Book review: The Wheel of Doll, by Jonathan Ames

You can’t take it too seriously, but it you read it as a homage to the masters of hard-boiled crime The Wheel of Doll is very enjoyable, writes Allan Massie

The so-called hard-boiled American crime novel is now some hundred years old. It flourished on the West coast. There are fine, even great, examples of American noir set in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and elsewhere, but the genre’s true homeland is California and points north and south. Its two greats are Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and almost everything written since still echoes them. Chandler is the more famous, this side of the Atlantic at least, but for the serious morally concerned crime novel Macdonald remains the tops. Our own Scottish crime masters McIlvanney and Rankin are also in debt, I think, to Macdonald.

So, without doubt, is Jonathan Ames, up to a point anyway for he is ludic and less serious. This is his second novel featuring Happy Doll, a 50-year-old private investigator (though he has lost his licence) and he is commissioned by a young married woman to find her long-disappeared junkie mother, just the kind of assignment that Macdonald’s Lew Archer used to be given. It so happens that the missing woman was once Doll’s lover, and there is something a bit dodgy about the daughter and, even more so, her husband.

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There is necessary make-believe in all the police/detective heroes of Crime Fiction, and it’s best when their authors contrive to keep them on just the right side of credibility, even though many quite acceptably fall very much on the wrong side. So Jonathan Ames’s Doll is rescued from absurdity by the author’s light and engaging style which enables one to suspend disbelief, though this requires much willingness on the part of the reader.

Jonathan Ames

Chandler famously described his hero Philip Marlowe as “a shop-soiled Galahad”, and the description fitted Lew Archer like a well-cut suit. It fits Happy Doll too, more sloppily, which is fair enough for he is a more improbable character.

On the first page, he tells us that he has “become an armchair Buddhist”. Happily – for the crime novel – he remains a Buddhist capable of spurts of extreme Sam Peckinpah movie-style violence. We are only a couple of pages into the action when he employs the steel baton he carries in his sports-jacket pocket to smash and see off a couple of powerful heavies. This is not bad going for a man of 51 missing a kidney.

Nevertheless, he’s a gentle soul who adores his little dog George – a Chihuahua/terrier cross who cuddles up beside him in bed, and, when circumstances have compelled him to bump off a villain, he plants a tree, but not of course in triumph, rather a sort of tribute to the departed. He accelerates the departure of more than several. Thinning the cast keeps the narrative in motion, and indeed it moves engagingly quickly. But this worries Doll. When he gives George a good-night kiss, he asks how the little dog can still love him when “I kill people”. His Buddhism has some way to go, but that’s just how it is, even as the bodies pile up or, rather, must be disposed of.

You can’t begin to take it seriously as you used to be able to take Chandler and Macdonald seriously, at least till the last 30 or so pages. Nevertheless, if you read it as caper homage to the masters of the genre it’s very enjoyable. The narrative rattles along to the sound of gunfire, and Happy Doll is an amusing and oddly likeable character. There is clearly going to be a series and probably the novels will come out in quick succession.

The Wheel of Doll, by Jonathan Ames

Ames has as easy a way with narrative as Happy Doll has with his steel baton and a gun. You can’t help liking him and should remember that he has had it tough himself, being without one of his kidneys. Moreover he is loyal to his memories of a woman he used to love and George is a sweet dog. So the book is comforting. I would suggest only that you don’t read it if you are stranded in an airport or suchlike; you might start longing for your own steel baton. Or indeed gun.

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The Wheel of Doll, by Jonathan Ames, Pushkin Vertigo, 216pp, £8.99