Black, White and Predictable All Over
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
By Robert Daley
Harcourt. 360 pp. $24
In a literary age when every fictional detective seems to need a tic, or an "interesting" past, or a cat, there's something satisfyingly retro about Robert Daley's Vincent Conte, who has only his own grumpiness to recommend him. Cashiered from the NYPD after slugging the superior officer who was sleeping with his wife, Conte's not looking for redemption. He's signed on with Probe Inc., an outfit specializing in ex-cops for private hire. "Conte was a brusque kind of man," Daley offers upfront, and if such a sentence seems to usher in the ghost of Mickey Spillane, let's be generous and allow in the ghost of Hemingway as well, or at least Hemingway's Thomas Hudson, the hero of "Islands in the Stream," whose motto Vince Conte could easily take for his own: "Get it straight . . . love you lose. Honor has been gone a long time. Duty you do."
Conte's duty -- his new assignment from Probe -- is to investigate some sleazy goings-on in a tiny, unnamed Grand Duchy that feels a lot like Monaco. Tony Murano, an ex-tennis pro married to the duke's daughter, the very pregnant Maria Cristina, is being blackmailed for some incriminating photos taken of him poolside with a naked woman. The photos appear in an Italian magazine soon after the birth of Maria Cristina's baby, and she promptly leaves Tony in a royal huff. Her father the duke is not unhappy about this -- he never cared for the lug his daughter married -- but her mother, Lady Charlotte, believes that more is going on than meets the eye, and that Tony is perhaps being framed. She makes a call to Probe, and Probe sends Conte over to see if he can smell a rat.
It's a conventional, not particularly thrilling setup, but at least in his first pages, Daley seems genuinely interested in character. Tony Murano is a more compelling young hunk than his bio suggests, a working-class Italian using libido and ambition to pull himself out of his parents' world. Lady Charlotte is much more than a Grace Kelly clone. Daley, the author of "Prince of the City," achieves some genuine melancholy in his portrait of this aging, never particularly beautiful woman who has bartered an authentic royal British pedigree for a high-profile marriage to a parvenu who likes to embarrass her in public. Conte's response after chatting up the royal couple ("This is a dysfunctional family, Conte told himself") doesn't win Daley any points for elegance or originality; still, you find yourself caring for these people and settling in for the ride.
But it's not to be any fun. A certain tiredness begins to seize Daley's storytelling (this is his 17th novel) as soon as Conte leaves the palace walls and begins investigating. Occasionally, Daley will try for a lean, James Salteresque evocation of the Riviera landscape ("the jeweled necklaces that were the boulevards"), but mostly he assumes a reader's postcard familiarity with the place. Sadly, as the novel progresses, the slackness of the writing extends to character: We meet a corrupt cop in Milan; a sleazy photographer on the French Riviera (whom Daley, for some pranksterish reason, has named after the New York stage actor George Grizzard); a girl in Amsterdam (Conte's love interest) who works as a high-class stripper but remains somehow unsoiled by her surroundings. We've met these characters too many times before. By the time, on Page 193, that Vince Conte hops into a cab in Amsterdam and commands, without a trace of irony, "Follow that bicycle," I began to lose hope for the novel.
But maybe I'd already lost it, because Daley had, by that point, committed an unpardonable sin, as far as thriller mechanics go. In the worst of the big-budget, multi-star international thrillers of the '60s, there was always a point when someone, left alone in a room, picked up a phone. We never heard what the guy -- Michael Caine or José Ferrer, or whoever -- said. It didn't matter. Picking up the phone and looking dark and skulking told us everything about the guy's place in the movie.
Early in "Pictures," a guy picks up a phone. From this point on, there's no mystery at all. We know who's responsible for the pictures, the setup, the naked girl. You can forgive a thriller writer almost anything, but not that.