Barry is back this Friday with his latest review. One of many that will be mentioned on Patti Abbott’s blog so make sure you also check the list.
UNFAITHFUL SERVANT (2004) by Timothy Harris
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
I might as well say this right at the beginning: Unfaithful Servant is one of the best hardboiled detective novels I’ve read in a long time.
I discovered Timothy Harris’s work in the early 1980s when I stumbled upon a paperback edition of Good Night and Good-Bye. Cover copy hyped it as being “in the tradition of The Long Goodbye,” which automatically demanded that I read it because The Long Goodbye is my favorite novel. Read it I did, and found some similarities to Raymond Chandler’s masterwork, but was also pleased to see that, unlike too many other authors who tried unconvincingly to imitate Chandler, Harris chose to write in his own style, which is colorful and entertaining. As a result of loving the book, which I later acquired in hardback, I bought a copy of Kyd for Hire, Harris’s first novel about Southern California private investigator Thomas Kyd, which I recall thinking reminded in me ways of The Big Sleep, and which I also quite enjoyed.
Then I waited over thirty years for another Thomas Kyd novel. Fortunately, Unfaithful Servant—which description can refer to Kyd as well as to others in the story—was eminently worth the wait.
When Kyd is approached by fourteen-year-old Hugo Vine, who offers him a fifteen-thousand-dollar Rolex to watch his parents, his refusal sets the boy raging insults and obscenities at him. A few months later he encounters Hugo yet again. Their conversation is brief because Kyd is on a case and hasn’t time for a lengthy chat.
Hugo is the son of Hollywood actress Sally Vine and her late producer husband Daniel Vine, as Kyd learns when he’s contacted by Sally’s lawyer and summoned to the Vine home, threatened with the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In attendance at the meeting are the lawyer, Hugo’s therapist, a deputy city attorney, and a Robbery-Homicide detective with an attitude. It isn’t until the meeting ends that Kyd meets Raj LaSalle, Sally’s current husband, and Sally herself. The actress transparently manipulates the reluctant Kyd into accepting the job of keeping an eye on Hugo, who may or may not be using or dealing drugs, to learn what he’s up to and to prevent him from getting into trouble.
Doing so results in a stormy relationship with a determined, possibly disturbed, and ultimately endangered Hugo because it isn’t long before Kyd learns that the boy is certain his father’s death was not a skiing accident but a deliberate murder, and that he, Hugo, is not only sure he knows who the killer is, but also knows someone who claims to have witnessed the crime. As Kyd probes further, additional deaths occur, at least one of which he’s accused of, and he has to contend with cops who are honest but suspicious as well as others who are corrupt and brutal; sycophants with delusions of cinematic grandeur and their monied idols; tabloid “journalists;” a lawyer friend whose eye is always on the big, constantly-remunerative score; and those who would harm a savvy but justifiably depressed fourteen-year-old kid.
A successful screenwriter, Timothy Harris knows his turf, vividly evoking the Hollywood film community and the southern California landscape, external and internal. Building steadily to an intense finish, this is an excellently-paced novel in which the characters, major and minor alike, are three-dimensionally configured and examined insightfully. Not the least of these is Kyd himself. Unlike the heroes of most private eye series, about whom we’re told mostly superficial things and shown only their quotidian routines, Kyd reveals significant moments about his past, including boyhood and familial circumstances and events that shaped the man he has become, that were the geneses of some of the demons he must contend with now.
Unfaithful Servant was originally released in a hardcover edition from Five Star Publishing, which sells mainly to libraries. From what I’ve seen at Internet sites, booksellers are asking high prices for it both in hardcover and advanced reading copy paperback editions. As far as I’m aware, it has never been released in a trade or mass market paperback edition. I read it in reasonably-priced Kindle edition from Endeavour Press, which came out in 2014, but have not been able to find it in other electronic formats.
As has become all too typical in both physical and electronic books nowadays, this one has a few typos and some incorrect punctuation. Fortunately they’re relatively few, and most readers will find them ignorable. Two errors that stood out for me were venal, in discussing sin, when venial was the intended word; and Invisible Man model when the old Visible Man plastic model is what Harris meant. The other errors are not likely to disrupt a reader’s flow.
Unfaithful Servant is a must-read for fans of hardboiled private eye novels—provided they aren’t squeamish about street language and graphic violence. Although Harris doesn’t inundate the reader with raunchy verbiage, he doesn’t shy away from it when it serves to delineate someone’s manner of expressing himself and his feelings. Some of the violence is very explicit, especially that in a climactic moment in which a character gets his comeuppance. I found it satisfying; others may find it gross.
Timothy Harris, in my estimation, is a top-tier writer who merits the same kind of accolades and esteem accorded to masters of the genre Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Lawrence Block, among others. I highly recommend the title under consideration here and its two predecessors, which I should reread one of these days. The big question is whether there will be another Thomas Kyd novel—and when. I hope the answers are Yes and Soon because I probably don’t have another thirty years ahead of me.
© 2015 Barry Ergang