Thursday, August 05, 2010
foreign forgotten friday: Australian private eye
Almost simultaneously this week I noticed Kerrie’s “Looking for Australian crime fiction?” post at Mysteries in Paradise (http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com) and, while rummaging through a box of books that I hadn’t looked through in a long time, I uncovered an Australian crime novel. So fate has determined, I guess, that this week for “foreign forgotten” I should talk about an Australian crime novel that I didn’t know I was looking for, a book that I, at least, had forgotten: Caroline Shaw’s Cat Catcher. While the book seems to be in print (from Serpent’s Tail) the rest of what is apparently a series (the second of which is called Eye to Eye) have never appeared in the U.S. or U.K., as far as I’ve been able to determine.
Cat Catcher’s premise sounds like a cozy: Melbourne-based Lenny Aaron is a former cop who now runs a detective agency specializing in finding lost cats, and when one of her lost-cat customers asks her to find out about threatening letters she’s been receiving, Lenny uncovers a murder. But the cat aspect of the story is almost a parody of the many cute cats in crime cozies (sorry, I couldn’t resist the alliteration): Lenny’s relations with the animals ranges from indifference to antagonism, and the cats themselves are frequently less than cuddly (in fact, Shaw characterizes the species and individuals within it very acutely).
And there’s a rich damsel-in-distress client and a run-down office next to a porn shop, in true hardboiled style. But it’s Lenny herself who brings the story out of the cozy and into the hard-boiled detective genre. She’s damaged physically and emotionally by the encounter that ended her career in the police, and she’s always popping painkillers (aspirin, for a change). She’s compulsive and emotionally reserved, and her quick wit is evident in the narrative (even through the intermediary of the third-person voice). She’s working with a counselor, but he’s a Japanese jingoist zen teacher rather than a shrink, and she’s “relaxing” by training Bonsai trees and watching cricket matches.
And in true hard-boiled tradition, the subject of the novel is a rich and dysfunctional family, as with Declan Hughes’s neo-noir Dublin detective novels. Shaw’s story is lighter in tone, though, since Lenny is more of a smart-aleck thatn Hughes’s Loy. There’s a monstrous character (I won’t tell you who it is), an orphanage, an unacknowledged child, and twins: all practically Dickensian, but then hard-boiled stories often are. Lenny is one of the more appealing detectives I’ve encountered, in fact, and it’s curious that there are no women writers among the currently prominent (in the U.S. and in the blogosphere) crop of Australian crime writers (see Kerrie’s list for some of the women crime writers from down under).
Lenny’s gender and personality, the noir plot, and the comic tone are sufficient reasons to revive Caroline Shaw’s books (and for a bonus there are a number of interesting characters involved and at the periphery of the story) and also to get some more of them published in the Northern Hemisphere (are there any publishers listening?).