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The Devil and the Detective by John Goldbach | Book review

A debut noir takes unexpected turns.


Robert James—low-functioning detective and even lower-functioning drunk—assures us it was his choice to eschew a badge and live the life of a private eye. Evidence would seem to indicate otherwise, as the case he narrates for us in Goldbach’s debut novel slips from his grasp almost from the beginning.

In the dead of night, James receives a call from Elaine Andrews, who claims to have awakened to find her husband on the couch, a knife in his chest. Her lawyer recommended she call James, despite the fact that the police are en route. But once James is there, the cops won’t allow him to see the body, and Elaine immediately starts getting friendly with her PI. Once James and Elaine consummate the detective/client relationship, however, she disappears, and the cops work over James as a suspect.

James seems as unreliable a narrator as he is a detective. Inexorably drawn into the numinous world of Elaine’s wealthy husband, he befriends a flower delivery driver who subs in as a sidekick and philosophical investigator. Though Goldbach’s prose pays homage to the noir of the mid–20th century, the story owes more to outré authors like Harry Mathews. Much in the same way James is an unconventional detective, Goldbach’s detective tale follows a different path. Told in a sort of punch-drunk, slapstick stream that melds dreams, misperception and dialogue, the story has undeniable momentum, even as it veers persistently and amusingly off course.

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