Back when Dashiell Hammett ruled the keyboard, tough-guy detective novels were filled with sweet, dizzy dames; monosyllabic bad guys; short, punchy dialogue; and a style that borrowed heavily from Hemingway. Back then, there were bad crimes, sure there were. Guys and dames got stabbed and shot and thrown off roofs. But it was, I dunno, it was different from what it is now. Mostly, the guys getting stabbed wore suits, if you know what I mean, and the dames were dressed up pretty good too.
So here’s this fella Robert Campbell, who writes tough-guy fiction filled with the same kind of crackling dialogue the old masters used to pull off so stylishly, and if you don’t wanna take my word for it, just go read his new book, Sweet La-La Land. Except it’s the ’90s now, and nobody’s innocent the way they used to be, so Campbell’s plot takes place in the tough streets of Los Angeles, usually late at night.
The main characters are mostly young runaways who sell their bodies. Even that hardy perennial, the dame the detective used to love a few lifetimes ago, turns out to have turned a few tricks in her time, not to mention abandoning her only child, the event that sets the novel in motion. Campbell’s La-La Land is a hard, unforgiving, unhappy place.
It shouldn’t work, you think: You shouldn’t be able to impose that kind of stylized mystery writing, with all its baggage, all its sentimental history, on the squalid, wigged-out, nihilistic crimes (gruesome, angry knifings mainly) that are Campbell’s grist. But as you’re thinking this, you’re also turning the pages voraciously to find out what happens next, because Campbell has got you by the throat and he won’t let go. He’s so good he even makes you forget that the coincidences that make his plot go ’round stretch the bounds of believability. What the hell; he’s within his rights. The old masters used to lean on timely coincidence too. Surely, Campbell belongs in their ranks, even if his characters don’t wear suits. Even if he was born 40 years too late. B