Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spam & Eggs [Review]

Title: Spam & Eggs: A Johnny DeNovo Mystery 
Author: Andrew Kent [official web site]
Copyright: 2009
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Mystery (Hard-Boiled)

Summary: Johnny DeNovo, ultra-cool and world famous detective, gets spam in his email box. Well, who doesn't? And why would such a mundane occurrence trigger an investigation? As with all great detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, when between cases, Johnny is bored. It is due to this lack of significant brain stimulation that he notices some peculiarities in his spam messages and sets out to make sense of the problem. Supported by both his beautiful publicity agent, Mona Landau, and his techno-geek friend, Tucker Thiesen, Johnny follows clues that take him from his Boston condo to the rolling hills of Virginia's horse country as well as to the side streets and art galleries of Paris. 
Andrew Kent successfully delivers in this debut both an interesting sleuth as well as a cyber-crime that surprises and challenges the thoughtful reader. Most interestingly, he articulates the back-of-the-mind processes that permit a detective to understand what it is that has taken place in a crime, both in terms of the actual behavior as well as misdirected perception of behavior which allows the criminal to believe his or her acts have gone unnoticed. Just as Miss Marple would solve a crime by thinking of some seemingly unrelated occurrence in her village of St. Mary Mead, Johnny Denovo is a sleuth who toys mentally with metaphors,allowing useful connections to surface in his thinking and succeed in his public persona.   
Pacing is good and the laughs are not infrequent. DeNovo may be a sly send-up of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character, but there is sufficient action of the sort that Chandler would applaud. The setting is modern-day and all of the technology is futuristic. Normally, this would not be a formula that I would find engaging (preferring as I do a good cozy Miss Marple) but Kent has mastered the technique of ending chapters in ways that induce one to keep turning pages. About half-way through the novel, I was sure I had figured out the identity of the mole who keeps Johnny DeNovo under close watch, but I was charmed when I realized that I was thoroughly mistaken in my conclusion. The book avoids predictability, in part because of the running themes that deepen the story. Kent touches on the nature of metaphors, self-presentation in both a physical and virtual sense, the nature of detection, and the brain processes necessarily employed in solving puzzles. Recommended.
Extract: The site linked to above has excerpts from chapters one and three, but I've bulleted a gem or two here worth noting.
  • It wasn't good for weapons to become metaphors for security.
  • Choice and chance separated people only very faintly, yet gazing across the divides made people seem very different.
  • ...he always thought he sensed behaviors changing as the light faded, as if criminality, identity and possibility emerged as illumination dimmed. 
  • ...savoring the touch of chaos he'd injected 
Also Relevant: This book is self-published. Like many readers and many acquisition librarians, I would tend to consider such a statement immediate cause for dismissal if not outright disdain. Do not make that mistake. Kent writes a satisfying, literate, and neatly executed tale of detection.  There is a balance in Spam & Eggs between the logical structure of the mystery form chosen by the author, and the nuances of perception and misdirection caused by the reader's tendency to make assumptions (in much the same way that a detective is required to do in the course of his work).  Indeed, the title itself playfully draws on words and symbols which percolate throughout the material. This book didn't have to be self-published because the author had reason to fear  the wash-wring-press of traditional editorial work. The book is self-published because the author chose to experiment with new mechanisms for distribution and there is a world of difference in the experience. Spam & Eggs isn't perfect; there were one or two annoying questions that occurred to me by the end, but the questions were more niggling slips rather than significant gaps in the narrative.
The book is worth your notice and your time. Personally, I look forward to the next title in the Johnny Denovo series, The Green Monster.