Book review: 'The Incredible Double' by Owen Hill
Clay Blackburn, the hero of Owen Hill's elegant and understated novel "The Incredible Double" (PM Press: 128 pp., $13.95 paper), is not your typical detective. For one thing, he's a book scout: a guy who haunts used bookstores and estate sales, looking for the one or two items of real value. For another, he's a poet, with a couple of chapbooks to his name. Most tellingly, he's the kind of enlightened anarchist who could only come from Berkeley, where he lives not far from the "world famous open-air asylum" that is Telegraph Avenue.
And yet, a detective Clay is, after his own odd fashion -- working without a license and without a net. In "The Incredible Double," he is asked to investigate death threats against a drugstore mogul named Jerry Wally (think Sam Walton with an attitude), only to be drawn quickly down the rabbit hole.
"The Incredible Double" is the second Blackburn mystery (the first was 2002's "The Chandler Apartments"), but to categorize it as a work of genre fiction is to miss the point. Rather it is a work of fiction that plays with genre, that slyly tips its hat to the conventions of the hard-boiled tradition even as it uses them to its own ends.
Like many great detectives, Clay likes to mix it up in the bedroom, although as opposed to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he's not straight but bi. And like many great detectives, he also has a sidekick, "an old lefty, and very active," who tells Clay that he's "rooting for the killer" when he discovers the nature of the job. "The guy's a pig," he says of Jerry Wally. "Undercuts the competition, beats the unions. Middle America loves him, though. He's been born again, and he gives 'em cheap Twinkies."
The real power of the book comes in its evocation of Berkeley, which is, as anyone who's spent much time there recognizes, a universe unto itself. Among the novel's supporting characters are a homeless man named Bruce, a sexually ambiguous ex-FBI agent and a cross-section of East Bay poseurs and left-behinds. "She was a bundle of clichés," Clay thinks about one such character, "but again, I wasn't noticing. Or maybe it's that in Berkeley we live with a different set of clichés." As for what these clichés are, Hill is merciless in his social satire. At a bookstore poetry reading -- poetry is a major theme within the novel -- he observes that "Leonard Cohen's first album was, I swear, playing on a turntable next to the register. Berkeley."
This is territory that Hill knows well -- he is himself a Berkeley bookseller and poet -- and he gets its details with a fluid delicacy. At the same time, "The Incredible Double" is no work of self-reflective irony. The mystery is real, the stakes are high; some people make it through while others ... well, let's just say they're compromised. Here we have the essence of noir, a sense of life lived at the edges, which is, come to think of it, a pretty good description of Clay's world.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Shane Scully, 27, one of the homeless on Telegraph Avenue, hangs out with others and talks about life on the street in 1998. Credit: Los Angeles Times