September 27, 2007


A Killer’s Kiss. By William Lashner. William Morrow. $24.95.

      Anyone familiar with William Lashner’s noir hero, Victor Carl, will understand from the start of A Killer’s Kiss that there will be no happy ending. Carl will survive – this is the seventh book featuring him, and it only makes sense to assume that there will be an eighth, although Lashner says he plans to give the character a rest for a couple of years. But it is safe to assume that Carl will be damaged both physically and emotionally by the end of the work, eventually coming to terms with yet another sorry circumstance in his life.

      This is exactly what happens. The interesting thing in Lashner’s books about Carl, a small-time Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer, is not the grand overview of the plot but the details through which things work their way to the inevitably downbeat ending. In A Killer’s Kiss, the basic story involves Carl’s former fiancée, Julia, who jilted him and married a urologist named Dr. Wren Denniston – who, we learn in the first chapter, has just been murdered. This is awkward for Carl, since Julia happens to be in his bathroom taking a shower when two detectives arrive with the information about the killing and the news that Carl, because of his prior relationship with Julia, is a prime suspect. Carl is innocent, of course, of everything except hoping to rekindle an old flame that, at least for him, has never quite gone out. Julia is hoping – well, just what is she hoping? That is but one of many interlocking and increasingly complex mysteries here.

      It is characteristic of Lashner’s particular variation on the hard-boiled detective-novel style that more is inevitably deemed to be better. If one narrow escape is good, two are better; three, better still. If one plot twist is good, two are better, three even better, and the almost uncountable number in A Killer’s Kiss the best yet. In reality, this isn’t quite true: there’s a point at which the reader comes to expect some new revelation, some new twist, some new character with some newly revealed ulterior motive at any moment – even if the specifics aren’t clear until Lashner chooses to reveal them. In this book, the linchpin of the plot is a longstanding, foredoomed-to-failure romance between Julia and a high-school sweetheart – a real Romeo-and-Juliet thing, but without the sex, which it turns out was thoroughly impossible for reasons having nothing to do with feuding families. This ultimate relationship is, unfortunately for the plot, thoroughly unbelievable, and the further Lashner goes with it – with trying to explain it, with using it to show Julia’s motivations and the impossibility of a happy ending involving her and Carl – the more ridiculous the whole thing gets.

      Not that it seems ridiculous when the bullets start flying and Carl, as if being under suspicion of murder in Wren Denniston’s death isn’t enough, finds himself in the middle of a convoluted international scheme that involves too much money, too many suspects and too many dead bodies. Lashner writes very well and keeps the pace very fast, and he has a way of encapsulating Carl’s thoughts that always keeps things interesting: “It hadn’t taken me more than a moment to realize he was a dramatic little snit, still on the stage all these years after his vomitous failure as Romeo, still playing the melancholy young man brooding on some mysterious, unforgivable event in his past, still waiting for the spotlight to come his way and give him another chance.” Unfortunately, Lashner’s characters – except for Carl himself – are far less interesting and far more unidimensional than the prose in which they are described; and even Carl, at least in A Killer’s Kiss, seems motivated so obsessively that the next story about him might well be called A Shrink’s Showdown.

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