I ran across the elevator pitch for the third of Zeltserman’s “Badass Gets Out of Jail” books and thought it sounded more than a little Charlie Huston-esque, so I checked out the first in the series, Small Crimes.
Turns out it’s not the same badass — each book starts with a (different) felon being released from prison, so the novels are thematically tied, but not necessarily directly linked in terms of plot or character, so perhaps I should have started with the most recent book. Small Crimes leaves me uninclined to investigate further. It is at least a little Huston-esque in its assured first-person voice and fetishistically lean prose, with nary a metaphor nor simile in sight. Of course, much of what made Huston’s Caught Stealing so compelling is that Hank Thompson doesn’t start as a badass; Zeltserman’s job is maybe a little harder out of the gate. But Caught Stealing also worked because it was funny, and a lot of that funny came out of Thompson’s relationship with baseball. Zeltserman doesn’t provide anything comparable to make Joe Denton more sympathetic or — and here’s the real fatal flaw — more interesting. (Denton does have a backstory, and something of an emotional internal life, but it’s strictly color-by-numbers; his most distinguishing trait is that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.) Huston’s plot played around with the conventions of noir suspense, where Zeltserman’s plays straight through them, leans awfully hard on coincidence, and has at least one twist that won’t seem twisty to any alert reader.
It’s probably not a fair comparison — Zeltersman was clearly striving for an updated take on Jim Thompson in this novel, and it’s maybe worth mentioning that my appetite for Thompson isn’t boundless either. But a point-by-point comparison with Jim Thompson’s novels wouldn’t do Small Crimes any favors either.
needs more demons? at least needs to put the demons into some less standard configurations.