The Devil and the Detective
By John Goldbach
Coach House Books (2013)
Read by Tom Burke
John Goldbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, cannot easily be folded into one genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story. It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either. It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”
The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. The Detective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. James’ newest client, Elaine Andrews, exclaims, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”
Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high-octane head fog. But don’t let the ham-handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. Goldbach’s writing is tight and aware throughout.
The plot takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex, etc. But the book isn’t just plot-driven; Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition takes interesting turns as well—love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. Indeed, there is a curious thrust of emotion that fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation is a key theme of the book—a detective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior.
Goldbach bends heavily towards philosophical inquiry. But instead of weighing down the narrative, he provides relatively bite-sized philosophical tidbits within the text. This kind of philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the rumination appears in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first character one would expect to engage in any sort of philosophical conversation, but Goldbach makes it work.
The sum total of this story’s detective-narrator’s philosophical contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else. Smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve—to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.
Like the empathetic loner Bob James, The Devil and the Detective is a book that treats its readers very well. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers.