On one hand, Dave White's When One Man Dies is a very traditional P.I. novel. It has the drunk ex-cop P.I. who has suffered great loss (his wife was killed by a drunk driver). Said P.I. takes on two cases at once and - waddaya know! - the cases are related. He gets his ass kicked mercilessly a number of times and, naturally, then there's a big revelation and big action sequence in the last act. In other words, this ain't your Ken Bruen/Ray Banks-style take on the well-worn genre.
But When One Man Dies lives and dies not with its plot but with its characters, and fuckin-A there are some great ones throughout.
Our P.I. is Jackson Donne, a New Jersey cop who has already gone through hell-and-back before the novel even begins. In the first lines of the book he explains that he has killed people both lawfully and unlawfully in the near past. His wife is dead and more shit is set to pop up that will tarnish even that memory. He's been to rehab for coke addiction and every cop in New Jersey has it in for him since he left the force after ratting out the illegal doings of the narcotics department. Yeah, he's got it a little rough.
As I said earlier, Jackson has two cases to work in this novel. The first one, one which he isn't crazy about solving, is the murder of his drinking buddy by a hit-and-run driver outside of their favorite bar, the Olde Towne Tavern. The second starts as a simple cheating husband case but soon gets quite a bit more serious when he watches said husband shittily dispose of a body. Like I said, these two investigations are not so different as they might seem...
Jackson's portion of the story is told in first person, but throughout his narration we are interrupted by the third-person perspective following Bill Martin, Jackson's asshole ex-partner, the one guy Jackson decidedly didn't testify against all those years ago. Bill Martin has nabbed the hit-and-run case. Once he finds out his vic was in tight with Donne, Martin makes it his personal mission to both crack the case and ruin Jackson Donne.
It's confusing why Martin hates Donne so much when he let the guy off easy, but the real reason is revealed toward the end of the book and - holy shit! - does it rock. For my money, the depth and sadness that is eventually exposed in Bill Martin, someone we hate the shit out of for like two-hundred pages, is what elevates this book into something special, distinguishes it from the sea of P.I. books that are available.
In other words, if you start to feel a little deja vu with this one in the first half, don't sweat it. When One Man Dies still delivers handsomely on all the expected levels of traditional detective fiction, but that deeper emotional level, the sheer ache and sadness that comes in the last hundred or so pages, are what makes it first-class noir.
Rest assured, I'm breezing through White's latest Donne novel right now, The Evil Men Do.