Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book Review: Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

From all indications, we seem to be in the midst of a noir/pulp renaissance. Hard Case Crime, established in 2004, has been publishing and re-introducing out-of-print pulp novels to the 21st century. In the case of yours truly, it is an introduction, not a re-introduction. New technologies (podcasting, online magazines) have, ironically, replicated the delivery methods of old-school pulp magazines back in the golden age of pulp fiction. The climate of this first decade of the 21t century has a shadow over it, the shadow of two burning buildings that no longer stand. When those towers fell, new things emerged (wire tapping of American civilians, memos on how to redefine torture, Abu Garib) that have brought with it a certain sense of paranoia. These factors, and more, have created a climate where authors, new and old, have tried to put in print and words the zeitgeist of this decade. And one of those trailblazers is Duane Swierczynski.

Swierczynski is the author of three previous novels, Secret Dead Men, The Wheelman, and The Blonde, as well as some titles from Marvel Comics (Cable, Iron Fist) but Severance Package is the first novel of his that I have read. And it's a doozy. First off, the cover. I love old-school painted cover art, the kind that graced the covers of pulp fiction long ago and the kind that Hard Case Crime is bringing back. Severance Package, a trade paperback, has that neat textured paper, the kind that you'd find in an art store. Not coincidentally, the cover art looks like a comic book. The synopsis and the About the author section are basic type font but the other lettering, the teaser, and the blurbs all appear to have been inked by Jack Kirby. That's a cool vibe to imbue and it is a tantalizing entry to this novel.

The vibe continues throughout the book. Here's the basic premise: the company that Jamie Debroux works for is, in reality, a front for a black ops unit. They've been outed and, as such, they all have to die. You have a choice, the boss man says: drink a mimosa and fall asleep or get shot in the head with the gun my assistant is now holding. With that in mind, the novel is interspersed with a list of the employees' names. With each death (yeah, there are some deaths in here), that name is crossed off. What's fascinating as a reader is you don't know who is the person crossing off the names.

The action, as you would expect, starts off with a bang. On his Secret Dead Blog, Swierczynski posts a running feature called "Opening Shots" where he transcribes the first paragraph of certain novels as a way to get a reader hooked. I'll give you the opening sentence of Severance Package and see if you don't want to read more:
His name was Paul Lewis and he didn't know he had seen minutes to live.
This opening chapter also has one of a half dozen or so illustrations, done in black-and-white comic book style, by Dennis Calero, that depict a scene of the book. Well, we get to see, as well as read, what happens to Paul Lewis. Let me just say this: considering all the damage other characters endure during this book, it's one of the more peaceful ways to go.

(Speaking of opening shots, here is the opening line of dialogue from Swierczynski's The Blonde: "I poisoned your drink." Dunno about y'all but that makes me want to read more.)

Swierczynski, who lives in Philadelphia, gives the kind of detail to his town that I hope to give Houston. That is, he knows his town and writes little tidbits throughout the book that give the non-Philly reader a taste of the town not found at the touristy locales. It's the same thing Pelecanos does for DC, Lehane for Boston, Connelly for LA, and Wislow for San Diego. It brings the city to life.

The prose is quick but not dirty. I found myself flying through pages, looking up after an hour and finding out that I'd read more than 60 pages. That's quite fast for me, usually a slow reader. But the pace is pedal-to-the-metal, pell-mell into a brick wall. It's breezy in its way, rapidly jumping into the heads of all the characters, even one unnamed character late in the book. It's a good feature, breathing life into characters that, usually, only have minutes to live. As the story progresses and you witness the various violent actions, it's kind of fun to guess how the next character's demise will come. Believe me: there's one you won't see coming. Moreover, there's a certain time shift going on in places. Swierczynski will follow one character through an entire scene then jump into another character's POV. That second character likely was a silent witness to the actions of the first character, thus, we get a second opinion on certain actions. It's a neat way of giving certain scenes depth.

The Ending: I can't tell you about the ending. A good ending to a bad book or movie can salvage my opinion of the work. A bad ending to a good book/movie can ruin the entire experience. I'll say this about the ending of Severance Package: I loved the book...and the ending kicked me in the crotch. I didn't see it coming...but I should have. You might. But try not to think too much. This is a fantastic book. Just enjoy the hell out of it half as much as Swierczynski enjoyed writing it.

What I Learned As A Writer: As I mentioned before, the POV jumps in and out of his characters. I am usually the type of author that sticks to one POV per scene, allowing all the action and reaction to be from that one POV. If I need another, I'll change at a chapter break. And there are certain characters I never jump into. Not so, Severance Package. All the characters get their time to stand on stage. All the characters get a certain amount of time for a brief back story. This background helps the reader understand the actions of certain characters. You know how in horror movies, the characters never do the logical thing? Well, these back stories are Swierczynski's way of inculcating the reader as to why a character makes a certain choice. It's effective and I might try it in a future novel.

The list of names to be killed--and the growing number that get crossed off--is a great way of creating suspense. It's the ticking time bomb, a cadence you hear in the back of your head as the pages go by. Who gets it next, you ask, and how? The New York Times review states that Severance Package "plays like an extreme edition of “Survivor,” starring Uma Thurman and directed by Quentin Tarantino." It's just a fun, fast book, to be enjoyed in a rubbernecker, visceral kind of way. It has the kind of vibe that I want some of my fiction to be infused with, the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

It's pulp fiction, pure and simple, just like they used to write in the old days. Rest assured Hammett, Keene, Spillane, and Westlake: the future of pulp fiction is in good hands with folks like Duane Swierczynski on duty.

P.S., Swierczynski will be stopping at Murder by the Book this Saturday, 9 August. If you're in Houston, come on by and say hello. And pick up some of his books. You won't be disappointed.