BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Declan Hughes
2010, William Morrow
Filed under: Mystery
In an early scene in City of Lost Girls, the crew of the movie Nighttown falls all over themselves trying to find an extra who hasn’t been seen in several hours (nearly half a day!). This extra is crucial to the making of the movie, and, if she isn’t found, millions of dollars could be wasted on reshoots. Luckily, private eye Ed Loy is already there, and already working for the director on a different, unrelated matter.
And so, it’s only page 12 and we already know the lay of the land: City of Lost Girls will be a mystery founded on thin logic, absurd coincidences, overstuffed gestures, forced authorial machinations, and plain old unimaginative writing. It only gets worse from here.
The review part of this review is pretty much over: it’s bad, nuff said. From here on out, I’m simply going to list the things that made it so painful to read.
For starters, Hughes writes his women with a cliched but still vicious misogyny. Here’s a passage about Loy’s girlfriend:
Yes, she feels convulsed by occasional surges of the Where Are We Going With This pheromone, but that is as if to say, even if she has no interest in watching Desperate Housewives, she feels on some level that she is obligated; in other words, she’s a woman, and occasionally she feels a compulsion to corner a man and emotionally blackmail him into making promises neither truly believes will bring them happiness.
To make matters worse, Hughes has a different female character later accuse Dashiell Hammett of misogynist writing. At best, this is an attempt to make that character sound shrewish and stupid (a hardboiled crime writer in the 1920s was misogynist? egad!); at worst, it’s an unintentional display of stupidity on Hughes’s part.
Moving on, the prose in City is quite poor. The dialogue is excruciating (Irish idioms only go so far), and the banter is awkward and juvenile. Here’s an example—in this scene, Loy (speaking first) banters with Keith, who has just paid his respects to the remains of his long-lost sister:
“Do you have a store?”
“Comics. Keith’s Komix. With, I reget to say, a K and an X.”
“You didn’t have a choice.”
“I think there’s a federal law.”
“I thought part of that law said you had to have a goatee, and a beer gut, and a Slayer T-shirt, and a baseball cap on backward.”
“Although I choose not to, I can put my hair in a ponytail. Otherwise, what can I say? I Am Not Like the Other Comic Book Guys.”
Yes, he regrets not that his sister is dead, but that he spelled the name of his store funny. Realistic!
It’s not just the dialogue, though. Hughes’s laziness or lack of talent also extends into his prose. Here’s an example:
…his ex-wife Paula would have him killed if she heard any to the contrary. Or rather, knowing Paula, who once stabbed a boyfriend of hers who was putting the moves on Naomi in the hand with a screwdriver and then expressed regret that she had missed what she was actually aiming for, namely, his balls, she would do the job herself.
That’s a pitiful, unreadable sentence. It not only conveys a trite, overblown sentiment, it also bears the stink of “screw it, that’s good enough.” Laziness is the worst of writerly crimes.
But, to be entirely fair, Hughes delivers some gems, too. There are three of them. Here’s literally the best paragraph in City, spoken by Loy’s right-hand man:
“Because nobody wants complete honesty. Complete honesty is what you feel slither across your soul at four in the morning. That’s too much for anyone to carry around all day.”
These bright points come along every eight dozen pages or so, just often enough to remind you that the rest of what you’re reading is irredeemable drek.
Hughes’s greatest transgression—beyond even his chronic laziness—is that the mystery itself is terribly written. The premise is this: someone in a famous director’s inner circle is a serial killer who’s been active for more than 15 years. It’s one of four people, and it’s a classic game of who-can-you-trust.
Unfortunately, Loy never checks alibis, or plays the four off each other, or sets up traps, or stakes people out, or any of the dozens of techniques that detectives use to catch criminals. Instead, Loy grills everybody about the personalities and personal histories of the four suspects. (Ironically, Ed Loy himself has no personality. His primary character traits are that he gets beaten up a lot and he has a girlfriend.)
The entire novel is basically Loy trying to profile the four suspects, in a way, but in Hughes’s meaty hands this makes for useless, frustrating reading. Even after dozens of pages worth of long, boring personality profiles, Loy has absolutely no idea who might have done it. He couldn’t possibly know, because all of this—the entire novel—is painstakingly set up to not reveal the killer.
And since there’s no actual investigating going on, Hughes has to bloat the plot with meaningless passages about Loy’s girlfriend, and an utterly extraneous subplot about an old rival of Loy’s who’s getting out of jail and wants revenge.
In order to create false tension, Hughes also includes passages from the killer’s point of view, carefully engineered passages that never give a single clue that couldn’t apply to all four suspects. There is no narrowing down, there are no theories, there are only fake ploys by Hughes to trick readers into thinking there are developments.
In one such ploy, the killer obsesses over a brand of Prosecco that comes in a blue bottle. Then, at a dinner, one of the four suspects asks for the blue-bottled Prosecco. Hughes lets it hang out there for half a page before revealing that all four are obsessed with that Prosecco.
In this way, City becomes a series of cheap parlor tricks that ultimately amount to nothing. Late in the case, Loy himself says this:
…since I don’t have enough in the way of concrete new evidence, or even substantial conjecture, to add, sleep overtakes me. … It all adds up to nothing. Not even a hunch.
That’s after 230 pages! Not a single hunch! We trundle on like this for another 40 pages, and then Loy discovers the first real clue in the case and solves it in one fell swoop.
As if that wasn’t unsatisfying enough, Hughes has the utter audacity to write this after the killer is discovered:
At a certain stage, evil becomes a mystery, transcending all considerations of biography and motivation.
On its own, that line could be the jumping off point of an interesting, intellectual rumination on crime. But when Hughes writes it, he’s just spent 300 pages drily parsing the histories of four men in order to guess which of them is a killer, only to conclude that he could never have guessed. It’s as if Hughes wanted to prove that City is nothing more than an insulting, empty waste of time.
And he has. Do not read this book.
Similar reads: for great detective fiction, try Noir, by Robert Coover, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. If you prefer a non-detective-centric mystery, try The Last Child, by John Hart, and Dark Places, by Gillan Flynn.