Critics of genre fiction like to portray it as overly formulaic, and while I think they too often give short shrift to the many creative variations that occur within it, they do have a point: Genre fiction can become hidebound. Pick whatever flavor currently dominates the bestseller charts, and you'll find score of knockoffs that cling oh-so-tightly to whatever common elements define their sort of story. That's why I like it when literary authors try their hands at genre. They can bring technical skill or a fresh eye to the field. Literary writer Peter Quinn does both with his World War 2-era hardboiled tale Hour of the Cat.
When Fintan Dunne left the NYPD at the height of the Great Depression to become a private investigator, he didn't know he'd be trading one set of problems for another. True, he'd gotten rid of chief Brannigan, although the thoroughly corrupt head of homicide would always show up if Dunne's work interfered with his own. But instead of a string of dull yet predicable adulterers to chase down, Dunne's new job has offered up something far more troubling -- scandal. A client who plugs her cheating hubby multiple times hardly helps business. Dunne has decided to get to the bottom of the case, but he doesn't know that his search will entangle him with a secret Nazi agent and a looming war ready to crash over a battered Europe.
Quinn's literary background shows most clearly in Hour of the Cat's pacing. That's a nice way of saying that it's a bit slow. Don't expect car chases, gunfights, and brutal bludgeonings on every page. Quinn is far more interested in fleshing out the religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds of the inhabitants of 1938 New York, although he wisely avoids turning his characters into academic talking points. No, Hour of the Cat is interested in something bigger, namely how Hitler's Germany transformed from a recession-stricken country to one willing to commit the worst atrocities in the name of national advancement. A big topic, and Quinn wisely limits his focus to a single Nazi barbarism -- eugenics, the "science" of destroying the unfit. And you know what? His pressure-cooker pace serves the subject well. A once-disgraced politico views Nazism primarily through the lens of how they might influence his career. A German admiral fears Hitler's insane ambitions, yet avoids taking decisive action against the regime (with ultimately disastrous results). And Dunne just wants to do his job while avoiding big questions. Yet how can one hide from a philosophy that arbitrarily designates some of the sons of Adam as less than human, a philosophy that wants to snare the entire world? Hour of the Cat may start as a snail's pace, but it hits like a hurricane in the end.
(Picture: CC 2005 by drp; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)