The great tradition of hard-boiled crime novels finds new and promising territory in the Utah desert.
Carrying its own cult following after having been published independently last year, this debut novel is a stirring, atmospheric, and even mildly surreal variation on the “mean streets” detective fiction of Raymond Chandler; only it’s not “mean streets” here so much as a stretch of desolate highway—State Road 117—in northern Utah. The loners, drifters, dreamers, ranchers, and survivors who live along this road get almost all their supplies from Ben Jones, a strapping, half-Indian, half-Jewish independent trucker whose sense of humor is as dry and (almost) as bleak as the surrounding landscape. One day, Ben breaks from his daily routine long enough to notice the scattered remains of a half-built housing development whose only completed building “stuck out like a sturdy tooth on an empty gum.” The first time he passes by, he suspects a woman’s squatting there but can’t quite make her out beyond remembering an “oddly striking” face; the second time, he gets a much better look: the same woman, naked, sitting on the porch, playing a cello without strings; the third time, as you might have expected, she’s pointing a gun at him. And we’re off and running on a witty, rollicking, and somewhat bent mystery/romance whose mostly supporting cast includes an itinerant preacher who spends his life lugging a large wooden cross up and down the highway, a pregnant-and-sassy Wal-Mart clerk taking economics college courses, a reality TV producer whose offer to make Ben a star may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and, most important of all, the widowed septuagenarian owner/operator of the novel’s eponymous diner, an empty but well-maintained relic of better days, much like its volatile, two-fisted proprietor whose coarse belligerence cloaks many secrets, at least one of which is literally too awful to behold.
Anderson dedicates his book in memory of such masters of hard-boiled noir as Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and James Crumley, and it’s the latter’s gift for poetic description, antic violence, and roadside gothic that resounds most in what one hopes will be the beginning of a beautiful series.