So a few weeks ago on Aliens Under the Vatican, Nick joined us to talk about his noir short story anthology Hungover & Handcuffed. We all discussed our thoughts on the work on the show, of course, but I've been wanting to go a little more in-depth on my own since then.
In the interest of full disclosure, Nick and I have known each other for almost ten years now, and that whole time he's been a quality writer, which is what's made me excited to review this anthology. As long as I've known him, he's always been practicing, and has always worked to hone his craft. In his personal time when he's just experimenting to improve, he's covered genres from horror to high fantasy to noir of all varieties. As I said above, this collection is decidedly in the noir camp, and it's a subject Nick is intimately familiar with, both in book form and in film and television. He's not just a big fan, though, but a student of the genre, dissecting it and making sure he knows what makes it tick. And that devotion to the subject is what helps Hungover & Handcuffed stand out as an excellent, fun second e-book offering after Nick's dystopian Put the Sepia On.
The first story in Nick's book is also the one from which his collection gets its name, and it's a pretty hearty introduction to the character of Mina Davis. As the lead-in, it grabs the reader's attention with enjoyable dialogue and some excellent descriptions to go with a little bit of good old-fashioned shock value. Nick decides to start off by throwing Mina, an almost prototypical hard boiled private eye, into a nicely topical but nowhere near cliché setting: Mina matching witticisms with an eloquent, debonair serial killer who's been too slick to be caught by the cops. If that description of the antagonist rings familiar to fans of Dexter or Hannibal, then you've been paying attention, because a villain like that is the perfect foil for any sort of no-nonsense Philip Marlowe-style gumshoe. The cherry on top is the fact that, as I said before, Nick knows noir inside and out, so this doesn't come off as some Raymond Chandler fanfiction taking place during an episode of Bates Motel. And he also knows how to write a woman in a tense situation without making her frail or some sort of damsel in distress. Mina, in this story, has definitely gotten herself into a pickle, but she's not a cardboard cutout lacking agency and waiting for a knight in shining armor to help her. With most of the story taking place inside Mina's head, you get a real sense of who she is when the chips are down and she needs an escape plan, and none of it comes off as weak or insulting.
The second story, Matamoros, is a real winner, though, and a wonderful followup to the compact, almost claustrophobic (in a good way) episode that came before it. A quick summary is that Mina has to prevent an assassination, and I don't want to go into much more than that for fear of spoiling the end, because there's a hell of a nice little twist. It also builds on the character of Mina established in Hungover & Handcuffed, by showing us a side of her when her back's not against the wall and she's got one up on her usual bad luck. We get to see that she's human, with likes and dislikes, and Nick uses this story as an opportunity to not just expand Mina's character, but her setting as well. We get a feel for her usual stomping grounds, showing us there's more to her world than a dingy office and a jail cell downtown when she gets too nosy for the cops' comfort.
The final story, Marty, like the first two, serves as an important building block in the larger portrait of Mina Davis Nick paints for us. I don't mean to sound excessively flowery, but Nick is using the three stories to give us a complete view of the main character in this book, and he does an excellent job of it. And the facet of Mina we're given in Marty involves her past and how she treats her friends, instead of the clients and cold adversaries of the previous two adventures. It's not a pretty story, but it's important, if Nick takes us on more adventures with Mina Davis, to see that she's a fully conceptualized inhabitant of her universe. And her universe is full of hard luck, but she perseveres and makes some tough choices in this final chapter, and much like the first story, it gives us an insight into what makes Mina tick.
All three stories, taken on their own, would be fun little tidbits with which you could waste a few minutes and not regret it. As a whole, it doesn't take much longer to finish the book (it is just a breezy 40 pages), but it does showcase a rock solid noir novella from a person who is intimately familiar with the genre.
Now, like I said at the beginning, I've known Nick for a long time, and I've also consumed a lot of noir media, from the engrossing and entertaining to Hammett-wannabe crap. Nick's book is not the wannabe crap. It's a great read, and in Mina Davis he gives us a world-weary private investigator that doesn't feel like he just checked a bunch of characteristics off a list and called it a day. Read the book, support a new author with a quick buck, and if you've never read anything noir-related before, or if you're a grizzled veteran of the genre, you'll have a great time diving in to these three excellent short stories.