canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Terminal Avenue
by Jim Christy
Exstasis Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

Terminal Avenue is the third installment in Jim Christy's Vancouver Trilogy, featuring the tough-talking, ever-quip-ready, acerbic detective Gene Castle, and revisiting the hardboiled style of such classic pulp writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. Castle is very much a Sam Spade-esque private detective; ambiguously amoral, down-and-out, tenuously tolerated by the cops, friends with hobos, whores, and every bartender in town. People start getting killed on page 17 of Terminal Avenue and of course Castle is implicated in the murder. So the case begins. And Castle finds himself caught-up in a net of international intrigue as he searches the gritty underground of 1940s Vancouver for the missing daughter of a Nazi resistance leader, staking out brothels and speakeasies, liasoning with spies of varying loyalties, and dodging the fists and/or bullets of various parties out to silence him.

Terminal Avenue is a good mystery, fast-paced, entertaining, and gritty. It doesn't really compare to Chandler and Hammet, though. The writing is not as crisp or taut -- the prose should be as acerbic as the book's main character -- and Christy seems a little too fond of the over-wrought similes or mixed metaphors that don't quite succeed. For example, this passage about Castle's alarm clock:

He had gotten two steps closer to the bed when the old Russian alarm clock sounded. He thought of it as Russion because it was shaped like a cobblestone a young hot head in St. Petersburg might have picked up and thrown at a cossack during the Revolution. And it always went off like The Rites of Spring. (p9)

A stylistic flourish, yes, helps establish Castle's character, thought process, presumably, but a lot of words (mis)spent on unnecessary information. It could have been done more concisely and effectively (not to mention the error in the title of the Stravinsky piece). There are several such passages, which usually serve more to slow the pace of the text than enhance the mood. There are also sections wherein the point-of-view suddenly changes or characters start having conversations with themselves in third person. Stylistic flourishes, again, but more often than not these sections come off as awkward or unwieldy.

These are nit-picking concerns, admittedly. Which leads to my biggest problem with Terminal Avenue: I don't know what Christy's intent is. As such, I am uncertain on what level to judge it. If his intent was simply to write an entertaining mystery novel, then above concerns can remain in the realm of nit-picking and this review can be over. If his intent was more than that, than said nit-pickings are symptomatic of larger issues.

Of course not everything has to be deep and meaningful. Yet the book jacket claims that Terminal Avenue

can be read as pure entertainment, as pastiche, as social commentary, as popular history, and as an existential literary work containing the disillusioned romanticism of classic hardboiled fiction.

No doubt these words are the publisher's, not Christy's, but, as social commentary, Terminal Avenue isn't especially saying anything new; Nazis and pedophiles are bad, yes, we know. As pastiche or homage, the quality of the prose doesn't really live up to the original hardboiled writers. Nor are Christy's modernizations of the genre -- more explicit sex, more graphic violence -- particularly an improvement (some things are indeed better left to the imagination). Existential literary work? Not really; not reflective or philosophical enough. Popular history, perhaps; entertainment, sure. I wouldn't call Terminal Avenue a mindless read, but if you are looking for more than entertainment, I'm not sure you'll find it with this book. Not that there's anything wrong with entertainment...

Aidan Baker is a Toronto writer and musician.







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