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london boulevard

20 may 2013

London Boulevard features a nasty narrator that you get to like in spite of his nastiness, till he spins off into conduct so appalling that even a fan of hard-boileds is hard-pressed to keep up.

Realism is scarcely even an issue in this noir by Ken Bruen, but the novel's world presents some internal inconsistencies, too. For one thing, we're expected to believe that an ex-con so scrupulous that he's afraid his record will get him pulled in if he attempts auto theft is at the same time able to carry out a string of lethal assaults and murders without ever being questioned by cops. For another, we're expected to believe that a criminal with an photographic recall for popular culture wouldn't realize that he was living out a scene-by-scene reenactment of Sunset Boulevard.

Narrator Mitch's tastes run to girl country singers and pulp crime novels – I think I'd like the guy if he wouldn't as soon break your arm as look at you. But I suppose his blind spots to things like Billy Wilder movies and Broadway musicals comes from his having been in prison for the three years that precede the novel's action. While in the "rock" he reads two books a day, from Rilke to Rankin, and develops, as the prison chaplain notes, an "eclectic" view of culture. He doesn't know every cliché though, and those who do not know their clichés are doomed to live them.

It's a book about addiction: to liquor and cocaine and adrenaline, and to fantasies (one character, a widow, cannot give up the notion that her husband is still alive). But Mitch's prime addiction is to reading. Since the book was in no danger of being considered for a Newbery Medal, I have to think it comes from a real-life experience that I too share: the compulsion (Mitch is precise about that term) to keep plowing through pulp series till you've read all of every one.

As one expects from Ken Bruen, the violence is extreme and the backchat spirited. There are a lot of funny lines in and among the general Grand Guignol goings-on. The effect of the 2009 American edition is odd sometimes, though. I suspect that it was given a cursory once-over by a sort of transatlantic translating editor; "potato chips" and "the subway" appear where one expects "crisps" and "the Tube," and villains tend to live in "projects" instead of council estates (though at one point the narrator rather oddly translates "Estate" into the American "project" for no apparent reason). It could be that Bruen really is writing in a transatlantic macaronic fashion, but I think it's more likely an uneasy editorial compromise. (I will cheerfully stand corrected if anyone collates the American and British editions and finds them identical.)

Bruen, Ken. London Boulevard. 2001. New York: Minotaur [St. Martin's], 2009.