This was written a few years after a severe attack of food poisoning (and what sounds like dysentery) left a backpacking JJ weak and delirious in Thailand. While recovering in a hotel room, he half-watched most of Kill Me Again
; a neo-noir cult classic from the early 1980s. It stuck in his brain like "shards of glass," although given his condition at the time its impact was probably more exaggerated than a healthy viewing might have been. It left one hell of an impression, though. Four years on he wrote Drawing Dead
, his "original, personal and perverse reinterpretation." Certainly the extreme violence and sex in the book would not have made it past the censors in the early 80s, but certain characters, plot points and scenes have made it pretty much intact into JJ's wild ride.
I've heard of hardboiled, but this is a thirty
-minute egg if ever there was one. Noir is by definition a shadowy world of half-truths, double-crosses and dastardly dames. And the hero is…friable. Questionable. More of an anti-hero, invariably identified with the noir prototype of the private eye. Neo-noir stretches the formula to include a broader scope of activities and characters; bad guys range from organised criminal gangs and petty thugs, to cops on the take. Both men and women are more equally involved, and the anti-hero is steeped even further into a moral morass, blurring the line between him and opposition. Murky motives, double-dealing and high stakes still predominate. Add the 'hardboiled' sobriquet and you rack it up into 'ultra' territory.
Noir is not about the deeper psychological motivation; all motivations tend to be surface and visceral: money, sex, power. 'Hardboiled' just makes everything more so. This is not a book at bedtime for the kiddies.
Several aspects come immediately to mind when considering Dead
: crime, a private eye, sex, violence and self-destructive habits. It all sounds rather clear-cut, but an immersion in Dead
is like dropping right into the middle of a John Woo film. The twist, though, has the voice of JJ's anti-hero shot through with regret and tormented by psychological trauma. Noir heroes- even the more neo-extreme ones- don't tend to have their psyche explored in any great detail; or, indeed, to any
As the story unreels, we learn more and more about his previous relationship with a very young lass, who apparently committed suicide; her bloodied, wrist-slashed ghost haunts his dreams and prances across his worst, lowest moments. As if that wasn't angst enough, this is a literate and well-read man who quips with the slower-witted goons that he encounters and drops philosophers and respected writers he has read into his thoughts as easily as a WAG quoting OK
magazine. The context of that simile is not unintended; these thinkers seem to be his staple. When not drinking, tempting fate, fucking, or dodging bullets, Jack gives us tantalising glimpses of the man he could be; the intelligent, meaningful man. He could get his shit together and become a good citizen; seek counselling, sort his business out, quit the booze and gambling. He starts by assuring us "I wasn't always an asshole," thus ensuring that we are fully ready to expect him to be just that. He was once vaguely 'normal'. Vanilla. Boring. Now Jack is on a mission of self-destruction; "heady days of drunken solitude and debauch." He knows it, too: he knows his gambling and drinking will kill him. And not once did I see mentioned the use of a condom. Small detail, but in this day and age that's as much a risk to self-limiting of life as pissing off bad guys with guns. But Jack is not fighting this thing yet. It's his drive, his passion. Only a really good job with a truly stunning woman will perk up his professional interest enough to earn the money to pay off his (gratuitously violent and somewhat clichéd) gambling debtors and to drag him back into the day again.
He could do the sensible thing. He could listen to the voice he argues with in his head: the one that says stop being such a dick. But then he'd be another average Joe and there would be no tale, gritty as a playground sandbox. And I wouldn't be falling into a set of clichés, here.
He might turn himself around once this is all done. That is, if he survives.
We start with Jack at his lowest: drinking to push away memories of his lost love, fucking to do the same, gambling heavily to bring on the pain to forget, and then rolling with self-loathing and holing up with more booze, Cagney and Bogarde films and the depressing mantras of Nietzsche. Once he runs out of booze, he staggers off to his office; where he conducts his legally-grey factotum work. Not only a private eye, Jack is a more of a go-to man for 'difficult' situations. Here he has a run-in with a bunch of collection toughs and disposes of the same. The almost super-human ability of the hero (anti or otherwise) to fight and pull and wise-crack in the midst of a world-class hangover does not fail him here. This is followed by proof he can do his job, and has a shred of moral rectitude still hanging on in there: a man looking for his daughter, whom Jack has found but will not give up the location of, as he suspects foul play between the two. Instead he sends the man on a wild goose chase, and drives to the daughter in her motel, makes sure she has the resources to fly town, has a little S&M themed sex with her, and falls asleep.
So far, so dandy. This guy is a jerk, a drunk, a grieving soul and a total idiot. Fine. As Jack's voice tells us at the start of chapter seven, "tell some c**t who cares." We aren't to feel sorry for him, and that he's not a total loser (enough of 'decency' remains, here and there, to make his more hero than a skunk), but he's purposefully heading that way. And around about now I was thinking 'so what? Is this it? A catalogue of wilful death-by-slowness?' It was getting over-morbid. But then into Jack's office walks the Femme Fatale of the piece; Evie. Young, gorgeous and in a lot of trouble. And she will lead Jack a very merry dance.
Evie wants to disappear as she has lifted a large wodge of cash from someone else's heist, so Jack helps her stage her own death. Unfortunately her less than understanding boyfriend - a thug of the first water, whom Evie has, it transpires, screwed over (literally) for the money- turns up, tracks down Jack and makes it clear that he is not happy with the situation. Jack now has to contrive a way to get Evie and the money to safety, but just who is playing whom? With several nasty types on his tail, Jack is not at all sure if Evie is telling him the whole truth…
If I'm sounding like a smart-alec noir character, it is because the style of the thing is unrelenting and infectious. Not once does the genre slip, nor does JJ let up on the gory detail. All of human life's rich pageantry at the razor's edge of existence (and Occam makes more than one appearance in Jack's thought processes) is splashed before us in the course of the twisting tale of cross and double-cross that follows. Is Evie really running from her ex, or are they both getting Jack over a barrel?
With the non-sequiteur, tongue-in-cheek snappy language of Jack, from whom the entire story takes its POV, once Evie enters the frame and all the pain and trouble that follows her, the story racks up a notch or ten and becomes much more thrilling. The blood and sex (all in the same S&M vein; there's nothing tender here about these cojoinings, although they are all mutually consensual. Tenderness, we are left to understand, died with Lexy and her slashed wrists in Jack's bathtub) come thick and fast.
The concept of a private eye being used and abused in a war of wills between criminal boyfriend and girlfriend, on the run from a grand theft, is pure Kill Me Again
, but JJ has transplanted the action from the USA to his native Australia. In fact, it was not until place names were mentioned in connection with the father-daughter case a few chapters in, that I realised that the novel was set outside the USA. The style is delirious, Hollywood spectacle. Not that another country could not support such a genre, but it is interesting to me that the style, the genre, and I was thinking like Jack's film collection: of Bogarde, of Cagney, and of Hollywood's most gruesome gangster flicks; all inevitably set in the USA.
Described as an 'underground' writer, JJ's oeuvre is nails-hard, visceral and concerns identity of self in an uncaring, self-destructive world. Predominantly, the self of men. The writing is sometimes poetic, shot through with JJ's influences; the writers and philosophers that Jack's voice introduces us to. But it retains a perverse (in this case meaning stubborn) insistence on the bodily. There is even no nicety spared for the conventions of form; speech is not punctuated and is taken so much from the first person POV of Jack that there is also an editing of meaning; Jack's voice curtails and summarises for others on occasion. This is not a polite style; this is deliberately in-your-face and proud of it. 'Underground' normally means grittier than main-stream fiction, less polished in tone and defiantly individual. The presentation of Dead
is all that, hugging JJ's roots firmly to its bosom. It's also, by virtue of this, a natural home for both noir and hardboiled genres, and JJ steps right up to the plate and gives it one hell of a swing.
The style of Jack's voice is very, very masculine: smart-mouthed, grim, unrelenting, terribly practical and focused when it needs to be, violent and awash with bodily detail. Although an extreme version, the character traits are all very traditionally male; a female PI just would not be written in the same vein and retain credibility. Jacks' self is under some question: he is torn by his memories and by the disappointment a part of him still feels over his wasting of himself. As I mentioned above, he does have some shreds of 'good' ethics here and there. But this book begins unusually for a noir with the hero really
wallowing in his downer period. While the noir hero is a loner, typically mourning the loss of some fleeting happiness, Jack is pitching into darkness from a very real tragedy that has hit him extremely hard. He almost becomes feminine
in the depth of his guilt and weary woe. Not that we are expected to feel sorry for him- aw, poor little lambkin. Jack's mess is as much of his own making as anything that is done to him. Taking it on the chin - rolling with it with booze or working a case - is about the manliest thing that Jack can do to prove his heroic credentials in 'anti-hero.'
It is in the more extreme genres that male-female roles are the most pronouncedly conventional. It is the female character who is meant to feel, to bleed emotion. And it is mostly male
heroic, plot-driving characters in noir. The hero may nurture a grudge or a sadness. But such nursing is to add drive to his actions. Jack is rescued from becoming a total loss by the conventions of his genre; he will have to get his shit together to pull off the Evie case. Females are the tools of the plot, the femmes fatales, and the dames that do the hero wrong. Evie certainly does both. And along with the other females, she is young, lovely and enthusiastic for quite degrading, hard-core sex in a decidedly subservient position.
Jack is allowed one moment of self-loathing over the eagerness of Daisy, the gambling den's waitress and her keenness for a one-night stand; and loathing over his own eagerness for the same, but for the most part women are being used by men in this story; they are all victims in the end. Lexy is too young to be in a relationship with a much older man; and she dies for her transgression. Daisy is a throw-away fuck, stuck in her position, held there by the male operators at the club and her own low expectations. The 'daughter', has been used by her father, and is (willingly) used by Jack before she is free to leave; although her fate is very uncertain. Evie might be using Jack, and attempting to out-use her ex, but she will pay an ultimate price for thinking she can out-smart the men in the world of noir thriller. She is the 'unnatural' woman in this set of archetypes. All the women are sexually hungry; all play to Jack's needs. They are, in extremities, the channels for his sexual energies, with little else going for them in the long term. A dyed-in-the-wool feminist would probably swallow their teeth over this, but it is entirely within the genre's remit. Contained within the limits of the narrative, the reader finds themselves egging it all on; the nasty, the detail. It is incredibly cathartic, and more than a little morally dubious to be so, but nonetheless such unexpurgated, unapologetic 'being,' without the restraint of political correctness, is undeniably refreshing.
One detail that comes with the knowledge of the geographical location is the connection to light and the heat. Cheerful, laid-back Australia (the international stereotype) is not normally associated with dark menace. Jack initially lives in a murky world of night and closed curtains; creeping out into the day only if he has to, to obtain supplies to his destruction. But once Evie arrives on the scene he is dragged out into the day to plot and plan and drive like hell to the desert. Noir took its genre name from the murky sub-lit scenes used within the film version; the half-unseen adding to the mystery and the thrills, underlining the grim narrative cover-ups. By the end of Dead
, in the desert, under the unforgiving sun, Jack and the combating couple are at last exposed to a last truth: death will claim us, and in death, all subterfuge is fled: we are simply corpses on the ground. We leave Jack, shot and bleeding, with two dead bodies and a case of cash, driving (or possibly not), his thoughts a sea of hallucinated, yet poetically described, hells, and we know, even if Jack is in no shape to do so, that he cannot outrun his demons forever. He might be driving into town, and find help in time. He might not, but Lexy is dancing a death-dance across his vision, and he has been giving fate the finger for so long she might just come to claim him.
The open end, the unfinished business: frustrating but entirely fitting. To close, to make a final statement, would be a lie to the entire story. This has been Jack's voice, Jack's story. To end with his death would mean the death of the story, of narrative; of the reader by proxy. By holding off, Jack remains a viable narrative voice, and a tantalising exercise for the reader to decide on their own. Dying Jack segues into the author's note: explaining how his own deathly-awful experience in Thailand led to the book's inceptive idea. JJ and Jack: thrown about, treated like shit by life, but still kicking, despite it all.
is a genre book, for certain. It's not light reading; a Tarantino film by way of Woo writ large across the page. It took a while to pick up the rhythm, and there was a danger of losing interest before Evie arrives in chapter seven. Up to this point there was a lot of introspection and reminders of how much of a wanker this guy is. For a noir thriller, I was rapidly becoming less than thrilled, but once the action got going it was a pleasure to read. It was nasty, it was crude, and it was brutally honest about what it was and stayed right where it should be. There are no transcendental moments of wonder in here, no new insight. This was the story of a self-confessed arse. On that it gets full marks. It's a lurid thriller. Again; no quibble. It's unremittingly hard. Yup, top score. It amused and faintly appalled.
It was a very solid read overall, with no need for a sequel. Jack's story, at least the part we are allowed to see, is over.
Kate Onyett has tried many lives before settling on one that combines contemplative literary consideration with practical public service. When she isn't working as a nurse, she reviews literature and fiction for various forums and private authors. She lives in Oxford, UK, and enjoys indulging in cafe-crawls with tea and cake. She has no one preferred genre of writing, but does have a bit of a thing for the supernatural set. She has strutted on stage, massaged sore backs and modelled for artists. She can be contacted at email@example.com