It is a long way from the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles to
the damp and foggy streets of London. But in this American reprint
of Ken Bruen’s 2001 work, the author successfully bridges the
gap by reworking the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Billy
Wilder’s classic noir tale of desperation and death.
For the book to live up to the Billy Wilder film noir is a very
tall order indeed, but Bruen, the prolific writer from Galway,
Ireland, has earned his place at the top of the list of a new
generation of writers, including Megan Abbott, Jason Starr and
Charles Ardai, all of whom have revitalized noir fiction and
dragged it --- often bleeding --- into the new century. And that
has meant great reading for the rest of us.
Whether set in Ireland in the Jack Taylor series or in London
with the Inspector Brant series, Bruen often pays homage in his
books to the American masters of the genre, such as Charles
Willeford, Ed McBain and Lawrence Block. So it is no surprise that
he follows closely the Wilder tale in LONDON BOULEVARD --- even
down to the creepy butler. But instead of a chimp being buried in
the backyard, it will be far worse.
Mitchell gets out of jail after serving three years for a
violent assault he has no memory of, although it is not hard to see
how he might have done the crime. On the ride home from prison, he
gets out of the car and busts the arm of a squeegee man. But he has
a job waiting and is given a great apartment thanks to his best
friend. For this, he is expected to do muscle work for a loan
shark. Then there is his old crew of bank robbers who want to bring
him back for one more job.
Bruen puts us right from the start in the world of noir:
“I had dark eyes, and not just on the outside,”
Mitchell says early on. But he wants nothing to do with his former
life of crime and, on a recommendation, visits the mansion of a
once famous London theater star in need of a handyman. He takes the
legit job and soon is involved with the old actress.
What follows are double and triple crosses that keep the pages
quickly turning. And Bruen’s take on the ending is --- if
such a thing is possible --- even darker than Sunset
Boulevard. As in the movie, Mitchell meets a girl he
immediately falls in love with and wants to protect her from his
dark world. Bruen writes, “She was attractive no doubt, but I
(Mitchell) hesitated. She said, ‘There is a lovely word in
Irish, it’s bronach...means sadness but a lot more.
Anyway, that is how you looked.’”
And Mitchell is in a world of sadness. It’s interesting
that the character of the writer in Wilder’s classic should
be transformed into a small-time criminal in Bruen’s update.
But I don’t think Bruen is trying to insult those of us who
try to scribble for a living, nor is he making a larger, perhaps
well-deserved point about the publishing business. He is quite
right and unique, however, in linking noir to the Irish concept of
sadness. Noir might have been born in sunny America, but its roots
are as deep as all human suffering and failure. Bruen writes,
“What you regard as a small isolated incident sets off a
chain of events you could never have anticipated. You believe
you’re making choices and all you are doing is slotting in
the pieces of the foreordained conclusion.”
This deep, melancholic passage serves two purposes: it
exemplifies the dark nature of the book, and it highlights how
great of a writer Bruen is. His fantastic work is slated to become
a movie starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley. While it might
not end up being another Sunset Boulevard on the big
screen, Farrell might be an inspired choice to play Mitchell in
LONDON BOULEVARD. Read the book before you see the movie.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 30, 2010