Tuesday, January 23, 2024

5. Needles by William Deverell

I've been looking for this book for a while and I finally found it in a pretty appropriate place: the Pulp Fiction on Commercial.  He is a B.C./Vancouver writer after all.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), it is a first edition hardback and I paid a whopping $21 for it!  This was the book that started it all for Deverell, as it loudly proclaims on the cover.  He is quite a productive person, a journalist, editor then a lawyer and finally an author who also started the B.C. Civil Liberties Union in his spare time.  He lives on Pender Island now and probably has a sweet pad there.  What I find quite odd is that I never heard of him as an author or a local celebrity while we were on the Island (Vancouver, not Pender).  The literary scene in Canada is quite small and on the island even smaller (Margaret Atwood once stayed at a friend's dad's house and we found out about it because the news travelled up the town that she was swimming in the bay).  My mother had never heard of him when he's written a very popular series and won a Hammett.  I've got no explanation.

I discovered him myself thanks to Andrew Nette, who specifically recommended this book.  I forgot his exact words, but my memory of his portrayal was that it was quite gritty.  This set up some false expectations for me, because though this book has a great portrayal of seedy Vancouver in the 70s, it is far from gritty.  Rather, I liken it to that collection of really readable mystery/legal/thrillers that are almost over the top, along the lines of Ross Thomas and Carl Hiassen.  Right at the beginning, we are introduced to Vancouver drug kingpin Dr. Au, a pretty racist (though probably considered the opposite at the time) portrayal and a way over-the-top badguy.  He gets his sexual kicks by expertly torturing people (using a buffet of various orientalisms) and then slicing off their genitals before killing them.  That is not quite "gritty".  So I was a bit thrown off.

Once we got into the case and the main narrative, about hotshot lawyer and (recently backslid) heroin addict Foster Cobb who has the case to prosecute Au for the murder thrust upon him, the book gets quite enjoyable.  There isn't a lot of suspense here as the reader knows what actually happened.  The conflict is whether or not Cobb can maintain his skills while maintaining his addiction and the cops on his side can overcome Au's pressure on the witnesses and the corrupt mountie with whom he is working.  The court case has some exciting moments and there are lots of great little scenes in various parts of sketchy Vancouver that are also enjoyable.  The ending is also a bit silly, with a final action scene on the west coast of Vancouver island, but very beautiful.  And oh yeah, Cobb's other big conflict is that his marriage to his super hot, young ski pro wife is on the rocks and he has to decide whether or not he should get with his super hot, super smart also young Chinese-Canadian lawyer assistant in the case who is a hippy and smokes dope and throws herself at him.  It's all very much of his time, but nevertheless quite entertaining and you can see how the later books are worth following. 

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