With an epigraph from Raymond Chandler and homage paid to Walter Mosley in the embalming room of a funeral home bedeviled by necrophilia, SFU alumnus Sam Wiebe’s new novel, Last of the Independents, positions itself successfully within the noir tradition.
Even though 29-year old struggling PI Michael Drayton can be as hard-boiled as any of the great mavericks of noir, this is Vancouver noir. Here, the world of granola bars, London fogs, and the beauty of Vancouver in the fall, goes hand in knuckle-scarred hand with that of junked out prostitutes, vicious beatdowns, and a darkness visible in the shadows and side streets of an otherwise oblivious city.
It’s on the borders of these worlds that Drayton works best. Haunted by the brutal murder of his policeman grandfather — to whom the Law and the Bible were to be followed without equivocation — and tasked with the cases of two missing children that are fast running out of hope, Drayton finds a measure of autonomy to be more effective.
“Any situation involving red tape or a holier-than-thou boss, I become a liability,” says Drayton. “I like to be left alone to do things how I see fit.” He takes risks, pushes people and himself, and more than once crosses that invisible line between the ethical and the immoral. But, let’s face it: sometimes beating a confession out of someone is more effective than reading them their rights. It’s a liminal freedom that gives Drayton an edge over his contacts in the VPD, but it’s also one that comes with dangerous and disturbing consequences.
While the influences of great noir writers are felt within the novel, Wiebe’s narrative style is his own. A deeply perceptive account of the frustration and trauma associated with missing children mixes flawlessly with hilarious dialogue, asides about Vancouver that bring to the city an imaginative life beyond bus routes, Starbucks, and Skytrain stations, and discerning observations about topics ranging from the merits of Speed over Citizen Kane to the morality of fucking a corpse.
There’s a mastery in the novel’s overlapping of horror and humour that can at once plunge the reader into the unsettling scenario of watching Drayton modify the face of a child into that of a crack addict, while at the same time allowing us to laugh out loud at the expense of a douchebag being confronted about the purchase of a Fleshlight. (And don’t act like you don’t know what that is!)
At times the cases themselves can seem like Drayton’s cancer-stricken dog: slow, lethargic, debilitated, taking on tenuous leads with all the delight of a suppository. That being said, action and intrigue are in every chapter, and it leads you into a heart of darkness that would’ve made Conrad shiver.
The unanimous winner of an Arthur Ellis Award in 2012, Wiebe’s debut novel is something quite special. It promises more from a young writer who looks sure to turn Vancouver into one of the great cities of noir. We already have the rain.