It would be misleading to describe Andrew Klavan as a neglected novelist. He’s doing very well, thank you, turning out thrillers for adults and young adults, and snagging the occasional movie deal. But there was a time when he was one of America’s hottest thriller writers, seeing two of his best novels (True Crime and Don’t Say a Word) made into major motion pictures (neither of them nearly as good as the books).
Has his career suffered from his two conversions, first to conservatism and then to Christianity? That’s a question I’m not in a position to answer.
What I can say is that he’s produced recent work that surpasses even his earlier “big” commercial novels. I’m thinking in particular of his detective trilogy, which I consider one of the finest achievements in the genre of our time. Too few people have read these books, and I’m here to do what I can to change that.
The trilogy consists of the novels Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley, and Damnation Street. The books star Scott Weiss, head of a San Francisco private detective agency, tall, fat, and melancholy; Jim Bishop, his operative, short, strong, borderline sociopathic; and the unnamed narrator, whom we are welcome to think of as Klavan himself, as a young man.
What the author does here, I think, is unprecedented. I don’t believe there’s ever been a detective epic before — a trilogy of free-standing books bound together by a single transcendent theme.
It has to do with love. Not just love as romance and a plot device, but love as the clue to the meaning of our entire lives. The whole complex nexus of devotion and sex and masculinity and femininity and idealism and disillusionment.
Klavan has said that his journey to faith began with an act of voyeurism, when a couple moved into the next apartment building. They were exhibitionists and liked to perform with the lights on and the shades open. As Klavan discussed their antics with his girlfriend, it occurred to him that there’s a real difference between the simple physical act of sex (as when, for instance, one watches pornography) and the experience of sex enjoyed with someone you love. He began to wonder what made that difference, which led him into a spiritual search that culminated in his conversion.
Each book in the Weiss-Bishop trilogy has a main plot and at least a couple subplots. Almost without exception, these plots explore what men and women seek in each other. Weiss is, in spite of all the ugliness he’s seen, a romantic looking for perfect love. Bishop is a user who wants women for one thing only, while they look to him for things he can’t give. And the unnamed narrator is too young to be sure yet what he’s looking for.
I was especially impressed with Shotgun Alley, the middle book in the trilogy. In a way it’s the most important of the three, because it best epitomizes Klavan’s theme.
Its main plot involves Bishop going undercover with an extremely dangerous motorcycle gang. He’s been assigned to bring out a young female runaway who has become the leader’s girlfriend. As he gets close to her, Bishop finds himself in the unaccustomed position of wanting a woman more than she wants him, of being the used instead of the user.
The chief subplot involves a radical feminist professor at Berkeley and her relationship with an old radical professor, an advocate of free love, whom she’s gotten fired from his post. These characters seem like caricatures at first, but get humanized as Weiss unravels their convoluted story — not only because the reader understands them better, but because they come to understand themselves better.
And finally there’s the subplot of the narrator’s own discovery of a girl who, he is convinced, is his soulmate. They’re brought together in a delightful scene in a campus pizza joint, where they learn they share the same opinion on contemporary literary criticism.
“I love David Copperfield,” I said rather dreamily.
“Yes, said Emma McNair, setting down her glass. “It’s the great, good thing, isn’t it? Nowadays, you can’t get anyone around here to even talk about Dickens, unless it’s Hard Times. That’s the only book boring enough for them to take seriously.”
These two young people show the reader, through contrast, that there’s no essential difference between the motorcycle gang Bishop is investigating and the English scholars Weiss is investigating. The English scholars are forever talking about “deconstruction.” “Cobra,” the biker leader, sits disassembling his carburetor while explaining to his followers that it’s all about “taking things apart.” By which he means laws, civilization, property, and people, to his own profit. We’re even told his last name is Tweedy, which, when used as an adjective, is a word almost exclusively employed to describe academicians.
Both groups are deluding themselves. They’re trying to deconstruct things that are based in love, and love is more than an inventory of its parts. Those who don’t experience it can’t understand it, whatever impressive words they use.
When the narrator meets Emma McNair, it’s a moment of incarnation, a moment when things he’s read about and studied suddenly become realities in his life. Although he makes himself only a small part of the story, his journey is the center of the whole trilogy’s narrative.
I want very much for people to read these books. Be warned, there’s lots of foul language, as well as intense scenes of sex and violence. But, in my opinion, the Weiss-Bishop novels are among the best things done in the mystery genre since Travis McGee sailed off into a chromatic sunset.
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