Reviewed by Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
The hard-boiled crime genre is a tough nut in these days of sympathetic detectives who insist on dragging their personal problems into their professional crime fighting life. Just the right tone is needed. Lean a little on tough talk, you’re prone to cliché, lean on the curt description you’re liable to wander from the story line. And lean on the cynicism in which the genre reacted to the romantic novel, and you’re out of touch with an age already cynical about cynicism. Masters such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or rougher types Ross MacDonald and Mickey Spillane set the tone in the 30’s and after the WW II. In today’s crowded acre of crime and mystery novels, the rub is how to get a rise out of the genre?
Kevin Daley’s enters the mix with Dax Grantham, a newspaper reporter with a jeep, a motorcycle, a beautiful wife, a martial arts certificate and a crusty boss, with a box of one-liners. Right off we witness Dax, disguised as an old man trailing his wife, who he suspects is straying from their marriage vows. During this marital detective work Dax happens into a back alley where young punks are attacking an old lady. What can he do? A decent fellow, he wallops three or four young gang members, sends them packing with neat karate chops and wins the old lady’s undying honor. She pronounces the disguised Dax as the Dandy Vigilante to the police and the news paper where Dax works. It’s never quite clear why a younger man dressed as an old man in thrift store clothes is considered a Dandy but we must take the old lady’s word. Meanwhile, Dax loses the trail of his wife but his disguise is destined to become famous. After several more encounters with gangs and robbers, the Dandy Vigilante becomes well known in Boston. However, Dax still doesn’t know if his wife is having an affair with Bradley Swanson, the mayor’s deputy assistant. In disguise, he spies them at a restaurant and Swanson’s apartment, but never can get the goods before straying to save Boston from another crime. The mayor condemns this Vigilante justice, though the city of Boston seems to take the Dandy Vigilante to heart. Meanwhile, Dax is filing stories about the Dandy with the real inside scoop. Sort of Superman as a bummed out Clark Kent, or vice a versa.
When the descriptions are quick, the story moves on. However, there doesn’t seem to be a fix on the murder and instead the focus is on who’s to pay for the crime. In fact, crime in Boston seems more or less a free for all spree to be covered rather than solved.
Dax’s beat also involves his job as a slipshod and irreverent reporter on a Boston paper covering the characters in and around Boston city hall. True to genre conventions, Boston and environs play a prominent part in the story from the fortress-like government center to the gold-domed state capital, including Cambridge and the Boston Common as well as a litany of local place names, streets, parks, corners, bars and cafe’s that parade before us. At times this recitation resembles a Google map-car prowling the city. The book soon settles into the characters of the ultimate vigilante, Superman, with the cub reporter, the crusty editor and features Dax’s wife, Debbie, a psychologist, as Lois Lane.
The story line touches on vigilante justice, disguises, childhood trauma, friendship, betrayal and the ups and downs of marriage and moves Dax through a stream of scrapes and intrigue. Eventually the story settles on the murder of Debbie’s friend, Swanson. The McGuffin in all of this is a lucrative land deal put together by Mayor Grasso, who hopes to be elected Governor to replace Gov. Leno who hopes to be elected President. The mayor, a nefarious fellow, also happens to be connected to Dax’s wife and we later find, Dax himself. This, like other parts of the story, is revealed through a series of conjectures as well as narrative memories rather than action, though the action is on its way.
Although Dax is not hard-boiled throughout, the dialogue is often entertaining, precise and quick while the emotional tone may be a bit on the soft side. Dax tries to bribe his way into a hospital with a crumpled twenty, which is refused by an elderly guard, only to be surprised when trying to sneak in through the emergency entrance:
…the same elderly guard stepped out from an alcove…”step into my office.” He indicated the stairwell.
“You kidding me?”
“Nope.” He pointed the nightstick at my side. “Go.”
I swirled it aside as I stepped into the stairwell.
“I don’t think twenty bucks is enough for my cousin’s needs. He has retirement to consider.”
I couldn’t believe this, being shaken down by Barney Fife’s older brother. “Well. Why didn’t you say so? Thirty. The rest is for my mother.”
“What a good boy.” His hand opened. But I told you to leave, revoking your implied license to be on the premises. You know what that means? It’s a hundred to me or two policemen to you.”
“A hundred? You want a hundred from me? What the hell….I’m a journalist, for crying out loud.”
“Your choice. The way I understand it, they’ll arrest you. Maybe they’ll let you off, eventually. He shrugged. “Choose.’
I shook my head.
He pushed the radio button on his shoulder and checked in, probably with a fellow extortionist.
“Unbelievable.” I opened my wallet, counted out fifty-seven dollars and showed him the empty wallet…
Quick but not swift, Daley sometimes strikes the flavor of hard-boiled dialogue, but Dax’s moaning over his wife and childhood trauma slows the narrative. There is even some waffling about straight arrow justice, anathema to classic crime, but supports Daley’s Vigilante model. Sometimes the Dandy Vigilante shambles through segues where clarity could be more direct and sometimes the story moves at a pretty good clip. There’s just a lot of story to get through, such as the repeated telling of Dax dressing as a girl in high school to get a story from a girl’s perspective for the high school paper, for which he was beaten and punished in a way that affects his later life as well as the story line.
When Dax finally confronts his wife, she confesses to joining Swanson to put together a youth counseling center — nothing romantic with the Mayor’s chief of staff. Dax accepts her explanation reluctantly. Before too long, Swanson turns up murdered in a place where he was supposed to meet Debbie and she is accused and arrested for Swanson’s murder. Do we ever need a vigilante now? Dax, too, is accused of the murder, while being forced into the unwitting death of another character.
In the crowed final third of the book, the sub-level questions about vigilante justice get lost in the catch as catch-can scenario of surprises, fights and vengeance, winding down into a face off for vigilante versus civic justice. An interesting question riding just beneath the surface of Daley’s novel.
Toward the end, the crimes and criminals mount up and our hero Dax preservers and endures several physical beatings nearly as bad as the one from high school. At this point the plot becomes over-complex. Though Dax does manage to strike a few blows for justice, we are never sure if this is real justice. In fact, we are left without the classic crime detective clearly on the side of right. Dax and his brand of crime solving presents a more ambiguous justice. The rub, I guess, is the Vigilante way. I wonder what Hammett and Chandler, even Spillane would think?
Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64) is a fiction writer living in Boston. Several of his stories appear in the Short Stories by Peace Corps Writers blog.