Thursday, August 29, 2013


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Dope (Berkeley, 2006).

There aren't many books that I'll blow through in a day. From a couple of weeks' distance, I can see some of the flaws in Sara Gran's third novel, Dope, but for a good few hours there, those cracks were invisible. This was a hugely fun ride and I enjoyed it tremendously. It's lost a little bit of its shine, but not too much.

I'm a big fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels, and think that they reached their peak in the 1950s, the era in which Dope takes place. But while Stout's stories are very entertaining, they're also very wish-fulfilling. The world of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe is one of fantasy and privilege, with only occasional peaks into the desperate world where the poor and the junkies and the prostitutes live. I felt that Dope is a more honest portrayal of New York City's squalor and misery. These are not the sort of people who can afford Mr. Wolfe's rates.

Things apparently begin when a well-to-do couple from upstate - the sort of people who could afford Wolfe or his associates - start looking for their runaway daughter. They hired a private investigator to find her, but he tracks her as far as he's able. She's disappeared so far into prostitution and heroin houses that he can't dig any deeper. One recommendation after another leads them to our story's narrator, Josephine "Joe" Flannigan. She's a former heroin addict and hooker herself, and, while clean for many months, is still a criminal, financing her cheap apartment through small cons and shoplifting. Maybe one day, Joe will get out of the gutter. She's made pretty good progress but has a long way to go, and the payoff from finding the missing girl could keep her floating until she finds honest work somewhere.

Joe's voice cracks a couple of times. Her author, Gran, is clearly an intelligent person, more so than Joe should be, and there are occasions where the author's 21st Century insight is more evident than the lowly-educated Joe's. It's also apparent that Gran has read considerably more hard-boiled fiction of the period than Joe ever could. It results in a very pleasing homage to the genre, culminating in an unforgettable climax, but its one that could have been even more of a gut-punch if we'd taken a little more time getting to know Joe's life and relationships. Recommended despite the minor quibbles, as this really did please me more than not.

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