Charles de Lint, The Road to Lisdoonvarna (Subterranean Press, 2001)
A word of warning to anyone picking up The Road to Lisdoonvarna; despite the name on the title page, this book does not read anything like a Charles de Lint novel. Sure, the usual suspects are all here: Celtic music, unsavory characters with hearts of gold, exploited teens and homeless people haunting the fringes of society. There is no magic, however, or at least no outright mythic or supernatural elements. No Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, either, despite the obvious allusions of the title. Even so, all the ingredients are here for another intimate de Lint tale of societal outcasts finding the strength in each other to overcome the trials the cold, cruel world throws at them.
The premise is simple enough. Ottawa private investigator Jevon "Jake" Swann accepts a case from a distraught Toronto father who's desperate to find his runaway teenage daughter. Reluctantly, Jake delves into the Ottawa runaway scene of wannabe-punkers and the cheap sex and drugs that comes with it, and quickly learns that the missing teen may not be quite the innocent her father believes she is. Then, to complicate matters significantly, Jake's fiddle-playing best friend and potential amour, Sammy Ward, is savagely beaten and raped. That the shattered Sammy insists her attacker was a cop, well, that's just the way Jake's luck seems to be going these days. That's just the kind of setup de Lint excels at, having tackled similar themes and dangers in the pages of Angel of Darkeness and Greenmantle.
So why is it that merely a handful of pages into Lisdoonvarna I completely lost track of whose work I was reading? It was an odd sensation, I can assure you. A lot of de Lint's stylistic tricks and motifs are here, certainly, but the presentation and execution are entirely different from what has gone before -- or, in this case, after. The Road to Lisdoonvarna was written over the course of 1984-85, an experiment by de Lint, who challenged himself to stretch out into a different genre than the urban fantasy he was then helping to popularize. By his own admission, this foray into the hard-boiled realm of gumshoes and sleazy mystery was influenced greatly by his love of Mickey Spillane and the like, and the conventions of that genre demand that Lisdoonvarna be a horse of a different color from de Lint's other works.
Does Lisdoonvarna succeed in this? Yes and no. It's not a mystery in the traditional vein, as the reader is never quite given enough clues to piece the puzzle together on his own. But this isn't Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple we're reading. This is hard-boiled through and through, with fists and guns and an in-the-dark protagonist who has to piece together random clues that may or may not be relevant. What does one case have to do with the other? Everything and nothing, by turns, as Jake's head is twisted this way and that trying to make sense of everything.
Lisdoonvarna is an exciting read, and a fast read. Make that an exceedingly fast read. The story rockets along at breakneck pace, and the chapters fly by in a rush. It's a roller-coaster ride filled with betrayal and plot twists, with de Lint only letting the reader up for air at brief intervals. For all the flash and bang, though, it adds little to the hard-boiled genre beyond a fresher setting than the norm. In fact, the story feels slight at times. Despite all the weighty issues and serious problems the hero faces, I never feared for Jake's safety, nor for any of the other good guys. Despite the story unfolding over more than a week, I didn't feel the passage of time as I turned the pages, and when I closed the book I was left with the feeling that Jake's rough-and-tumble adventure could just as easily have taken place over one very hectic afternoon. Definite problems when the goal is to build suspense and tension, but nothing damning. This is de Lint's first foray into the genre, after all, written the better part of 15 years ago while he was still familiarizing himself with his fantasy worlds. Were he to come out firing on all cylinders with a book that would remake the hard-boiled detective genre, well, I could only conclude that his career took a vastly wrong turn way back when.
What we have, instead, is a fun detective novel perfect for the beach, park or anywhere else; lazy summer days beg for easy reading. While de Lint fans will probably never rank Lisdoonvarna up there with Moonheart or Memory and Dream, it's still a welcome break to see the author stretch beyond his overly familiar Newford environs and try something new. Had he followed this muse more aggressively, there is no telling what strange and interesting places he may have taken us.
[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]