Book review - 'A Detailed Man'

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Author: David Swinson, Review by Admin

Wednesday August 20, 2014

This is a surprising novel. For this reviewer, in more ways than one. Having unwillingly been forced to read the e-edition rather than have the paper book in my hands, I missed what I otherwise always do - read the blurb about the author, and what the publisher says the book is about in advance. All I know is the author's a former police officer.

A page or two in, despite the description of Homicide Detective Ezra Simeon's lopsided, Bell's Palsy-affected face, I've got a vision of Humphrey Bogart in 'The Big Sleep' in my head. This protagonist is much more like an eternally jaded, wayward private eye than a cop. The atmosphere's very similar too, except there's something reminiscent of the very modern Northern European detective genres about it also, that I can't quite pin down. Maybe it's just that cold winter weather in Washington DC, where the novel's set. Maybe it's that his life is stained with disappointments; in love, work and with family and friends, but he keeps it all hidden beneath the impassive mask of his distorted face - whose frozen eye ironically sheds tears at will. Anyhow, I understand what this novel 'is' now, I decide.

A few more pages in, I'm thinking, wait. This reminds me of 'Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets', from the creator of 'The Wire'. This is supposed to be a novel though, not true-crime. The author's a former police officer, I recall, so that's why the police procedures have such a painful ring of truth about them. He's based this novel on real experiences. That's okay. I read much more true-crime than crime fiction, and usually prefer it. I get how that works too. You have to stick with it through all the sometimes frustrating details of law enforcement's processes, and daily work tribulations, because it's all part of the jigsaw that makes the whole thing fit into a comprehensively enlightening whole.

Credit: Author's website

Further in, when Detective Simeon's revealed to be a reader of Dickens, Hardy and Greene; an LA-born native who studied Literature into Film (with a glamorous female friend who is still in the la la world of La La Land) but who chose to become a public school teacher; when he's revealed to be a 'destroyed' former husband of the music-obsessed Priscilla who left him for a fellow music-obsessive with bad hair, which event propelled him out of teaching and into policing in Washington DC, following at last in the footsteps of his father, a all becomes a little implausible. As likely as a punk rock musician becoming a filmmaker, then joining the police, or something like that.**

But by then it doesn't matter. The novel's enveloped me and it's very real. Detective Simeon's a good detective - so good the Violent Crimes Units(VCU) refused to grant his wish to go to homicide for years. It was the sudden attack of facial paralysis that got him there in the end, in a circuitous route via cold cases and the sudden death of a colleague and friend.

I realized, like Det. Simeon himself, that his past 'is either fiction or belongs to someone else' and I should follow his own mantra:

'I'll try to be as patient as my dead victims. They don't complain.'

I follow quietly as he investigates a possible killer, biting my lip with anger and frustration along with Simeon, when it seems the chance of justice is snatched away for the female victim who died such a terrible death - then feel just as driven to get to the answers as him, when the possibility of a rich, narcissistic accomplice and another victim surface. The detective's overwhelming weariness as he drives himself to crack the case makes him seem older than his maybe? 40 years. He says he feels like the 'dilapidated, vacant' neighborhood he walks through. When he mentions pulling a single gray strand from his black hair, it's a shock; so he's not completely gray already?

There's something timeless and ominous about the cases, and the book. A faraway look in people's eyes becomes a recurring motif of death, while the physical 'two faces' of Det. Simeon are reflected in his character and actions too. He takes one kid off the street for murder, but steals the case file of another he knows, so his crime will never come to light. He's fallen in love with his glam friend from LA he thinks, but has to force himself to answer her calls, and sometimes won't answer them at all. His ambition was to work homicide, but he hesitated to move from cold cases when he got the chance.

Towards the end of the book, I realize I'm caught up in what feels like a Shakespearean tragedy too. I don't want to get to the end, but of course I must. I do.

Like Detective Simeon, I hesitate to go too far, but feel impelled to go there anyway. This book is special. It almost feels like a new genre of crime-fiction novel has been created, while it certainly feels like a classic has been created too. I wanted to call people up after and ask, "Have you read this? Why haven't I heard of this book before? Tell me if you got THAT feeling about it too."

It's hard to believe this is a first novel, and impossible to believe this could be the last about Detective Ezra Simeon. I sometimes wish books I've read could be made into good movies. I'd never wish that for this one; it wouldn't do it justice and, after all, Simeon has little regard for his CA birthplace: 'that unnatural place and its lack of seasons'.

No, this one I heartily wish could be made into a very good TV series, because it seems perfect for that, and likely to become a classic of its kind with a global appeal. Most of all though, I hope there are more books. Detailed man cannot, must not be the end of Detective Simeon. I'm not sure how I missed it before, but I have history with this sort of thing. The first 'undiscovered' masterpiece I thought I found when I was very young was a dead author called Thomas Hardy. The next one was by some guy called William Faulkner.

If you can find a way to read this book, you should.

A Detailed Man can be bought through the author's website, here.

** I found the author David Swinson's short biography when I'd finished the novel, on the back page. Amongst other information, it states: 'David Swinson spent the early 1980s as a punk rocker in Los Angeles...He produced the cult classic film 'Roadside Prophets'...In 1994 Swinson returned to his hometown of Washington DC to enter the Police Academy...'


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