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LIQUID SMOKE


By Jeff Shelby

(a Noah Braddock novel)

Tyrus Books, 2011
ISBN-10: 1935562541 (trade paperback, $15.95)
ISBN-13: 978-1935562542 (Kindle, $7.99)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

February is the cruelest month, breeding resentment in private detectives trying to surf in the dead waves — at least, in San Diego. More faithful to Eliot, the season also mixes memory and desire in unpleasant proportions.

San Diego can be a strange town, even if it's not a wasteland. Although possessed of the statistics and outward trappings of a large city, it often seems lacking a defining core, instead a conglomerate of disparate shopping zones, vast naval and dockside facilities, extensive urban tracts of varied income and social levels, these highlighted by peripheral elite communities such as La Jolla. Many late-growth cities are of this same inert composition, Dallas, Houston, Miami alike in their soulless sprawl.

Private detective Noah Braddock fits perfectly within the San Diego mantra. He's as separated from real life as the city around him, insubstantial. He dines but is not nourished, surfs the waves but without sensual joy, loves and hates but with a detached emotional bond. And he's a minister without portfolio — a PI without office, clients, and apparently, source of income. Noah however lives in a comfortable beachside home (which commands stiff property values despite its modest design), drives a Jeep (of course), and has ample funds for meals, travel, and other expenses far beyond his means (he gives a friend cash to buy a new car, for example).

Noah may be independently wealthy, of course, but we never learn this or, for that matter, other background material that might flesh out the character and his life. Series novels usually provide sufficient backstory to inform the reader, and it should not be incumbent upon us to delve into previous books to fill in the blanks. We do discover that Braddock has a mother who is fighting alcoholism and a girlfriend who's a homicide detective, but little else.

This is particularly noticeable because emotional connections between the protagonist and events that befall him are an essential element of the traditional first person narrative PI novel. Consider, for example, the conflicted emotions of Robert B. Parker's "Spenser," how deeply he internalizes his actions and agonizes over his decisions. This is the link that Parker provides, and it's an absolute necessity considering the narrative structure. In third person omniscient mode, we can find out about the principal characters in other ways, but when the PI tells the tale directly, we have only one source to learn from.

The story in LIQUID SMOKE is however a good one. Noah Braddock is visited by a young, idealistic attorney, Darcy Gill, who works with death row inmates. She tells Noah that her current client, Russell Simington, is in fact Noah's estranged father. Noah is shocked. He never knew his father's name and his mother kept from him all knowledge of the man. But Noah is now urged to speak with Simington before his impending execution.

Noah reluctantly flies to San Francisco to see Simington on death row in San Quentin. Never denying his guilt and accepting his fate, Simington nevertheless tells Noah something of his past, and plants a name that sends Noah onto an ill-fated crusade for the truth. Murder soon intervenes and leaves Noah with only the crumbling detritus of a solution, yet he perseveres and digs deeper, intent upon resolving the dilemma his absentee father has dumped into his lap.

Despite a brilliant plot line, however, and despite the gravity of the situation, Noah Braddock still seems to float above the story like he floats above the surf on his board, never really getting his emotional toes wet. He's definitely not a Mike Hammer-ish hardboiled character, yet there is still this strange disconnect between Braddock's emotions and the world surrounding him.

I don't think this is intentional. Instead I attribute this to the lack of attention that the author devoted to defining the depth of personality in Noah Braddock. Yes, we're told by the narrator that he's in turmoil but we are never truly persuaded of it. Thus the impact of events upon the protagonist falls a bit flat.

Suspension of disbelief is also stretched too far in other ways. This is the third Noah Braddock novel, but other than Noah being in a committed relationship with a San Diego homicide detective, he seems to have few contacts with the police, those contacts he does have being hostile. No PI could exist long without viable friends on the force. Perhaps this explains his lack of clients? And yes, it's fiction, but it's supposed to be realistic fiction. Events and scenarios should have verisimilitude, at least enough to sustain plausibility. But there are gaps in plot and characters that make the read slightly jumpy.

How to explain the novel's flaws? Frankly I think that the book is simply too short (rough count, about 55,000 words). More time should have been spent in substantive character development, especially of the protagonist. It's possible that Mr. Shelby originally submitted a more detailed version. He's an excellent writer, providing crisp dialogue and good characters (even though not fully expanded). Perhaps a well-meaning editor hectored him into cutting "slow" sections, those that might otherwise contain protagonist development so critical to the first-person narrative PI novel. By comparison, read any "Spenser" or Robert Crais "Elvis Cole" book. You'll find page after page of internal reflections and recriminations, during which "nothing much happens." Nothing, that is, except the creation of a fully dimensioned protagonist, which is mostly absent here.

We're not dealing with a juvenile thriller nor a shallow TV action show. This novel is meant to be adult-oriented reading and ought to contain the depth such books within the PI genre must all have.

Should you nonetheless give LIQUID SMOKE a try? A qualified yes. It's an entertaining read with an engrossing plot, except that you may be left wanting more. We can only hope that Mr. Shelby takes the requisite time and book length needed to do justice to an otherwise fine PI theme in his next Noah Braddock novel.

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