Tough, honest and violent when required
The Midnight Promise
DETECTIVE fiction is such a staple of popular culture it’s no surprise how many genres and sub-genres it has permeated or helped create.
We understand the hard-boiled private eye as much as we understand the young paralegal who decides to solve a mystery or the quiet but brilliant maiden aunt who turns her mind to the possible truths behind troubles in her small English village.
Somehow these disparate worlds make sense, and the hard-bitten writing of early originals such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler still resonates within modern European crime novels or even the socalled metaphysical detective novels of writers such as Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.
Australian writers have never been left behind when it comes to the great detective yarn, and if authors such as Arthur Upfield and, much later, Peter Corris paved a sort of By Zane Lovitt Text Publishing, 283pp, $29.99 new antipodean dark road, there have been many willing to travel its byways and push even further along.
Now, under the neat but perfectly serviceable banner of literary detective fiction, comes Melbourne writer Zane Lovitt with a book of 10 loosely connected detective stories. The Midnight Promise isn’t the first book to feature a burned-out private investigator whose world is crumbling around him (in fact, it might already have crumbled) but it’s certainly one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
Lovitt’s PI is Melbourne-based John Dorn, a man who is tough-minded, damaged, violent when required, and honest. He has seen it all and is sick of it all, yet can’t seem to find a way out. He’s as drawn to bad deeds as a sledgehammer is to a kneecap. It’s fair to say that sometimes his investigations only make matters worse. His lawyer-friend Demetri often despairs at the things Dorn gets himself into, yet Demetri also has an abundant supply of hopeless cases and causes to bring him.
What makes Dorn such a compelling narrator is that for all his decrepitude he has a reflective spirit and an insightful eye. Even as almost every one of his investigations spirals out of control, as every possible happy ending is wrenched from his grasp, Dorn understands that life is less about the crimes at hand and more about the people forced to inhabit them. A fist is raised and an individual suffers; a sin is committed and a victim dies unheard; a succession of very bad people face the full weight of the law, yet escape scot-free.
And so this is where the ‘‘ midnight promise’’ comes in. Loosely connected short stories such as these don’t really need a framing standpoint, but Lovitt has found one extremely fitting perspective from which to explore his agonising tales.
Dorn drinks, he suffers and he thinks — and he tells himself that within his investigations he as a PI is irrelevant. The promise he makes himself one midnight, with the clarity of insight born of litres of booze, is that all the stories he’s involved with should never be about him but about the individuals who need his help.
We later discover that Dorn may not be shy of telling people who can’t pay for his services to go f . . k themselves, but at heart he is as much a do-gooder as any detective-hero ever was. And that makes him vulnerable.
The peak — or awful depth — of that vulnerability comes in the final story, Troy.