Review

Straight Cut

by Madison Smartt Bell



At first blush STRAIGHT CUT is a bit of an enigma within the
context of the Hard Case Crime list. Madison Smartt Bell doesn't
ordinarily work within the suspense genre in general or hard-boiled
crime fiction in particular, though certainly his talent is such
that he is capable of writing, and writing well, in any genre he
wishes. And STRAIGHT CUT is not as bare-knuckled as, say, BUST,
FADE TO BLONDE or KISS HER GOODBYE, or any half-dozen titles from
Hard Case you could name (with the exception, of course, of Stephen
King's THE COLORADO KID). The publication of STRAIGHT CUT, however,
demonstrates the elasticity of even the relatively narrow
hard-boiled genre.

Originally published in 1986, the novel has a European feel and
edge, and not just because a great deal of it is set in Italy and
Belgium. Bell's writing style has a continental flare to it, as
well as a cinematic one. At times I felt as if I was reading a
script from a Barbet Schroeder film, not topically but
stylistically. There is not a great deal of violence in the book,
though it is there, interjected at one point to demonstrate that
there is more to protagonist Tracy Bateman than meets the
eye.

Bateman is a freelance film editor whose personal life is less than
ideal. Kevin, a film producer who is Bateman's best friend and
occasional employer, is incapable and unworthy of trust, as is
Lauren, Bateman's ex-wife with whom he shared at best a marriage of
convenience. Yet Bateman is at least partially to blame for this
state of affairs, aware that his wife and erstwhile best friend
formed points of a romantic triangle, a situation that Bateman
tolerated almost from the beginning of his relationship with
Lauren.

Bateman is sunk in an alcoholic ennui on his farm in Tennessee,
uneasily brooding and reading Kierkegaard, when he receives a call
from Kevin with an offer of employment. The job --- editing a
documentary film in Italy --- is an interesting one and certainly
within the range of his considerable talents. It is made clear
though that the job will involve something more, an additional side
task involving drugs and money that Bateman has performed before
for Kevin. It is only when Bateman is in Italy and immersed in his
editing chores that he learns that Kevin has interjected Lauren
into the mix as well. Bateman and Lauren resume their relationship,
however briefly, and as a result Bateman takes over Lauren's role
in the side job, even as Bateman realizes that Kevin had assumed he
would do just that. But Bateman is not without his own personal
resources, which he utilizes even as he must fight against his own
self-destructive impulses.

Though Kevin makes only relatively brief appearances at the
beginning and end of STRAIGHT CUT, he is a Machiavellian presence
throughout, crossing swords with Bateman at a distance while
preserving an amoral detachment from what befalls others at his
behest. It is Kevin's machinations, and Bateman's somewhat tardy
but effective reactions, that provide the duplicitous elements that
has made STRAIGHT CUT a cult classic among fans of noir crime
fiction.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Straight Cut
by Madison Smartt Bell

  • Publication Date: May 30, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 253 pages
  • Publisher: Hard Case Crime
  • ISBN-10: 0843955929
  • ISBN-13: 9780843955927