Tough, hon­est and vi­o­lent when re­quired

The Mid­night Prom­ise

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ven­ero Ar­manno

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.

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