Back in the day, the best hard-boiled detective fiction provided readers with state-of-the-art prose style as well as cheap thrills. But as decades went by, the style of Chandler and Hammett hardened even further and became a clichi. Recent incarnations of the noir voice (James Ellroy, for one) seem compulsive and symptomatic rather than fluid, like a Touretter mimicking a prizefighter's moves.
Peter Abrahams' latest crime novel -- praised by Joyce Carol Oates in the pages of the New Yorker, no less -- points the way out of this hall of mirrors. "Oblivion" is written lean and sleek and undentable as titanium, but the experience it describes is anything but rock solid. Nick Petrov, a tough, Russian-born detective (son of a former KGB agent), is so good he's been played in a TV movie by Armand Assante. The film dramatized his most famous case, in which Petrov nabbed a serial killer. This is a man who knows what he's doing -- until he feels a "penny-sized" headache right behind his right eyebrow and suddenly finds himself talking nonsense about Babar.
In the middle of a missing-person case that shows troubling connections to Petrov's docudrama'ed past, the P.I. succumbs to a brain tumor. When he comes to, in a hospital, he can't remember anything he's done in the past few days, and furthermore, he's another sort of man. (Abrahams even starts calling him Nick.) The rest of the novel describes Nick's efforts not only to figure out what he's already figured out but to remember why: Who was he working for and what did the client want? Eventually he rediscovers that there's a missing girl, and finding her somehow gets tied up with sending the tumor into remission.
"Oblivion" is partly a portrait of a man who can't admit he's sick ("he understood what this headache thing was all about: nerve spasms in the forehead, caused by lack of potassium and fatigue") and partly an exploration of how Nick's illness makes him a different detective by softening him up a bit. The pre-amnesia section is written in flinty, telegraphic sentences: "Petrov held out his hand. Rui reached inside his jacket. Who kept car keys in there? Rui adopted a nonchalant, harmless expression. Gun or knife? Knife."
The new Nick looks at the same man and reads something else entirely, described in less adamantine prose: "Their eyes met. The look in Rui's, even the lighting: Nick had seen this before, although he couldn't remember where or when. But that look in Rui's eyes: something had been destroyed in there." The new Nick is slower, but sees deeper.
"Oblivion" chips away at the two things the classic hard-boiled detective knew he could count on: his smarts and his imperviousness to the emotional pain around him. The mystery in this novel is garden-variety stuff, and you have to wonder how many pulp-seeking readers will even notice the elegant, low-key artistry of what Abrahams has achieved in the writing. But it's there, all right, like all clues Nick missed before cancer flipped a switch in his brain. Abrahams has as good a shot as anyone at bringing back detective fiction where the wordplay counts as much as the gunplay.