I always think a good hard-boiled crime novel ought to read like I’m sliding into a warm bath with slit wrists, so smooth I’m grinning through the bleed-out. Charlie Huston’s CAUGHT STEALING reads like that.
If you want to you can check out an interview with Charlie Huston.
Hank Johnson, once a high-school baseball hero in California, got his leg stomped along with his future, and subsequently managed to kill a friend in a car accident. Since then, he’s knocked around lower Manhattan, ruining the rest of his potential while working as a bartender who’s hard on the merchandise. At the end of another summer, Hank finds himself catsitting and lamenting that his San Francisco Giants are sucking wind in their pursuit of the wild card slot. Then, two men he doesn’t know show up at his bar to pick a fight, beating him so badly he loses a kidney. Just as a noir reader hopes, this is only the beginning.
To continue my shamefully mixed metaphors, while Hank figures out the contours of the latrine he’s fallen into, he collides with a Rogues’ Gallery of sadistic freaks and stone-cold killers. The story gets bleak and frightening, but it’s fast-paced and funny, too, as long as your suturing staples aren’t the ones being pulled out with pliers. The body count is impressive, both in quantity and its cultivation of reader dread regarding any character’s safety, no matter how appealing or innocent. Shocking, but creative violence is done. Chemical vacations are sought. First aid worthy of a school nurse is administered for every ouch from concussions to internal injuries. Forget Chris Rock’s Robitussin bit. Hank’s ubiquitous libation is hydrogen peroxide, his futile, fizzy benediction against doom.
Among things unusual, but nice, for noir is the spiraling, thriller-sized scale. The scenario which first involves a few lowlifes does not remain intimate. As it increases in severity, it expands in reach, affecting whole groups of people and finally the entire city. As a style issue, I’ll mention briefly the lack of quotation marks or dialogue tags. The author uses a long dash before speech, and that’s clear enough, but though he intersperses actions to indicate who’s talking, I found myself occasionally counting backwards to make sure who said what. (However, I also have to do that with Elmore Leonard- hush my mouth-and it doesn’t spoil the read for me.)
Though Hank’s life and identity are disintegrating, he can’t stop tracking the Giants’ march toward the playoffs. I wish this device felt more meaningfully integrated for me than as a date stamp, however, this novel just as uncommonly charts another, even more compelling progression at work. Noir doesn’t exist without its hardened, distrustful, violent characters. As Hank Johnson thrashes and loses and learns, CAUGHT STEALING takes you on the factory tour.