NIGHT DOGS by Kent Anderson
Jul 13, 2007, 07:01
A trip to your local bookstore and a random sampling of the material will confirm what most genre novelists are loathe to admit: that there are far too many mystery and crime novels being published these days. Because readers settle for less, the category appears to be growing, with no end in sight. It's apparent that publishers will continue to churn out bad books in numbers as long as the public continues to buy them.
What about these bad books? Since critics tend to lump together all novels containing crime elements, the bad books tarnish the good ones by proximity alone. The New York Times Book Review's “Crime Omnibus,” for example, gives equal space to the fine novels of James Sallis and James Lee Burke as it does to ridiculous “cozies” featuring crime-solving stamp collectors, bird-watchers, museum curators, and nuns. And some authors appear to be near-delusional about the worth of their work as well: Joan Hess, a cozy “writer” who pens books set in rural Arkansas, goes out of her way in interviews to ridicule the hard-boiled, urban crime novel, adding that she prefers life in the country to the city because “the boy” puts her groceries right into the back of her car. (The magazine that published this swill also called her characters “Faulknarian,” presumably because her novels are set in the South; that's a little like calling Free Willy “Melvillian” because it's about a whale.)
All of this makes serious writers themselves defensive about the arena in which they toil, and unwilling to declare this simple truth: that the majority of crime fiction published today is shit. But then, every so often, you come across a crime novel that flat-out blows you away and restores your faith in the entire genre.
Night Dogs, by Kent Anderson, is one of those books. Anderson is a Vietnam veteran and ex-police officer who has written his second novel (his first was Sympathy For The Devil, out of print), set in the early 1970s about a Vietnam veteran turned cop on the streets of Portland, Oregon. James Crumley's cover blurb calls it “the best novel I have ever read.” I think it's the best novel I've read, period, in the last couple of years.
Anderson's protagonist, Hanson, is a bad-ass burnout case cruising the Portland ghetto. His friend Doc, the last surviving member of his Vietnam unit, has become a criminal on those same streets. Loosely plotted, but consistently riveting at five hundred pages, the book builds with intensity, dragging the reader to its inevitably tragic conclusion.
This is a graphically violent, gut-wrenching book. But Hanson's forays into the straight world, and his attempts to keep a lid on his tortured psyche in “normal” situations, comprise the most frightening portions of the novel. There are also moments of beauty here; Anderson's prose is rich in imagery, controlled and free of sentiment. In a pack of pretenders, Night Dogs stands out as the real thing.
-George P. Pelecanos
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