Friday, March 25, 2011

Review of The Main by Trevanian (1976, edition Old Street Publishing)

The Main is Boulevard Saint Laurent, the heart of immigrant Montreal and an artery of the underworld and its vices. Police Lieutenant Claude LaPointe patrols the street and the neighbourhoods surrounding it as a patrician – a ruler who keeps peace and order, using his power, influence and street knowledge to marshal the drifters, cheats, thieves and other assorted lowlifes and people on the make. LaPointe is an old style cop that uses embarrassment, threats, intimidation and the odd bit of violence to stop the street descending into chaos. He’s an anachronism as policing changes; his old style methods out of place in a modern force. He is a rule unto himself, ignoring departmental procedure, paperwork and orders, and the senior management want him retired. The job though is his life. His wife died years before, with only her memory and the daughters that never were keeping him company. When a young man is found murdered in a side alley, LaPointe takes charge. A young, principled cop is assigned to work with him and despite their differences they work together to try and solve the puzzle, and in doing so come to see themselves in different ways.

The Main is principally a character driven novel in two senses. First, it is a detailed exploration of a neighbourhood, its geography, people, dynamics and relationships. Second, it is an in-depth portrait of a man and his lifeworld, outlook and philosophy, and how he relates to those people who populate his life. Trevanian really excels at both using well constructed prose. There is real insight, understanding and perceptive psychological and philosophical observation in his writing. He’s particularly good at teasing out the ambivalent, shifting, complex and sometimes paradoxical relationships between people and the places they inhabit. The murder and the investigation is almost incidental; a foil through which to explore the Main and LaPointe. Which is the one slight weakness of the novel. The mystery wasn’t particularly compelling and the resolution seemed somewhat weak and contrived. But this really isn’t a police procedural in the conventional sense. It is much more than that. If the murder element of the plot had received the same kind of attention that the character portrayal and sense of place then it would have been exceptional. As it was, it’s damn fine piece of writing and well worth a read.


George said...

More evidence that Great Minds Think Alike. Last Friday, I reviewed Trevanian's Shibumi for FORGOTTEN BOOKS. And, the next day, I reviewed Don Winslow's sequel to Shibumi, SATORI.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

One thing you missed out on -- the incredible detail Trevanian imbued his novel with. Montreal is a very difficult city to pin down, even for long-time citizens. It's a municipality suffering from multiple personality disorder. It's not a melting pot -- it's a stir-fry, and the yin-yang push-pull of all those disparate elements is notoriously hard to nail. It's one reason why many suspected the mysterious Trevanian might be a Montrealer -- or at least Canadian -- at the time.

I'll have to re-read it soon, see how it stands up. Plus ca change...