Thursday, February 06, 2014

Crime Fiction: Rake by Scott Phillips

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Jerry Stahl’s Happy Mutant Baby Pills.)

Rake is a gem of a noir tucked into a snug coffin with the lid firmly secured by a tidy little noose. Scott Phillips’ latest novel (released by Counterpoint and following 2011’s The Adjustment) is set in Paris. It features a famous yet nameless narrator who is so unctuous that you might feel the need to wash your hands after putting the book down; and that might only be once, because you’ll most likely read this work straight through. Known here only by his TV character’s name, narrator Dr. Crandall Taylor is the star of a cancelled American soap opera that’s a hit in Europe. Taylor is so smooth he makes ground glass feel like silk; and he’ll draw blood just as easily when backed into a corner. Even so, he’s a very likeable sociopath.

Ostensibly in Paris to raise money for a film project (that doesn’t exist), Taylor is living off what fame brings other than money: adulation, dinner invitations and prodigious sex. Outwardly affable, he comes across as cheerful and harmless. But beneath that veneer is an obliging opponent who can be brutal when challenged. He’s as likely to pull out a knife as he is his penis, depending on whether one is coming at him or coming onto him. Taylor is a thrill-seeker of a highly evolved kind. Says he of his acute and refined tastes: “If you ever get the chance to fuck someone with whom you’re complicit in a recent murder, I highly recommend it.”

By degrees we see just how brutal (and empathetic) a man he can be; and while his violence is thorough it’s never too gratuitous, only well-deserved. Random trouble seems to seek him out when cuckolded husbands aren’t doing so. When trouble does find him on a deserted quai along the Seine late one night, he’s forced to defend himself from five assailants. After dispatching four, the fifth turns out to be a young woman. Taylor beats her as well, and when he discovers she’s pregnant, he calls for an ambulance -- but he wishes another fate upon her unborn child.
Mostly I hoped I terminated that pregnancy, though inadvertently, if only for the sake of the kid himself. I grew up with a mother like that and buddy, that’s not any way you want to grow up.
After anger-management classes, a discharge from the Green Berets for beating a fellow Corpsman, and an assault-and-battery conviction that followed his beating the irate husband of a cast member who caught them in flagrante delicto, Taylor’s lucky to have discovered acting and its therapeutic qualities. In that art he finds that “all that anger gets wrapped up in the preparation and chucked out in the performance.”

Also, the part of Dr. Crandall Taylor provides a respectable role model and enables Phillips’ protagonist to form an identity other than that of a vicious drifter who can’t find his place in the world. He never confuses himself with a real doctor, but his fans do, and he is nothing but gracious with them. His proudest moment as an actor came when a doctor told him she modeled her mannerisms on his character. Taylor keeps his violence hidden from fans and never intentionally bites the hand that feeds him; and as an unrepentant satyr, he usually has something else to do with it.

When Taylor begins an affair with Esmee, the wife of an investor in his bogus film project, he discovers her husband, Claude, is a violent and amoral arms dealer. While Taylor doesn’t seek out danger as a matter of course, he does welcome it. “I was fucking the wife of an arms dealer, the kind of guy for whom killing really meant nothing at all. Cool.”

Claude discovers the trysts, and then attempts to kill Taylor, but fails. In the aftermath, Taylor takes Claude captive until he can figure out what to do with Esmee’s vengeful husband. Once Taylor understands that setting Claude free will only result in his own death and those of others does his choice become clear. Claude is killed and the imaginary film suddenly materializes and goes into production with the late arms dealer’s money. The crime is solved, too, but venality wins in the end.

There are several accomplices in Claude’s murder, and each of them is involved in the movie project. After Inspector Bonnot of the Paris police shows Taylor that the evidence points to him, Taylor hires one more cast member for his movie, Bonnot’s young and beautiful daughter. The unsolved murder of a globally reviled arms merchant will hardly be mourned, and because of Dr. Crandall Taylor the world is a safer place. He looks forward to bedding the inspector’s daughter and, with his usual aplomb, opines that “It’s good to be the star.” ◊

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