Drinking in the Soul
This week’s review is prefaced with a confession. A long time ago I went to school with Thomas Hewlett’s evil twin. We rode a bus together from Highland Park to the western parts of Los Angles every day through all the neighborhoods – Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Glassell Park, Hollywood, by the old Paramount Gate. Los Angeles was a journey every day, from before the sun cracked over the horizon to well after it had set, burning into the brain the City’s street signs and buildings, it’s life.
In the self-published ONE DEATH AT A TIME Hewlett shows that he obviously absorbed that Los Angeles as well, from images of downtown to the Hollywood Hills, to sundry points in between. And like Ellroy, he even massages in a trip to the Roosevelt Hotel, albeit only to the alley behind. Billed as the first volume in the Twelve Stakes series, unlike last week’s ePub offerings, this is a full sized, meaty novel, not just a novella.
Hewlett fills the pages with a fairly tight, non-traditional, detective novel from page one. While flashbacking to forties Los Angeles on occasion, ONE DARK focuses on a present here and now Los Angles, albeit one populated with various creatures of the night. Unlike, for example, Steve Niles’ Cal McDonald, our ex-cop turned PI, Jack Strayhorn, has his own odd backstory, a vampire turned during the Black Dahlia investigation of the late-40s. Hewlett does a good job of drawing out Strayhorn’s history throughout the novel, although when it comes to the Dahlia flashbacks themselves, he does pay coy. Here is a portion where you may as well go wild. We’ve seen fiction (like Ellroy and Collins) and non-fiction (Gilmore), and the bizarre nonfiction (Hodel, Knowlton, Pacios), saturate the market with Dahlia madness, so I actually wouldn’t have minded more of a vampire take as well.
I appreciated that Hewlett takes the time to develop his Los Angeles largely without sacrificing to information overloads. The vampires, the werewolves, the fae, come out through fleeting exposition and the afore-mentioned flashbacks. He develops a very intricate, alternative history Alcoholic Anonymous, as a source for vampire sobriety. As an underground program saving man from the demons, literally it turns out in this case, these sections are where this novel really breathed for me. Hewlett notes in his bio that he is intimate with the workings of AA, and it shows. These sequences work – the desperation, the cold atmosphere of small rooms, the chill in the voices. I would be willing to read a biography of the vampiric Bill W. that formed this AA, but more than that, I would spend a book in sessions with the characters he draws in these sequences. These are the tightest sections for me, and they bring a much needed humanity to the proceedings that is absent from the non-vampire characters in the novel.
The drawback for me, especially for the first in a series, would be that I would have liked to have seen more development of the non-traditional supernatural element of ONE DEATH, the fae. I know I am not up-to-date in my fantasy to be sure, so I don’t profess to understand the place of fae/fairies in modern fantasy, but I was intrigued enough with this version to want more. As is, they are an amorphous bogeyman, not human, but not really anything specific. I want, as with Frey’s ENDGAME, to have a more complete tale in my first book, even if you are going to leave me with a cliffhanger. Especially if you are leaving me with a cliffhanger. I definitely wanted something more concrete of the fae, where they came from, what they are doing, and not just the odd cross of Mexican mafia and corporate malfeasance we get with the Torres family.
So what’s the verdict, you’re asking me about now. When you get down to it, rich character development hanging on a good quick plot. Hewlett develops a voice for Strayhorn and stays consistent through the novel. He doesn’t break stride on it. It does end with a cliffhanger, but I can live with it. Main conundrum of novel solved, points left for the next sortie set. Hewlett states the series of 13 books will follow the 12 steps of AA. That first step is admitting powerless and lives have become unmanageable. Strayhorn seems on the way to acceptance through this first book. It’s a supernatural detective novel with an eye beyond merely the case. I want to see where Step 2 leads.
Check out the book and more from Hewett at: http://www.twelvestakes.com/