Remember the gag definition of an intellectual as someone who could listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger?
That same untainted intellectual could probably recommend this book without a qualm. It's energetically written. Its characters and settings are wonderfully drawn. Its dialogue is so real that it seems overheard.
But--the point of the gag -- tabulae rasae we are not. Give us a novel wherein the central characters are a tough New York City detective and a girl reporter who becomes his main squeeze, give us a few homicides to be solved, and we are going to expect -- well, a police procedural that ends with someone picking up the silver bullet at the close: comeuppance, poetic justice.
We don't want one of the characters saying, as one of them does on the penultimate page of this book, "Quiet as it's kept, you can get away with murder. Sometimes."
This is not to say that the good guys always have to triumph. It is to say, though, that the conflicts which are created have to be resolved. There's no way around this in the sort of novel Nat Hentoff has given us, relying as it does on so many of the aforementioned familiar genre elements.
Hentoff, no question, is good. That's the reason we reach for the many strands of plot he sets a-waving. The book skips, even within its chapters, from one thread to the next. We get two bodega killings, two West Village homicides and several gangland executions besides. But Hentoff leaves the threads, ties no real knot. He gives us a slice-of-life whodunit, and that's a contradiction.
The book is all the more maddening because it is rife with action, complication, with life. If there had been a story as well, Hentoff's "Blues for Charlie Darwin" might be touted as another John Gregory Dunne "True Confessions."
Despite this basic failure, the novel does have a large, varied and convincing cast, well worth meeting. Hentoff describes each character briefly, and with a master's touch. There's Detective Noah Green, for instance, "a tall bulky man of about fifty, with short brown hair and the face of an underexercised Saint Bernard." Or Whipple, a stoolie, whose "features were those of an attractive but dead baby."
And Hentoff does the squalid oh so well. We smile, in fact, when we might have only squirmed. When, for instance, police Lt. Fortunato Randazzo, considering the puzzling circumstances of a murder, says of the victim, "If Kathleen had been a decent woman, she'd have been killed right." Or when Noah Green, awaiting a suspect in Washington Square Park, surveys the passers-by:
"He tried to reconstruct what he could remember of their careers. Charges, not dispositions. Two second-degree assaults, two or three menacings (s---, no point counting misdemeanors), one manslaughter second degree, two second-degree criminal possessions of stolen property, at least four criminal possessions of controlled substances in varying degrees, a bunch of third-degree criminal sales of marijuana and one first-degree rape. There was more, but he couldn't sort it out."
Hentoff delivers, too, where his avowed fans might expect him to. There's lots of jazz talk, and he takes us to nightspots like The Baked Alaska and The Lone Star Cafe. Noah Green is a jazz buff, and -- via Hentoff's descriptive talents -- generous with his expert analysis:
"Green heard a hard, gritty, shouting tenor saxophone. It was moving in and out of the chords and, by the time he came to the door, the horn was stomping and smashing the chords so he wasn't sure anymore what the tune was. It was just sound. Ugly screeching sound coming from a saxophone looking bigger than the crisp, frizzy-haired girl behind it, her eyes shut, her thin body crouching, as if for some kind of kill."
Alas, none of these very good things about the book -- or even all of these very good things combined -- is enough to override the all too linear and fade-away plot.