Filler content with Californian deities

This review appeared back in Black Static #18:-


Tim Lees

(Legend Press paperback, 319pp, £6.99)

Tim Lees’ first novel is set in the 60s and is the story of Nicky Cavell, an unofficial PI to the counter-culture whose marriage appears to have broken up and for whom London just now happens to be inhospitable. Nicky accepts a job in LA, playing minder to self-destructive rock star Jack Bannister, his brief to keep the irascible singer sober enough to perform at a major concert. Then he runs up against the teasing Lee-Ann, who nearly separates him from his cock on their first encounter, but wants him to help her find a friend who has fallen under the spell of cult leader Courtnay. Only Lee-Ann is not being entirely honest and she has something very different in mind, an agenda that will involve Nicky in murder and a visit to the isolated ranch of the charismatic Charlie, who is surrounded by a family of followers.

Described by the author as ‘psychedelic noir’, this is an impressive debut in which accomplished short story writer Lees (you may have seen his work in Black Static and elsewhere) does almost everything right. Emphasis on almost, but we’ll get to that in a moment. For now let’s accentuate the positive.

And as far as that goes, the characterisation is most definitely an asset, with some larger than life members to the cast, such as Jack Bannister, the epitome of the booze sodden rock star stereotype, hiding a good heart beneath his careless, bad ass façade, damaging all around him, though in the end the only one truly hurt is himself. At the other end of the spectrum we have the sinister and charismatic Charlie (whose real identity Lees tries a little too hard to keep under wraps – it soon becomes obvious, who Charlie is), a deluded megalomaniac with no sense of perspective, his mindset reinforced by adoring groupies. The two men are yin and yang, one a success and the other a sad wannabe, compensating for his lack of recognition through mind games and bullying those weaker than himself. Protagonist Nicky Cavell, who interacts with both of them, is an interesting example of the hero with feet of clay, ostensibly in love with estranged wife Denise, but open to other offers and realising that he is in part responsible for that estrangement. The flaws that undo Bannister are written small in Cavell, so that while occasionally giving in to temptation and willing to bend the rules he never loses his way completely. Female lead Lee-Ann is both sexually experienced and strangely innocent, a wonderful contradiction in terms, a young woman who has seen rather too much and learned rather too little.

The feel of the sixties, with the sense both that anything is possible and an end of days vibe is captured perfectly, showing that Lees has done his research, piling on those little touches of authenticity that convince the reader he knows what he’s writing about. Chandler and the hard boiled school of detective fiction are an obvious influence in the language of the book, with Cavell’s first person narration cynical and self-mocking, littered with enough wisecracks and linguistic panache to pass muster as the real thing, while retaining a sense of the quintessentially English about it. The plot is a tangled web, with evil cult leaders and sexed up interludes, snuff films and hints of black magic rituals gone wrong all in the mix. While it’s not horror as such many of the elements should appeal to readers of that genre, with particular kudos to the extended drug trip towards the end of the book which put me in mind of the work of John Franklin Bardin. And that brings us to my one reservation. The story gets a bit contrived and predictable towards the end, so that it doesn’t so much reach a resolution as run out of steam. Of course Lees is somewhat handicapped as to what he can do, having used a historical figure as one of his characters and real life not providing the closure of fiction. That aside, this was an enjoyable book and one that does credit to the private eye genre without really adding anything new to the canon.

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