In the modern era of the damaged private-eye, Paul Tremblay’s Mark Genevich just about takes the cake. We’ve seen private eyes who suffer through all kinds of different maladies and shortcomings, from alcoholism to Tourette’s Syndrome to being chronically unable to tell dark-eyed dames “No”; but prior to the shambling and drowsy-eyed but acid-tongued Genevich there haven’t been many fictional investigators hampered by a difficulty with the perception of reality itself.
Tremblay’s premise for his character is that he’s a 29-year-old South Boston kid who’s not only narcoleptic and facially scarred but prone to powerful hallucinations, all the result of a horrendous van accident eight years earlier:
After the accident and surgeries, I grew a beard to hide my damaged face. My left eye is now a little lower than my right, and smaller. I’m always winking at you, but you don’t know why. Too bad the beard never covers my eyes. The fedora — I wear it low — comes close.
His private investigation business isn’t much on the surface, mostly online searching (genealogies, property records, and such), just a way to keep him semi-occupied and off the streets where he won’t hurt himself. Because it’s hard to go look for missing persons and uncover scandalous evils while enduring surprise naps and cataleptic fits. Driving a car or just having a conversation becomes a tricky thing, indeed. Send a guy like that on a seemingly wild goose chase involving family secrets, powerful politicians, hired goons, and scandalous photos of an ingénue from an American Idol-like show, and you’re more likely to get a bill from the mortuary than a solved case.
Making someone like Genevich the narrating protagonist of a mystery seems absurd on the surface, since isn’t the gumshoe’s superior perceptive abilities always the great leveler when confronting the rich and the powerful? Marlowe, Spenser, Columbo; none of these guys were necessarily the biggest or the toughest lugs on the block, they had crackerjack logic skills and a deep reservoir of cynical comebacks to put their (inevitably arrogant) adversaries off their game.
In Tremblay’s capable hands, though, this all works. To a T. By starting things off with the prototypical untrustworthy female showing up in Genevich’s office and thus hurling him out into the mean Boston streets, Tremblay ensures that his narrator is off his game from the start and thus struggling to play catch-up. Fortunately, he’s been doing that for pretty much all the years that followed his accident and so is quite used to being put into ridiculous situations he has no purpose being in and no reasonable way out — even with the help of his doting mom, who becomes something of a sidekick.
Genevich considers his wounded self somewhat of a walking, talking Frankenstein creation with no hope for a normal life and every chance for a prematurely shortened and unfulfilled one. In assuming that others will be put off by his appearance, he seems to have adopted a reflexive, slashing, and soul-deep sarcasm that ripples through the book like a black tide. Quite often the blade is turned on himself (“I know, I’m pretty. The dried blood adds character to a face already overburdened with character”) when it’s not directed at others (“His voice is full of fuck you, but he really cares about me. I can tell”).
It’s not the superior wit of a Spade, sure of his superiority to most of the mooks he’s up against, but rather the voice of a guy who’s just bulling his way through a case in which he’s increasingly unsure of what has actually happened and what is an hallucination. His is the voice of a guy who doesn’t think he’s going to live forever, a belief that becomes crystallized near the climax when Genevich throws reason to the wind and puts himself behind the wheel of a car, telling the kid behind the counter to take the normal amount of insurance, and then double it.
There’s a devil-may-care joy and affecting vulnerability to even the bleakest of Tremblay’s scenarios, in which his bearded and scarred narrator confronts old familial demons and the limits of his own physical abilities even as he untangles a web of Bostonian deception, where the politics is personal and vice versa. While Tremblay may occasionally fall back on the old and familiar standards to uphold the book’s plot particulars, his slashing verve with language and surprisingly emotive take on this last-chance protagonist shows there’s plenty of life left in the world of the private eye.