Growing up on a farm meant I often had summer jobs others might consider unenviable. Mucking out stalls. Weed-wacking endless feet of fencerow. Clearing the poison oak from the front field. Not everything was drudgery. Such occupations did instill in me a desire to excel in higher education so I could avoid them at all costs in the future. Also, sometimes I got to drive The Toyota, an ancient, stripped-down pickup with an odometer seeking its furthermost limits. I remember the foreman teaching me how to work the manual transmission. For long stretches, I'd growl The Toyota along in first gear, working up the nerve to shift, and when I finally stomped on the clutch and yanked back the stick -- wham! -- it would leap forward like a pitbull straining at its chain. That sense of sudden, surging speed came back to me when reading Andrew Klavan's Shotgun Alley, the sequel to his somewhat uneven Dynamite Road.
By all accounts, the new case should've made Scott Weiss smile. Of late, Weiss Investigations had been saddled with unpleasant, penny-ante stuff, including that business with the Women's Studies scholar at Berkeley. Yes, a case was a case, and Weiss felt badly that professor Brinks had a harasser who was sending her obscene emails. But low-profile conundrums didn't bring in the bucks. Then Philip Graham called, a wealthy political candidate with one eye on a Senate seat and the other on a personal problem -- his daughter Beverly. Not content to stay home and out of trouble, Beverly has dubbed herself Honey and hooked up with a nasty biker called Cobra who has a penchant for philosophizing and armed robbery. Graham wants Beverly back home, and Weiss knows that it means more business if he can pull it off. There's the rub. Weiss has his best operative, Bishop, on the case, a man as rough and tumble as they come. But Honey is hardly powerless herself, and as soon as she sees Bishop, she sets on sinking her claws into him.
The reason why Dynamite Road felt a bit off to me was Klavan's penchant for popping out of Serious Thriller Mode and into Over-The-Top Romantic Action (both of the lovelorn and simply adventuresome varieties). It felt like an odd combination, a strange mix of realism and the fantastic. Fortunately, Shotgun Alley more than solves the problem by scaling back the verisimilitude and opening up the novel's action for even more outlandish stunts. This might sound like a left-handed compliment. It isn't. Flat characters and foregone conclusions might be writerly sins in literary fiction, but not in fables, which is exactly what Shotgun Alley is, a Brothers Grimm tale for the hardboiled set. In between the motorcycle chases and fisticuffs, Klavan delves into deep themes like academic intimidation, literary theory, the composition of the human soul and radical feminism. He also deals a lot with sex. Sex and love, sex and psychological manipulation, sex and the secret longings of the heart -- all consume quite a bit of the page count, albeit in a typically not-quite-explicit form. It's encouraging when an author revs up his game during a second installment, and Shotgun Alley kicks the pluses of its predecessor into high gear.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Omer Wazir)