In the prison movies that were Morris Wing’s favorites before he went away the gates swung shut with a resounding clang whenever a convict was let out of stir. For sixteen-and-two-thirds years Wing had been waiting for that sound at his back. But after breakfast on his release date he was brought through the administration building to an exit as inauspicious as a craphouse door. What he heard were hinges that needed oil. The warden was not there to remind him to keep his nose clean. Not a single guard shouted See you soon.
Back in 1986, Joseph Koenig wrote a serial-killer thriller called Floater. He had a hard time getting it printed; every publishing house he went to didn’t think it was interesting enough to print. When it finally released, it won an Edgar award. Then, his novel Little Odessa was filmed, and Brides of Blood became a New York Times Notable Book. After that, nothing. Twenty years of silence. Until…
Adam Jordan is an Atlantic City newspaper reporter with aspirations of writing the Great American Novel—whenever he can get around two it. On some routine scoops, he pens two stories. The first gets him fired from his newspaper, when he reprints last year’s coverage instead of going to see a politician’s annual speech—since the politician has a fatal heart attack before he can make said speech. The other—discovering the corpse of an aspiring Miss America on a deserted New Jersey beach—gets him hired by real-crime pulp Real Detective, where his writing skills are honed. The pulps are on their last legs, derided by the literary establishment and losing readership to TV and comics, and Real Detective‘s editor hopes that Jordan’s quality writing might help the magazine live a few extra years.
On the way, he’ll investigate and cover numerous murders as he rises up the magazine’s ladder. But one will continue to haunt him—that murdered beauty queen, an unsolved case. Because at Real Detective, Jordan sees many similar cases cropping up… And in the age of segregation, he’s got to deal with a sassy black woman with a questionable occupation who may have crucial info about the victims.
While the cover blurbs and hype promote the novel as Jordan’s investigations of the Miss America murder, that’s not quite the case—it’s the running plot-point that ties all the other elements together, but the story is quite layered. The largest theme is Jordan coming to terms with himself as a crime writer and journalist, honing his chops, getting into the business, and so on. Another huge part is race relations during the jazz generation; I’d argue that this should have been the pillar upon which the cover blurbs rested. Several chapters of the book is dominated by Jordan investigating a missing—presumed murdered—African American girl, despite, as his editor points out, the story is unsellable: it won’t interest the predominantly white readers in a segregated age. Intense stuff, but it’s handled so well, Koenig was convinced to tackle ’50s racial issues further in a future novel.
Everything I’ve heard about this book has been very positive; the back cover blurbs bandy around words like gripping. I didn’t find it a gripping read; meandering is the word I’d use to describe it, but that sells less copy. There’s no feeling of liveliness while Jordan digs up his cases; the book plods through them at a lackadaisical pace. Koenig has the habit of tossing in extraneous characters and multiple cases into the mix, most of which never show up again, which doesn’t help things. It creates great verisimilitude, and provides an excellent view of the pulp-era crime journalist, but throwing names and crimes into the mix muddles the plot—I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to memorize these in case they popped up again, or forget about them since they didn’t look like they’d ever re-appear.
That Adam Jordan is pulled from journalist to detective is unavoidable, and I thought the murder case and the roundabout investigation was interesting enough. But. The back-cover and most of the advertising and promotions play it up as Jordan investigating this grand conspiracy that the rich and powerful want covered up—it veers in that direction but never connects to that idea, instead going back towards Koenig’s serial killer roots. I’ve seen several reviewers say that the killer felt random and not like a logical choice; I’d noticed some clues about halfway through the book that allowed me to pinpoint the culprit (lo and behold, I was spot-on). Even so, seeing the villain’s dark side develop and come out stealthily, was great, and it felt pretty logical and rounded to me.
There’s a lot of hoopla over False Negative, with many critics and readers expecting it to make the Edgar Award shortlist if it’s not a sure-fire nomination. That sounds like a hard sell to me. It’s a very interesting book, but not an engaging one; its biggest strength is its unique perspective. There aren’t many—any?—other books out there about crime journalists in the last days of the pulps, and Koenig draws plenty from his experiences, giving it strong authenticity and verisimilitude. And it hits my interest levels spot on, examining how true crime writers did their investigations and how pulp magazines operated. And it’s the semi-autobiographical parts are poignant—Koenig did work for Front Page and Inside Detective amongst others, and Adam Jordan as a struggling writer shares many underlying themes with Koenig’s twenty-year dry spell.
Is it worth reading? A tentative yes. I think the book is misrepresented, setting expectations the novel can’t sustain. Expect less of an old-school crime novel and more of a literary crime work and you’ll be go into the novel with the right mindset—it doesn’t have the ultra-hardboiled characters, the lighting-fast pacing and jagged plot twists of those old pulp paperbacks. Its strengths are its depictions of racial issues in the late noir age, and the intriguing verisimilitude of seeing life inside one of the “last” pulp magazines. It hits those out of the park, and is an enjoyable caper to boot, written in well-tuned prose. I expect to update this post later, adding in some award nominations or wins. [26 June ’13: There it goes on the Shamus Award nominations list.]