Friday, March 5, 2010

Owen Hill creates an intriguing Berkeley thriller

“A thriller set in Berkeley?” I thought. Well, why not. And Owen Hill does a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of life in Berkeley, even as it is threatened by a major corporation.

The Incredible Double

What is wonderful about Owen Hill’s new Clay Blackburn mystery, The Incredible Double (28 pages, PM Press, $13.95), is its rich evocation of life in Berkeley, California. Anyone who has spent time in Berkeley, as I have, will recognize all the places Hill mentions. That results in a pleasantly nostalgic encounter with the events of this lurid novel.

I say “lurid” only because of the emphasis on particular sexual exploits, which form a central feature of the plot and even find their way into the title. As insistent as the descriptions of sex are in this novel, they still pale beside the evocations of Berkeley street and café life. The true strength of the novel lies in this evocation. Whether it is a quick espresso at Café Trieste or a search for books at Cody’s. Hill’s descriptions are vivid and evocative.

The plot, such as it is, involves the owner of a large national chain of drug stores, a shady character called Wally, who becomes Clay’s nemesis. At first he seems to hire Clay to discover who has been writing vilifying statements about him, but very quickly Clay understands that Wally works with a series of doubles and he has, for no clear reason, been both duped and marked by the avenging drug lord.

Clay has a trusty and motley band of accomplices, true Berkeley stereotypes. A middle-aged lefty who has as odd a relation to society as Clay, Marvin is ready to match him espresso for espresso and help him out of the impossible jams in which he finds himself. Bailey Doa, a transsexual former FBI agent, supplies the muscle- and fire-power, and she also knows how to drive a getaway car when required to.

Clay himself is squeamish about guns, and he has no license as a private investigator. He is by trade and temperament a book scout, which means he goes to estate sales and used bookstores looking for treasures that he can resell. This doesn’t make him a great living, but he does seem to squeak by.

He bases his operations in his Chandler Apartments place, where he is as likely to climb over homeless people in the stairway as he is to watch his neighbors conducting their personal lives. This is another Berkeley locale that is vividly presented, and notes about the novelist reveal that he lived in this very apartment building while composing this novel.

I have to confess that the plot leaves me confused for most of the time. But that doesn’t affect my appreciation for the wonderful characters who appear throughout. Chief among this is Grace, a kind of double agent, whose tantalizing sexual prowess becomes an obsession of the narrator. There is also Larry, seemingly feckless ne’re-do-well, who turns out to own a lot of Berkeley property, including Clay’s own charmed Chandler apartments. The villain is also charmingly slimy, just like anyone who is the founder of "Jerry’s Drugs and More."

This novel is fun, and I will definitely look up the earlier volumes in the Clay Blackburn series. A blurb on the cover of this novel calls it “Berkeley Noir.” I am charmed with that notion.

Owen Hill


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