No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 08, 2017

2017/01: Hammers on Bone -- Cassandra Khaw

"You're the only one who can help." "What makes you say that?" "Because you're a monster too." [loc. 47]
It is not immediately obvious that the office of John Persons, PI, is in Croydon. This is because he speaks, and narrates, in typical gumshoe noir: his client has a look that could 'carve Harlem sunsets', and Persons would 'tip a trilby to his folks'.

His client is a ten-year-old boy, Abel, who wants Mr Persons to kill his stepfather before the stepfather kills Abel or his little brother James.

Mr Persons does not balk, or throw up spurious legal arguments. This is because, contrary to appearances, Mr Persons is not actually a hardbitten PI from a Golden Age detective novel. That's just the meat-suit he is wearing. He comes from a different genre of Golden Age pulp ...

Those who, like me, are not that familiar with the Lovecraftian mythos do get some clues: and I'll argue that actually -- as in all the best crossover (fan)fiction -- you don't need to know the details of the original work. It's sufficient to be aware that Persons is, on the inside, an inhuman monster, and that there are other such beings walking (slithering?) the mean streets of Croydon.

Persons is a monster: McKinsey, the wicked stepfather, another. But the true monsters in this story are not eldritch, but shriekingly banal. They are poverty, domestic abuse, misogyny: they keep Abel's mother in an abusive relationship, and McKinsey in a safety net of laddish co-workers, and Abel and James in a state of helpless miserable terror.

Detective noir is a stereotypically sexist genre (Khaw writes about that here). Persons -- whose life, before the narrator moved in, must have been a surreal blast: was he really a black PI spouting noir banter in Croydon? -- is casually sexist, a constant low-level stream of 'skirt' and 'dame' and 'frill'. But not all the female characters in Hammers on Bone can be dismissed so easily: Sasha calls Persons on an uninvited intrusion, and Sasha's boss calls Persons on ... well.

I liked this very much, and then I looked up the Lovecraft references and reread it and liked it even more. Khaw's writing is excellent, tough and poetic and pretty gruesome in places: I'm hoping for more Persons.

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