The progenitors of the hard boiled detective genre came at it no differently. Pulp masters Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler gave us The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (yes, they were books first) with lines like, “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel.” Denis Johnson embraces the genre without hesitation with Nobody Move. In fact, he meets it head-on like the windscreen of big twin Harley Davidson against a plasma gorged mosquito on a rolling Southern highway.
Mr. Johnson’s first foray into the crime novel might make you think it’s all he’s ever done. However, his last novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award and covered more serious ground (Vietnam and military secrets) and did so in many more pages (614). This work by contrast was written on a deadline and tips the scales at just over 40,000 words (about 190 pages). It first appeared as a serial in Playboy magazine which, I suppose, is where you might go to find modern noir (?).
Despite the limitations inherent in writing in that fashion, our distinguished author delivers. We already now something about Sol Fuchs when he meets our heroine and he looks “at her with something other than the hunger of a man. Something more like envy. After she’d reached puberty, her mother had looked at her like that.”
We know a lot less about the Tall Man when we meet him. There is a palpable sense of danger when his introduction is met with “Is that monster still with him?” He ends up being something different than we first expect, but there is no doubt that the Tall Man proves a danger to everyone by the time this ride comes to an end.
We don’t want to spoil it (and won’t) but just so you do know, there are road trips of sorts, bikers, plenty of gun shots, ex-cons, more than one car wreck, veterans, and a maybe a few more sexual encounters than if it wasn’t first published where it was. Like most pulp, the story has plenty of gaps. The gaps aren’t there to puzzle you though, but rather are left out so as to not detract from the chase. The dialogue is typical of the genre – tough, quick and direct. It is not of the caliber of Elmore Leonard or even Carl Hiaasen, but easily conveys the classic hard boiled edge.
The heroine mentioned above is only a literary protagonist, and not to be confused with one of the good guys. It isn’t until Part Four, the final installment of the original serial, that we realize we are secretly rooting for sketchy duo at the center of this novel. No long after sucking us into that trap, Mr. Johnson reminds us that these are no kind of heroes.
The book ends exactly when it needs to – before we can decide what we might think of all these people and the things that they do. Sort of a like a great college football championship between two teams not our own, we get the adrenaline of the big game without the hangover that might accompany a loss by our alma mater. Denis Johnson pitches the game he meant to – delivering a loose, lively adventure for both the author and the reader to enjoy.