Frank Sinatra in a Blender
Two hundred and two pages. Matthew McBride didn’t need any more than that. Keep it simple, straightforward, and violent. That is what, in my book at least, distinguishes crime fiction (or noir, hardboiled, pulp, neo or otherwise) from its more popular and needlessly wordy cousin, the mystery novel. But I never demand much from crime fiction: just a few losers and a few psychos, some money to plot and fight and kill over, and two hundred or so pages. That’s all it takes.
That and a good title. Frank Sinatra in a Blender unfortunately missed on that final count. But I’ll let that go for now, because I liked everything else about this novel.
McBride’s book is about thieves, psychopaths, and cops. Our hero, Nick Valentine fits into all three categories—at least he did right up until he drank himself off the force. What else can an alcoholic ex-cop do but become a Private Investigator? When some low-rent hoods working for one of St. Louis’s wannabe crime bosses pull off a massive bank job, increasingly violent events are set into motion as Valentine tries to help the police crack the case while plotting with a pair of middle-aged thieves to steal the loot from the original thieves. Plus there’s a pair of hired goons named English Sid and Johnny No Nuts who have a particular penchant for brutality.
This is a world of idiots, losers who can’t do anything right. Mistakes and misfortunes propels the book, as Valentine and Co. stumble about, trying to stay ahead of the psychos who are also after the money from the heist. Violence, of course, is always likely, though McBride wisely dials back on the carnage until the last forty pages of the book. Then things get very bloody, very quick.
McBride’s style is unadorned and straightforward. He doesn’t rely on trite metaphors or outdated lingo as so many “neo-pulp” authors do. His characters are defined by their brutal and stupid actions, not by their overworked cadence or peculiar quirks. The mixing of perspectives—first-person for the Valentine chapters, third for the rest—is initially a bit jarring. But it serves an ultimate purpose: to exhibit the extent to which our hero is the biggest loser in the book. Valentine puts on a tough-guy façade, which throughout the book becomes thinner, revealing the moron beneath. Who's actually not that bad a guy.
Alright, I must nitpick a bit: NO ONE DRINKS LIKE VALENTINE. I know alcoholics, I know drunks. They will drink pretty much whatever if that’s what is available, but for the most part dedicated drunks have rigid preferences. They stick with their favorite drink, whether its whiskey or beer with a shot of whiskey. Valentine's drinking—he’ll pound a shot of Makers, a White Russian, and two Coronos in an instant—is fairly ridiculous, and reads very unrealistically. And he drinks a lot, so there's that.
But, for some reason, Valentine has given up coffee and cigarettes.
In honor of McBride’s terse storytelling, I’m going to cut this review short and simply tell you to buy this book immediately, read it, and thank me. I didn't even mind the whole PI bit.
Objective Score: 9/10
Bonuses: +1 for 202 pages
Penalties: -1 for the drinks; -1 for the title, obviously
Nerd coefficient: 8/10