"The Disappearing Body" by David Grand

A nifty update on the classic noir plumbs an urban underworld of dames, dope rings, double-crossing heavies and poor saps set up to take a fall.

By Amy Reiter

Published March 21, 2002 4:52PM (EST)

Who says they don't write 'em like they used to?

David Grand's new noir novel, "The Disappearing Body," is a delicious dip into the shimmering dark urban underworld that, decades ago, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler mined to such great effect. You got murder. You got intrigue. You got smuggled art objects of immeasurable value. You got crooked politicians and union uprisings, tommy guns and tart-mouthed toughies. You got dames, dope rings, double-crossing heavies and poor saps set up to take a fall.

But you also get something more, flashes of a contemporary perspective that make the book more than simply a nostalgic -- and highly literate -- revival of an old-fashioned form, set in a 1930s-era metropolis called only "the City." The tough-talking auburn-haired dame with legs up to there, for instance, has had it up to here with untrustworthy men. One of those untrustworthy men, a feckless fellow whom she draws into a well-laid trap, gets his comeuppance -- but not before suffering a crisis of conscience in which he regrets all the bad things he ever did to women. And one of the book's most hard-bitten characters, an ex-con, faced with the true love of a pure woman, finds himself crying, sobbing at the profound sense of lost time and lost opportunity.

"The tears ... broke from their ducts like a river bursting forth through the concrete seams of a faltering dam, and as the water flowed through the deep crevices of Victor's face," Grand writes, "he let out a horrible moan that bellowed through the storm and into the canyon of buildings."

It's hard to imagine, say, Humphrey Bogart being asked to summon the emotional range for that scene.

But if Grand has tempered the swill and swagger of his 1930s swells and swifties with a certain introspective sensitivity, circa 2002, for the most part he's managed to do so without sacrificing the thrill of the chase for readers navigating the story's many layers of subterfuge and sleazy dealings.

Why was Victor Ribe convicted of two murders we suspect he did not commit? Who is behind his being sprung from prison after serving only 15 years of his life sentence -- and why, and why now? Who is to blame for a fatal explosion at the Fief munitions plant? Who is pulling the strings in the plot to smear the earnest State Alcohol and Narcotics Bureau Commissioner Harry Shortz, who wants nothing more than to clean up the city and stand up for the common workingman? How did that poor, oversexed schlub Freddy Stillman get mixed up in all this? Where do communism and art -- and communist art -- fit in? And what of love and loss and ... truth?

Using keenly evocative, tightly wrought language, Grand takes us all over town, to the docks and the juke joints, the factories, boarding houses and fancy art deco hotels, and introduces us to all sorts of people, the good, the bad and the simply confused, most of whom, like us, are looking for some kind of explanation and somebody to blame. When we finally discover the truth, we find that the pursuit, after all, was the biggest thrill of all.

Amy Reiter

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