My pimping of Serpent's Tail books continues with Rilke on Black, Ken Bruen's debut novel. Before I get into it, dig that awesomely homoerotic cover. I wish the copy I'd picked up had that cover so that people would think I was reading some sort of strange gay erotica (clearly of the rape fantasy kind). I mean, I'd already been harassed by people in coffee shops thinking I was a homophobe for reading a book called Fags and Lager so why not even everything out by looking like I was totally gay? Serpent's Tail certainly goes out of its way to make things socially awkward for the self-conscious American male reader, you've got to give them that.
The story of a kidnapping gone awry (is there any other kind of kidnapping?), Rilke on Black is classic Bruen. It is obsessed with high and low pop culture, filled with sharp dialogue, spare in its prose and dark, dark, dark. But there are some things that definitely set it apart from what was to come later.
What fascinated me the most was how Bruen's use of pop culture quotes - lines from poems, songs, novels and films - actually had a reason for being in the book for once. I mean, I'm not against Captain Epigram's insistence on half of his short-ass books being quotes from other works, but I always just thought that he was doing early period Pelecanos on crack or some sort of hyper-Tarantino impression (check out what I like!) in his writing. In Rilke on Black Bruen's references actually mean something.
It's a bit of a revelation, honestly.
In my view, Bruen's debut is, like all British novels, about class, specifically through taste. It's the ultimate hipster crime novel in a way (as if any of his others aren't). You have the three kidnappers who all represent different kinds of culture. Our hero, Nick the bouncer, is trying to make himself seem somewhat posh by reading tome after tome of low-brow bullshit via a little thing called Reader's Digest (you've seen it at your grandma's and yes, you have read the Humor in Uniform joke section at least once, admit it). Then you have Dex, the psychopathic hard man, who is like the ultimate hipster with his vast knowledge of movies and TV shows and other middle class staples (he's your Rob Gordon, if you will).
Then there is Lisa, the femme fatale who likes to quote poetry and other hoidy-toidy stuff, your genuine posh item - though she is later revealed as a total phony, only classing it up to show off to her object of desire/kidnappee Ronald Baldwin. Ronald is the real deal in posh, he may be black and an apparent hard man of sorts, he can quote all the classics and annoy the shit out of you like the best of those professors you wanted to stab with you no. 2 in English 101.
So in other words, Bruen tosses off quotes and references galore per the norm, but all the while I felt like they weren't just Bruen doing an unsubtle Oprah's Favorite Things list in the story. It felt like he was actually trying to say something with his pop culture madness, bring up a point about class and, ultimately, about the crime novel itself. This book feels like Bruen's thesis about the neverending pulp vs. literature argument, the ultimate point being there sure as shit is room enough for both.
Okay, so The Nerd got off on a bit of a tangent and got all literary on you (I'll speak in the third person if I want to, fuck you) but this book is pretty great. Hell, it might actually be the funniest of Bruen's novels which is saying something, considering how hilarious the Brant novels. Also, Brant shows up in the book as a detective, but I get the feeling that it isn't BRANT himself. If it is supposed to be, he certainly doesn't really fit with the official series stuff. If anything, it proves that . . . Bruen enjoys the name Brant, I guess.
Also, the language isn't quite as pared down as it eventually becomes in his later books. It's still fucking lean, but Elmore Leonard lean, not James Ellroy lean.
So, conclusion time:
Read this book. It is good. I went on a tangent about high brow shit above because I like to show off my learned-ness. The end.