The worst thing a crime novel can do is be boring.
"Can I just pick ‘em off," Carter asked. "One by one?"
"That would probably be Plan Z."
"What’s Plan A?"
"We lie here and see what happens."
He glanced at me. "You are so boring."
"One of my best qualities."
"Said the really boring guy."
I bought this book, and the previous book, Shelby’s debut Killer Swell for two reasons. One: I like detective crime novels, and two: He sets them in San Diego, my hometown, which is a beautiful city, has great beaches, fantastic restaurants, and a great downtown, but also is cheerfully corrupt. We had three mayoral elections in one year and our city is so broke, we’re losing our football team.
But that doesn’t save this novel.
Have you ever read a private detective novel? Then you’ve read Wicked Break. Sarcastic P.I. with parental issues? Check. Uneasy relationship with local police? Check. Corrupt businessmen and street gangs? Check. Sociopath best friend? Check. Sudden stupid character twist at the end? Check. P.I. protagonist that’s tougher than he looks? Check. Now imagine a P.I. novel where the protagonist isn’t funny, the dialogue is flat, and the supposed relationship between him and his best friend is made up of snappy patter and macho posturing.
Noah Braddock is a San Diego native (A native? Rare, believe me) who barely got through High School and floated through various jobs until he got the idea to set up shop as a private investigator so he could set his own hours and surf all he wants. Have you seen Point Break? Noah treats the waves like Reeve and Swayze did in that movie, so much so that I expected him to round up some guys, U.S. President masks and rob some banks. At the beginning of the novel, Noah is coming back from some righteous waves, duuuude, to find a man waiting for him. Turns out the man’s brother has been missing for a few days and a lawyer friend of Noah’s referred him to Noah. Noah doesn’t want to take the case because his last one went badly, but the man essentially gives him big puppy dog eyes and Noah gives in, saying he would ask some questions and check things out. Before the afternoon is over, his client is dead, white supremacists want him dead, and the guy he’s trying to find seems to be dealing with both black gang bangers and those wacky white supremacist’s.
In a better writer, such as Dennis Lehane’s debut A Drink Before the War which dealt with Boston’s black gang bangers, this would be fertile ground to discuss race and bigotry as well as the decay of a city that certain men and women turn to crime and gangs for money and family, but Shelby doesn’t go there even a little bit. Noah is pulled in by the police multiple times and sternly scolded not to get in over his head, but you never really feel much danger for Noah, despite the fact that the people after him are killers that like to kill.
Events swell, thousands of bullets are fired, and Noah stumbles his way through the mystery of where the young man he’s look for is and why he’s playing both sides against each other, with best friend Carter at his side all the while.
Let’s talk about Carter now. I simply didn’t believe that they are best friends that are tight through thick and thin. Their relationship is built on cliché’s and quips, and yes, surfing. They have a stunning lack of understanding of each other, even though they’ve known each other since childhood. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser had Hawk, the daddy of sociopath best friends, but Hawk had depth. He was a violent force of nature, but Parker was able to give Spenser and Hawk a fascinating relationship, Hawk representing the dark and violent path that Spenser dare not go. Hawk loved Spenser and his friends with a ferocity, but he could also coldly shoot an un-armed man who would never be a threat again in the head. We are told that Carter is a violent man, but in a joking and wink-wink sort of way. We are told he is tougher than Noah, 6’9 and nearly 300 pounds, but he never does anything. He’s a cipher, there because the sociopath partner has become a staple of P.I. fiction. Joe Pike of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels is not a huge guy, but he and Elvis are the deepest of friends, the kind that other people can’t really understand. Crais backs this up by having Elvis remember fond memories of Pike and if Elvis is in trouble? You better watch out or Pike will fuck you up, not because of his violent nature, but because Pike loves Elvis. They are brothers in every way but blood. Don’t write a violent partner just because you think you need one. Give him depth; give him some kind of human connection that makes you understand his actions. I simply don’t believe Carter as a character.
Speaking of character, there is one twist that is so laughable and out of left field, that I am going to spoil it here (swipe to read): Noah’s lawyer friend turns out to be a backer to the racist group that Noah was investigating, even though he had been screwing Noah’s Hispanic ex and taking her to nice restaurants through the entire novel. There are no hints about the true nature of this character and not once are we given an inkling of his thought process.
But Noah doesn’t really need Carter because apparently Noah is Rambo in disguise, able to easily fight off three men at once, killing them all, two men who are professional killers. This is a guy who never displays any fighting ability except once when he outsmarted a couple street punks much younger and dumber than him. I don’t know how Noah did it because it’s never explained.
Now, it’s not all bad. Shelby writes Noah’s relationship with his estranged alcoholic mother with a surprising anger and tender sorrow, writing Noah remembering his youth of his mother stumbling home from bars or him bailing her out of jail for being a drunken public disturbance. More writing like this and less cliché, please. Shelby also writes San Diego well, describing the schizophrenic weather and the sights and sounds like only a native San Diegan could. He doesn’t portray it as deeply as I would have liked, never once discussing the corrupt politicians or how broke the city is, but he describes the allure and puppy dog eagerness of it to please well.
It’s only his second novel and he may turn into a better writer, but I’ll wait for reviews now and go to other writers like Block, Pelecanos or John Connolly for my deep and rich P.I. fiction. Wicked Break is a fine book if you want fluff, but for those with experience in reading a private detective novel and expect something more than cotton candy reading, look elsewhere.
NOT AS GOOD AS: Early Robert B. Parker’s early Spenser novels
BETTER THAN: James Patterson
READ IF YOU LIKE: James Patterson.