by Michael van Rooy
278 pages Minotaur Books
Review by S.F. Winser
This is apparently van Rooy's first novel. Talented, gifted... and other synonyms spring to mind. Along with a few less savoury words that come from genuine jealousy. This guy is good. He's hopefully got more of this up his sleeve because, dammit, I just want to read more. Right now. Write faster, van Rooy!
This is a great little tale of a bad guy trying to go good. Sam Parker a.k.a. about a thousand different aliases, used to be a bad guy. A really, really bad guy. One of the smart, vicious ones brought down only by drugs and unavoidable bad luck, he's spent many many years in jail and deserved every minute of it. Somehow he's managed to find a beautiful wife and together they've had a son. And that's reason enough for Sam to try and go straight. He's determined to do it with the same hell-bent grit and bloody-mindedness that he used to put towards finding the next hit of whatever drug he could.
When three burglars break into his new rental-house the day after his family moves in, Sam shoots them and ends with a storm of nastiness aimed straight at his new life. Bent cops, vengeful crime gangs, neighbours unhappy that their new resident has a rap-sheet a mile long... Sam has a VERY hard time keeping to the straight and narrow when everyone keeps trying to make his way forward even narrower and very bendy indeed. Murder charges, assassins, planted drugs, nasty notes, beatings and harassment dog him at every turn.
However, Sam is not used to being dogged. Nor is it in his nature - or his wife's – to sit back and take bad treatment.
The relationship between Sam and his wife is fantastic. They're both smart, sharp-tongued and hilarious. Not to mention mean when cornered. She just happens to be less happy with a criminal lifestyle. Sam jokes once or twice that the only reason he's going straight is to prevent her doing some sort of grievous bodily harm to him. What could have been the novel's downfall – a problematic premise where truly bad guy finds love – is actually one of its strengths. I always believed that Claire loved Sam and vice versa. Nor did I think their love for each other to be doomed or mismatched. They make a very good couple. They admire each other's strengths, prop up their weaknesses and share a slightly dark and often silly sense of humour.
van Rooy just may be Canada's modern Chandler. There are some wonderful Chandlerian touches. The main reason I picked up An Ordinary Decent Criminal was the pistol that Sam carries in his dressing-gown on the first page – it's something dear departed Raymond would have done. A symbolic mix of softness, domesticity and menace. Not to mention that the writing is top class and hardboiled for at least 8 minutes (there's even a not-so-subtle nod to the genre where Sam and his wife do actually spend quite some time hardboiling eggs in preparation for a barbecue that I choose to take as a sly bit of subtextual self-deprecation. Or maybe I'm overthinking it). Sam cracks wise even when it's not so wise to crack. He thinks ten steps ahead, looks around corners and reminds me of a nastier, grittier Phillip Marlowe without going so far as to become as cold as Sam Spade. He has that same way of brushing off problems as insignificant while being secretly wounded by human nature, the same intellectualising rage while managing to keep what's left of his soul.
Sam's quest to take down the bastards in the way of his new start is relentless, inventive and probably unwise. But it's also a fun ride, entertaining and just a touch thought-provoking. Sam does break a law or two. But is he justified, just because the people after him are being hateful and dangerous? After all, Sam is only a short walk from being nasty himself, makes no apologies for his previous life and starts the whole situation by killing some young thugs that it may have been possible to take-out with less violence. With a gun he owns illegally. What in that gives him the right to complain of mistreatment, let alone continue breaking the law?
What makes a good guy and what makes a criminal? Where is the line?