Friday, June 10, 2011

Fun & Games (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

The latest novel from Marvel comics scribe and fervent crime fictioneer Duane Swiercyznski, Fun & Games is the first installment in a trilogy of novels featuring Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop (well, cop-ish) with a bloody past. This being a Duane Swiercyznski novel, the obligatory references to his hometown of Philadelphia still manage to sneak their way in, but for this story (and, presumably, the rest of the trilogy), Swierczy exiles his protagonist from this comfort zone and drops him right into the brushfires of Los Angeles.

Fun & Games serves as a kind of love-letter to LA noir and a wake to its history, embedded deeply in the Hollywood Hills. Swierczynski's excitement for the genre bleeds through his prose with a ferocious, whirlwind, almost ravenous energy that engulfs the reader with no apologies, from the epigraphs (quoted from film noir classics and more) to the biting, cynical criticisms of the film/media/LA industries.

It's kind of like Mulholland Drive, except it actually makes sense.*

You know, in a way, I kind of don't want to tell you. Because going into this book, I knew very little about it myself, and that may have made the ride even wilder. But here's at least a bit of background for you.

Charlie Hardie is a man with a past who now makes his living as...a professional house sitter. He arrives in Los Angeles to watch after the home of a successful film composer, who is off on business in Russia for a month. He is surprised to find a young, attractive movie star named Lane Madden hiding in the house, tripping on a cocktail of cocaine and heroin and hysterically ranting about some mysterious "Them" that's been trying to kill her. Charlie soon realizes that Lane Madden may not be as paranoid — or as innocent — as she appears, and finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy of Hollywood insiders who might actually control the world through their (literal) plotting.

Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 8.6
Fun & Games is the kind of story that grabs you by the shirt in the first few pages and then throws you off a cliff. And since it's the first book in trilogy, the ending offers you a small foothold, but its only enough to brace yourself for a moment before you continue falling down the rabbit hole. Swierczynski is an intricate master plotter, and the story is full of moments that shock you and then make you smack yourself in the head and go "Duh! Of course that was going to happen!" Everything has a payoff, almost as if Swierczynski wrote and solved a mathematical proof for an unashamedly juiced-up pastiche of pulp/noir stories.

Style: 7.8
While omniscient 3rd person narrators have never turned me off from a story, I have to admit that I've never been particularly fond of them (I like my narratives to have limits, or at least somewhat unreliable). However, Swierczynski employs a unique method here, which is multiple 3rd person limited narrations that hit you like a slurry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its affections for Hollywood and moviemaking, Fun & Games flows like a movie, full of fast-paced jumpcuts and surprising scene changes. Some of these changes come so rapidly after one another that it's hard to keep up (which is part of what keeps the reader on the edge the whole time), especially as it shares the same moment from multiple perspectives (and always in a carefully calculated way — Swierczynski knows how to reveal pertinent information with the strongest impact).

General: 9.4
Not only did I blow through this book in record time, but when I finally reached the end, I immediately tried to figure out when I could get my hands on a copy of the sequel, Hell & Gone. It's like a flash thunderstorm in the middle of a glorious summer day (or maybe that's just the weather outside right now -- yup, looks like). Anyone who considers him/herself to be a fan of mysteries, thrillers, noir, "the dark side of Hollywood," crime stories, or wild conspiracies would be a fool not to read this book. Swierczynski might not be breaking ground with his new Charlie Hardie series, but he's building such a labyrinthine structure of wheels within wheels that it's hard to resist. Fun & Games only shows us the tip of this conspiracy, but its undeniably intriguing, as Swierczynski offers us a well-developed and scathing commentary of what really goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood — and the world.

Overall: 8.6

Fun & Games is available June 20, 2011 from Mulholland Books.

*I actually quite enjoyed Mulholland Drive. I thought it was a very beautiful experimental/slipstream poem, on film. But let's be honest, that movie didn't make any sense.

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