by Maurice Mierau
Jim Christy is part of an intrepid and growing number of Canadian writers publishing crime novels with small presses. Terminal Avenue is the third novel in his trilogy of noir detective stories set in Vancouver in 1939. Christy has a long publication record as a poet, fiction writer, and biographer of Jack Kerouac. His reputation and Terminal Avenue's steep price tag both lead one to expect solid entertainment value in this new novel.
Christy is good at atmosphere and amusing dialogue. He successfully reproduces the light banter of movies like The Thin Man and The Big Sleep. Here for example is a scene where Gene Castle, the private detective and protagonist, talks with a nun in hospital:
"You were shot through the left arm but you are very fortunate."
"Thank you. I always feel fortunate when I'm shot."
This same nun is passionately kissing our wounded hero within a few moments, which may be intended as parody of the clichTd sexual magnetism of heroic detectives.
The narrative voice is jaunty, as in this early description of Gene Castle:
He was a private eye of sorts. The sort you came to when there was no one else. To some jokers, Castle was known as The Last Resort.
Christy's use of period slang is also engaging: "scissorbills" for a snitch, "yaffled" for arrested, and "bints" for working girls, to give a few samples.
The major problem with Terminal Avenue is its lack of narrative momentum. The whiff of noir in the air does not make up for Christy's indifference to plotting. It takes twelve pages of scene-setting at the beginning of the story, for instance, before we get a corpse for our detective (and us) to take an interest in. Then the sub-plot about Mrs. Myerhoff is a plot red herring that fails to move the narrative forward, although it does flail endearingly. All of a sudden, on page 147 (and of course it doesn't feel like all of a sudden when you have read 75% of the book at this point) we are given the McGuffin:
"He was looking for a twelve-year-old girl. She was the daughter of a radical anarchist adventurer turned international resistance leader. The girl was in this burg and the people who had her hoped Leandro would be lured out into the open where they could kill him."
Perhaps the absurd melodrama of the plot didn't seem important enough for Christy to want to reveal earlier, but if this whole thing is a parody of the genre then we need much clearer signals much sooner in the story.
Then there is the extreme violence of the novel's ending¨it is completely out of phase with the rest of the book, and so it seems gratuitous:
Martine fired and the bulled [sic] hit her in the mouth. The lower part of her face exploded, ejaculating blood and yellow teethÓ. Martine fired again, this time firing at the crown of the big woman's head, bursting her skull apart.
The novel is also riddled with copy editing errors like "Billie" Eckstine for the great bop singer Billy Eckstine, "Molybendum" for molybdenum, "it's" for its, and "Abssynia" for Abyssinia.
Maybe because Christy deals so much in stereotypes and doesn't handle plot very well, the local colour of his historic Vancouver setting gets lost. There are still impressive moments like the following, though, when it's clear what the novel's potential might have been:
But whatever they did at Canada Packers in the interests of bright modernity was defeated by the piles of scrap wood and the heaps of iron pipe that were lying around in the mudÓ. Castle thought of other chimneys, ones in Europe that many people preferred to pretend they didn't know about. And then there was the smell that the chimney belched forth to hang over Terminal Avenue. That too was like Europe. ˛
Maurice Mierau's first book of poems, Ending with Music, recently appeared with Brick Books. He maintains a website at: www.mauricemierau.com