fan than you and knows more about the topic than you do, than a coherent and well-written novel. So, if you love Jim Butcher, by all means.
Paragraph long stretches of John Taylor speaking should have been adapted into descriptive expositional paragraphs. Perhaps they originally had been internal monologues in earlier drafts as multiple times Taylor would repeat something he had said half a chapter before to the complete surprise of the very characters he had spoken it to initially.
Too often, Taylor was supposed to be speaking to characters around him and interacting with them, but instead was stiff and spoke at them (or at the reader or just at anyone who had wandered by and might be listening). He wasn’t a part of the scene and he wasn’t moving it forward. This wasn’t descriptive, this wasn’t storytelling. It was bullet points dressed up to look like a novel.
Detective fiction thrives on the smug, smartass private dick, but here, Taylor takes it to a level that brought to mind the fanboy writing style that turned me off the ‘Dresden Files’ after just one book.
The story picked up a bit towards the end and gave us a great answer to the question that’s been building since the first book. But ultimately, I found myself turning the page, not to find out what would happen next, but just to finish the thing and move on to another book.
“Hex and the City” is the fourth book in this series, so I won’t give up on the whole thing just because this one disappointed. There is an end to the ‘Nightside’ series, as Green finished it off with the 12th book, “The Bride Wore Black Leather”. I’d love for him to get back to the page-turning, exciting, supernatural detective fiction that sucked me into this hidden world in the first place so I can see this series through to the end.
Had “Darkness, Take My Hand”, the second book in Dennis Lehane’s ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, not been in the same volume as the first book, I may have taken a break to read some other things before jumping back into the world of these Dorchester private investigators.
Of course, had the plot of the second book not picked up significantly about halfway through, I don’t know when book three would have hit my reading list.
Typically, I don’t like this type of story. I’m getting sick of it. TV has done it to death with the untouchable villain whose lifelong game plan has been to get back at our protagonist for some long forgotten trespass, oftentimes committed by a parent or mutual mentor. Until that reveal, our protagonist was seemingly pulled into the entire plot by accident. And you know what? Stop. Just stop.
It’s ok to have a case without rooting it deep within your character’s personal histories. As readers and viewers of any story, we want to experience the world these characters inhabit but you should insult your audience with stories contrived to make us believe the entire universe revolves around those characters.
But… Ok, if you’re going to do it, I suppose, this time, at least, it was done pretty well.
I figured out who the mystery guy was before the big reveal, but I think, as readers, we were meant to figure it out ahead of the characters. Once the story got to that point it was obvious because deep down, that wasn’t the mystery.
Between books one and two, Patrick started up a new relationship, and it was the few pages of his frantic sprint over the icy streets of Boston when she was in danger that had me more on the edge of my seat then the ultimate conclusion to the case itself.
With that in mind, maybe I was wrong about this book. Maybe I was wrong about what the real story was? The reason I picked up the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series in the first place was to experience Lehane’s Boston through his characters. The real story in “Darkness, Take My Hand” was the fallout of those decisions that Patrick and Angie had made in the previous book and how it affected both differently. Perhaps the story wasn’t about hunting a killer, but learning to accept and move past those choices Patrick and Angie made and must continue to make to survive in their line of work. Otherwise, they would allow themselves to be consumed entirely by it, as many of the characters ultimately were.
It’s actually a quote from “A Drink Before the War” that sums up what is truly at the heart of this novel:
“It never works that way. Once that ugliness has been forced into you, it becomes part of your blood, dilutes it, races through your heart and back out again, staining everything as it goes. The ugliness never goes away, never comes out, no matter what you do. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. All you can do is hope to control it.”
Early on Dennis Lehane writes, “It’s a place where the people are grateful for the seasons, because at least they confirm that time is actually moving on.” After reading the book, I’m not sure time has moved on, not for the Boston of his novels and not for the world we find ourselves living in today.
As a reader, I opened “A Drink Before the War” expecting an honest look inside Boston, the real Boston; I wanted gritty and working class, honest, drunk, and proud of every crack in the sidewalk because that was the sidewalk in your neighborhood, in front of your house, and every busted knuckle from the shifts you pulled to pay for that house.
That much I’d been told to expect about reading Dennis Lehane.
As a writer, I went into this book needing something very specific to help me and looked to Lehane just as I look to Loren Estleman’s ‘Amos Walker’ series and Robert Parker’s ‘Spencer’ books. Lehane and Estleman are very similar writers in that their cities, Boston and Detroit, become characters just as important as the detectives and the crooked businessmen and bent politicians their heroes run up against.
I found what I was looking for, enough that I’ve already started the second in the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, “Darkness, Take My Hand”. (It helped that the edition I have includes the first two books in one volume, but more importantly, it restarts the page numbers so I can accurately update my reading status on Good reads.)
What I didn’t expect (and seems to be a pattern now after the correlations to the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) was how current some of the subject matter would still be twenty years after it was written.
“A Drink Before the War” was originally published just a couple years after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that erupted after the Rodney King verdict. Lehane referenced the riots but also went into great detail in describing the racism and segregation that was woven into the fabric of the Boston neighborhoods he wrote about. So much of what drives his characters throughout the book is directly tied into race and the anger and violence that are reactions to the clearly divided worlds.
It’s terrifying to read a book written twenty years ago which was so firmly rooted in its present day and realize that it could just as easily have been written today.
Change every mention of Los Angeles to Ferguson or Baltimore, and make every reference of Rodney King instead about Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, or any of the growing number of black men being beaten or killed by police who are not held accountable. And then, as you continue to read, and it makes you sick that nothing has changed and by how familiar it all sounds, imagine what it must be like for the people trapped in that world.
“You hear it most when politicians who live in places like Hyannis Port and Beacon Hill and Wellesley make decisions that affect people who live in Dorchester and Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, and then step back and say there isn’t a war going on. There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs… And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.”