Cuts Through Bone by Alaric Hunt is a contemporary PI novel in the classic PI novel style (available May 14, 2013).
Alaric Hunt’s Cuts Through Bone is a PI mystery with the style and tone of classic PI mysteries, which is probably why it won the 2012 Private Eye Writers of America award for Best First Private Eye Novel.
Hunt’s private investigator is Clayton Guthrie—a man short in stature and heavy on observation. He knows how to talk to snitches and how to break down a case, skills he’s trying to teach his protégé, Rachel Vasquez.
Vasquez, on the other hand, is having a hard time dealing with the tediousness that is real detective work. She considers quitting after a particularly rough morning when in walks one Mr. H.P. Whitridge with a young woman named Michelle Tompkins and the case to end all cases: the Barbie doll murders.
A series of young, beautiful, blonde women have disappeared and a man named Greg Olsen—boyfriend of the most recent victim and Afghan veteran—is charged with her murder. It quickly becomes clear that to prove Olsen innocent will be tough. He has no alibi. He had access to at least one of the victims. The caliber of Olsen’s gun matches the murder weapon—and it’s been fired recently.
In the classic PI vein, Guthrie and Vasquez hunt down informants, get themselves caught in awkward situations, and cause a lot of ruckus. What’s more unique about this particular tale is the mentor-protégé relationship between the two of them. Guthrie is a quirky, older man with a penchant for fedoras (yep, there’s a nod to the noir!). Vasquez is a teenage high school graduate with a penchant for jumping to conclusions, not paying attention, and getting feisty. Hunt recognizes the strangeness of the relationship straight off—after all, why hire a teenager for an adult job?
“You’re gonna see how this is done. Before, that’s all been playing. This time will be for real.”
She gave Guthrie an ugly look. “Playing?”
“Why do you think I hired you?”
“To do detective work, right?”
“No, not what. Why you?”
Vasquez’s face twisted with a scowl. “I know?” she asked. Papi was right, she thought. This blanco is crazy. Everyone in her family had a different answer to that question—but they all had one. Who hires a Puerto Rican girl fresh out of high school and gives her a pistol?
The million dollar question. (But you’re not gonna get the answer here.) Their relationship, which is dominated by a teacher-student dynamic, works really well for the reader—as Vasquez gets information and learns the ropes, so does the reader.
Hunt also peppers the narrative with some old-school metaphors very similar to some of the old Raymond “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” Chandler bits. (Quote from Farewell, My Lovely.) It adds a certain, private eye flavor:
Exhibit #1: He finished his mug and clapped it down on the tabletop like a punctuation mark.
Exhibit #2: The Lower East sheltered plenty of drunks and crackheads. She knew enough of them. They could get low and dodge cops better than anybody but a priest.
Descriptions like these pepper the story and make the reader pay attention, just to see what details and comparisons will be made next.
Hunt has managed to make Cuts Through Bone feel like an homage to, not an imitation of, the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The murders make the novel feel contemporary within the framework of the private eye formula—yes, the case “walks through the door” with a lovely young woman; yes, there are wealthy people and possible corruption involved; and yes, there is gritty in-your-faceness when it comes to dealing the cops and the witnesses. However, Hunt has managed to create a very present-day crime that feels classic without feeling dated. Definitely worth a read if you’re wishing for more noir.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.