“Book Review: 40 Nickels”
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
A wild, tow-truck ride of a murder investigation through the seamy side of 1950s Vancouver
40 Nickels is the second title in R. Daniel Lester’s Carnegie Finch series. The genre is a unique, slapstick noir with a bit of bizarro weirdness thrown in for fun. Standard noir tropes, like “life is cheap” and “power corrupts,” and characters, such as the wise-cracking detective and the femme fatale, are served up with a humorous twist. The book is a glimpse of 1950s popular culture—such as the influence of that new invention, television—taken to absurdist extremes.
The narrator, Carnegie Finch, is a fast-talking, lovable rogue with little visible means of support. He yearns for a career as a private investigator, but all he has going for him is the desire. He certainly has no training, experience, or license. He’s motived by a jonesing for “the buzz, the jolt” of poking around for clues and piecing them together.
The book opens with a brief prologue in a Toronto hobo camp. For a brief, glorious moment Finch possesses the MacGuffin of the piece, but he just as quickly loses it to a dentist conman, Janssen. If Finch didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.
Flash forward a few years to Vancouver, and Finch, his act slightly cleaned up, aims to make it as a detective by cracking the missing Mr. Jangles case. But that trail has grown cold, and his lady frenemy, Adora, has some career advice: Drive a tow truck. Oh, and by the way, check out the fishy skid-row rescue mission some of her restaurant employees have started attending.
Finch, always a sucker for a swell dame, hops to it, only to find that the mission is a cult run by Janssen, the Toronto dentist conman. Although now, he calls himself “Quest.” Finch hasn’t forgotten Janssen/Quest stole something from him and will do everything he can to get it back.
40 Nickels’ language and imagery are a real treat. Finch doesn’t just have the gift of gab; his mind jumps about in free-association allusions that are a joy to read. When Adora proposes a night on the town to cheer up a traumatized Finch, he replies, “What, you’re gonna whisk me away to a secret destination and ply me with booze?” Adora confesses that could very well happen, and Finch’s internal narrative voice continues, “So, like an egg cracked into a mixing bowl, not knowing if it’d end up scrambled or baked in a cake, I let myself be whisked.”
Later, Finch borrows a car, but the car’s owner, Taffy, stipulates Finch drive him and his wife to the airport first. Finch’s description of the couple is priceless:
“As far as the mood in the car, it was a battlefield and I had to keep my head low so as not to get hit by a stray bullet. Taffy and his wife were the kind of career soldiers that wore camouflage and hid in bunkers and sniped at each other over familiar territory that made precious little sense to anybody else.”
40 Nickels gives a fair amount of detail about Dead Clown Blues, the first book of the series, which the reader doesn’t really need to know to enjoy this tale. Noir detective fans who can take a joke will find that 40 Nickels really pays off in laughs.
Publisher: Shotgun Honey
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