Wednesday, April 8, 2009

SAFER by Sean Doolittle

Sean Doolittle’s Safer is one agonizingly intense motherfucker of a crime novel. To give you an idea of what kind of sack-shrinking scariness is in store for you should you pick up this novel, you just have to read the first chapter. What happens in the first chapter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you because, you know, I’m such a swell fucking guy.

Paul Callaway, the English professor hero of Safer, is arrested on kiddie porn and stat rape charges by the Clark Falls, Iowa police department in the middle of a faculty party. It’s such a ball-breaker of a scene, so direly embarrassing and quietly horrifying. Not to mention a ballsy-ass way to open a book.

When Safer is really getting it right (and for the most part, it gets shit really fucking right), it plays like an “urban yuppies move to the scary countryside” horror novel more than anything else. Thing is, instead of being harassed by hillbillies who like to rape and maim, they are harassed by a security obsessed neighbor with major police ties.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Safer is the story of Paul and Sara Callaway, two Boston academics who move to the Midwest when Sara takes a major administration job at a large public university. Due to a run-in with an intruder in their house their first night in town, the two join the neighborhood watch patrol run by security consultant neighbor Roger Mallory. But as they settle into their new neighborhood, they start to learn that Mallory, an ex-cop whose son went missing ten years previous, may be taking neighborhood security a little too seriously…

Now you’re thinking, What the fuck Nerd? You have a fucking vague-ass plot description after the big kiddie porn reveal up at the top? Well, impatient fucking reader, I did not fuck shit up because you see Safer is not told strictly in chronological order. Doolittle has Callaway tell the story (who is more up to the task than an English professor, after all) and Callaway has a tendency to show off his storytelling skills – fucking with chronology, pointing out literary tricks to the “class” from time to time, shit like that. But don’t let that worry you – the po-mo shit in Safer is an extremely low-key. You won’t get “smugged-out” by it like in most self-reflexive novels.

So anyway it’s a simple story told in a complex way and that really tends to work for the novel. Things are always tense and generally organic and Doolittle’s prose style is always tight and flows well. Everything about this book is just kicking your ass until towards then when….


I had some problems with how big the conspiracy gets in Safer. I mean, it makes sense and everything and it is pretty clever but this is Sean Fucking Doolittle, a guy up there with Pelecanos when it comes to making “believable” crime novels. For him to have the neighborhood conspiracy get so big and even do the traditional “connecting the crime from the past to the present events” thing? It was kind of discouraging, honestly, but only kind of because it is handled really assuredly. It just seems a little obvious when coming from the guy who did Rain Dogs and other incredibly original crime novels.


But like I said earlier, what makes Safer work is when it plays like a brilliant horror novel of small relatable fears. The fear of being watched, of being accused of a horrid crime you didn’t commit – it’s all handled in a way that makes sense, a way that makes you think it could happen to you. There is no doubt that this is Sean Doolittle’s most intense and suspenseful novel to date. No matter what my problems with the wrap up towards the end are, I for sure fucking got there in record fucking time, with sweat down my back and my nerves fried to shit.

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