One of the best things readers can experience is the surprise of finding a good book where they really don't expect to find one. Sometimes that’s almost as good as finding a $20 bill inside the pocket of a pair of pants you haven’t worn since last winter. No offense intended to Eric Coyote, but his debut novel, The Long Drunk, was one such surprise to me.
The novel is billed as “ultra noir,” and that may actually be a bit of an understatement. Set in Venice, California, and featuring a “homeless detective” by the name of James Murphy, The Long Drunk shares many elements of the LA noir style of mystery writing Raymond Chandler helped make popular. But in these more liberal times, Coyote has the option of offering us a much stronger cup of coffee than Chandler dared serve up in his day - and he uses it.
Murphy, a one-time professional football player who suffered a career-ending gunshot wound on the eve of his debut with the New Orleans Saints, is now a drunk. He lives on the Venice streets with a few men (and one woman) every bit as focused on finding their next drink as he is. The love of Murphy’s life these days is a Rottweiler he calls Betty, the dog he credits with saving his life and giving him a reason to go on living. Now, it’s Murphy’s turn to save Betty’s life.
When Betty is struck by a car, Murphy gets her to a veterinarian before she dies, and learns there that the dog also suffers from cancer. But even at the rate offered by a good-hearted animal doctor like this one, it will take $15,000 worth of medical attention to extend Betty’s life. Murphy – a man who only ever keeps money in his pocket until he can spend it at the liquor store – promises to raise the cash needed to save his dog’s life. The vet can only allow him one week to do it.
The mystery element of The Long Drunk, however, is probably not what most of the novel’s readers will remember longest about it. They are more likely to be intrigued by what Coyote reveals about the rather unique lifestyle of California’s homeless, and the personal and community loyalties that evolve within the culture. In this noirish world, so much high-quality food is being thrown out by Venice’s restaurants and high-end groceries that Murphy and his friends can afford to be a little picky about what they eat. They might get by on the cheapest rotgut they can get, but come dinner time they discuss various cheeses, salad dressings, and desserts as if they eat their meals inside gourmet restaurants, not near the dumpsters behind the buildings.
But, believe it or not, at its heart The Long Drunk is a love story, a tale about the pure love of a man and his dog for each other – and it’s a rather beautiful story, at that.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)