In THE NIGHT MEN, the fourth novel in the Jason Keltner series, author Keith Snyder juggles two stories and a novel within a novel to construct a mystery that asks the question: Can teenaged boys find a worthwhile role model in a fictional hardboiled detective?
The novel opens with Keltner coming to the aid of a friend whose Brooklyn music store has been thoroughly and brutally vandalized. Since the storeowner is a gay man, and since there is little evidence that robbery was the motive, the act gives every indication of being a hate crime.
Jason is soon joined by Robert, his boyhood friend. Watching over the vulnerable store at night while repairs are being made, they begin their efforts to unravel the mystery. But serving as night watchmen triggers memories of events 15 years earlier, when Jason, Robert, and their mutual friend Martin first met as high school students. The ominous circumstances of this first meeting are further complicated by the angst that is part of the landscape for teenaged boys whose fathers are either literally or virtually absent. This theme extends into the present day story, forming a psychological framework for the motivations and inner workings of the various players.
The parallel story lines are frequently bridged by extended passages from the novel within a novel. As teenagers, Jason, Robert, and Martin become engrossed in a hardboiled detective novel, also titled "The Nightmen," and written by one Lester Kellogg, also a Snyder creation. Snyder gives Kellogg a prose style that stakes out a spot about halfway between Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane --- just the right amount of '40s-era LA street wisdom and trenchcoat testosterone to sit well with a bunch of kids whose fathers have, for various reasons, failed to deliver as role models.
The story line involving the teenaged versions of the characters delivers a far greater punch than the present day story. But this is clearly the author's intention. By alternating segments, switching from present day to 15 years prior, and mixing in passages from the Lester Kellogg novel, Snyder sets a solidly entertaining narrative pace.
Snyder's characters, particularly the adult versions of Jason and Robert, get a thumbs-up for snappy banter. Their conversations are the kind you wish your friends were better able to deliver --- fast, funny, ironic and occasionally insightful. It makes for an enjoyable read, and more than compensates for a mystery that is more microbrewery fern bar than it is smoky waterfront joint.
But that's a valid point only if your taste in whodunits requires the presence of guys who wear fedoras and accessorize with snub-nose .38s. Snyder is a musician (as is his protagonist), and the music arcana he injects into the story provides an appropriate and interesting backdrop. Besides, the extended passages by Snyder in the guise of Lester Kellogg are sure to satisfy all but the most virulent of hardboiled joneses. In fact, I'd like to see Snyder indulge his Mike Hammer side and produce a full novel in that style.
But then, that might be a gamble, and he's already delivered a sure thing with THE NIGHT MEN.
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 1, 2002