Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dark Tones Improve Noir "Alegre"

Rancho Alegre
by John D. Nesbitt
Leisure Books, July 2005

Nesbitt’s Rancho Alegre is another first person western. It’s a mystery, too, like the previously reviewed Lawless (by Ed Gorman). But where Gorman’s Lawless is a Mickey Spillane/Carroll John Daly sharp wrap to the jaw, Nesbitt takes the softer, Chandleresque approach.

Reading Rancho Alegre is like falling slowly into a dark pit. Make no mistake, this is a noir mystery set, apparently, in the early 20th Century. There are no airplanes. Men still carry guns on their hips. Horse travel is still the way of the West. But there is the mention of an automobile, brief as it is.

Nesbitt’s hero, Jimmy Clevis, is not completely jaded. He’s no Travis McGee. Nor is he a hard shell closet romantic like Philip Marlowe. He’s different from the normal mold, far more rural than urban. It’s that twist, among others, that elevates this story.

Clevis is down and out. He’s not working right now, and not too worried about it. There’s a Mexican girl in town he’s sort of sweet on, but he doesn’t break a sweat over her. He gets a message from a local swell named Milton Earlywine that there’s a job for the asking. Clevis talks to the man, but doesn’t like the setup. Earlywine has had a saddle stolen and he’d like it back. No, he can’t go to the sheriff. He just needs a man to get it back. The whole thing sounds shifty and Jimmy doesn’t want to take the job.

Coincidentally there’s another man looking for help. His name is Tull and he’s looking for the illegitimate son he fathered years ago. He’s got a line on the boy but needs help in pinpointing the now grown man and bringing him word of his heritage. Jimmy likes Tull a lot better than Earlywine so he takes the job. But before he can leave town he finds out that Earlywine has been murdered.

The trail leads south, where Jimmy captures the attention of some local toughs. He also runs into his Mexican sweetheart who coincidentally is travelling, and the two make plans to meet on their way back home. Along the way Jimmy uncovers some tawdry facts and goes toe-to-toe with those hoping to keep the secrets hidden. Thematically, this is a classic noir story.

Specifically, Nesbitt borrows a great deal from Raymond Chandler. Early on there is a scene that recalls an early moment from The Big Sleep. Nesbitt’s hero meets with an old man (Earlywine) whose enormous weight makes him invalid. The scene takes place in the man’s home. It is hot and humid and Jimmy sweats as he listens to the old man ask him to do some less than savory work. These pages live in the shadows of Marlowe meeting the General.
But it is more than this one scene that calls Chandler to mind. Although not a private detective, Jimmy operates in that capacity. The first person narrative is leisurely, its edges rounded and full of character. Things take place almost in slow motion. Early on you can see the train wreck coming but there’s really nothing you can do to stop it. And Nesbitt’s hero is so wrapped up in it that he can’t see what’s right in front of his face. This is very much in the style of the classic noir stories, of men trapped in an ever-spiraling disaster, none of it of their own making. The story and the writing draw the reader in and drive right over that cliff along with the hero. Nesbitt rarely spends time on things that are not worthwhile. Although not as sharply written as Chandler’s Marlowe, the character of Jimmy comes out as distinct and interesting.

Nesbitt builds a pretty good mystery. There are several twists and turns, and one or two events that are a surprise (i.e., his “General” getting killed early on, something that is used with other events to cast a poor light on Jimmy). But he has trouble ending the story. His McGuffin – a saddle with a secret message – is never fully explained, even though it ties prominently into the death of a couple of men. Nesbitt offers no final twist. He so readily uses the Chandler model right up to the end that the finale feels simple and empty.

Chandler would have used a femme fatale-style ending, as he did in The Big Sleep. Nesbitt has the opportunity here but does not use it, deciding instead to intimate further growth in a romantic relationship. While this has its merits, we’re not even treated to a final kiss between the two characters, something that he had been built up as the story progressed. It would have been a nice touch and might have given the story an actual ending.

Nesbitt also does not have a final scene with Jimmy’s employer. Jimmy is supposed to report to Tull about his illegitimate son but decides to blow it off with a letter, which seems somewhat cowardly and rushed. A final scene – one showing the effect of the death of his sons (the recognized heir as well has the illegitimate one) on his employer – would have been far more satisfying than how Nesbitt ended the story.

Still, Nesbitt’s story is excellent and worth reading. For the most part the mystery holds. And when things become obvious you still have the smooth writing and captivating characters to carry you through to the end.