Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review of Bird Dog by Philip Reed (280 Steps, 2014; originally pub 1997)

Harold Dodge is middle aged, divorced with two kids, hangs round strip joints, and waging a one man war against the car dealership industry by publishing books that reveal their shady practices and gives advice on getting a fair deal.  Harold know what he is talking about; he worked as a bird dog whilst in college, sending naive potential buyers to Joe Covo’s dealership where they could be fleeced of cash, before then working for Covo on the lot.  However, he got the sack after refusing to stiff an old lady.  Fifteen years later he’s still bitter and when a co-worker, Marianne, approaches him about how to unwind an unfavourable deal procured by Vito Fiorre, the contracts guy for Covo, Harold is happy to help out.  Almost immediately, however, things start to go wrong and Harold and Marianne become waged in a battle with Fiorre and Covo that soon escalates into murder and various forms of mayhem. 

Bird Dog is billed as ‘car noir’.  It certainly revolves around the car industry, but is probably better described as a screwball noir -- a comic crime caper mixed with a hardboiled tale of swindles, white collar crime, strippers and prostitution, and violence, with a colourful cast of characters.  Think Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Joe Lansdale, Janet Evanovich, for a  comparison in style and substance.  It works remarkably well, with the story moving at a quick pace, with plenty of twists and turns, as the three main characters each up the ante.  In so doing, each makes a continued series of miscalculations, in turn making their position worse and forcing them to continue on their path.  And once they are ensnared in the mayhem, there’s no real way out other than to let it unwind to its inevitable bloody conclusion.  As with all screwball noirs the story is a little forced at times, but that's usually what makes them fun, and Reed manages to teeter along the high wire of farce, in the main because it's easy to imagine car dealerships to be as portrayed and the strength of characterisation.  Harold is a regular guy who’s naturally economical with the truth.  Marianne, an immigrant from Guatemala, is determined to not to be scammed.  Vito is a snake oil charmer who’s prepared to stick to his guns.  And they are surrounded by a mix of memorable others -- Kim, a stripper with a soft spot for Harold, hardnosed cops, a sneaky boss with the body beautiful wife, a couple of head office hard asses, and Harold’s brother and his loser friends who are making his father’s life a misery.  Overall, noir meets black humour leading to an original and entertaining read. 

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