'A good-natured pastiche of the detective novel' from Colin Bateman, writes Tammy Moore
The latest installment in the Mystery Man series by Bateman (née Colin Bateman) sees the Small Shop Keeper with No Name investigating the death of a crime writer’s wife under the plastic surgeon’s knife. With humour so black it’s ultraviolet and the Mystery Man’s bitter running commentary, Dr Yes canters merrily along from catalyst to climax.
What with the rickets and his collapsed lung, the Small Shop Keeper doesn’t go around running after things often. Until, that is, he sees Augustine Wogan walk past the window of No Alibis bookstore. Augustine Wogan is the most successful unsuccessful author in the crime-writing profession. Despite the fact his Barbed Wire trilogy was never picked up by a publisher, he has not written anything since and hardly anyone knows who he is – the man is a legend.
All the Small Shop Keeper wants is for Wogan to sign some copies of his book so they can be sold at a drastically marked up price. The only problem is that Wogan is too distressed to hold a pen. His wife, having frequented a local plastic surgery clinic for a little nip, tuck and suck – Dr Yes’s famous Million Dollar Makeover – has subsequently disappeared. She's dead, Wogan insists, and he’s willing to give up the rights to an unpublished novel to find out how she died.
Money. It’s the Small Shop Keeper one weakness. That and the rickets, and the allergies, and the haemophilia... Money is one of his weaknesses.
Except this is no ordinary case. His pregnant girlfriend is left at the mercy of a hit man, his more-or-less trusty assistant Jeff has gotten involved in underground poetry readings and the lovely Pearl Kneckless might not be all she appears to be. Most terrifying of all, his mother has broken out of the old people’s home and found her way home like a geriatric homing pigeon with Tourettes.
A lesser man might give up, but Bateman's hero is too bloody-minded to let a murderer go free. Besides, now that Wogan's wife is dead, his books are going to be worth even more money than before.
The Mystery Man novels are a good-natured pastiche of the detective novel conventions laid out by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Bateman takes a character far better suited to the ratiocinative investigative style of Sherlock Holmes and C Auguste Dupin and throws him, complaining all the way, into the streets of the hard-boiled genre.
Hammetian in his lack of a name, the Small Shop Keeper with No Name has little else in common with that most pared down of detectives: the Continental Op. He is sickly (if only in his own head) and neurotic; the femme fatale is quickly identified; and attempts to use violence rarely end well for him.
In one scene, a possible homage to Hammett’s Red Harvest when the Op uses a bible to put out the light gunmen are using to target him, the Small Shop Keeper throws a novel at Jeff, his assistant. Jeff gets a cut on his eyebrow and leaves in a huff. It isn't a triumphant moment for our hero - he damages the novel for one thing.
Unlike some other deconstructions in the canon, there is no sense of ill will from Bateman towards the genre. It’s obvious he’s taking the mickey out of a literary space that he is comfortable in and enjoys. From the Small Shop Keeper's reverie over his recent expulsion from the Support Group for People Depressed Because They Have Been Rejected by their Cornea Transplants, to the surprisingly touching death of a local thug and detective novel aficionado, Dr Yes is a gripping book.
Bateman keeps the plot tight and elusive, and never relies on humour to carry the reader over a weak joint in the plot. He even makes the Small Shop Keeper strangely endearing - although I still wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of him.
For fans of the series Dr Yes is a fitting new addition. For readers new to the series, it's as good an introduction as any. If you're very brave, you can visit the real life No Alibis on Botanic Avenue for the rest of the series. Don't worry, the owner hasn't thrown a book at anyone in ages.*
*Disclaimer: David Torrance of No Alibis has never thrown a book at anyone to CultureNorthernIreland's knowledge and is unlikely to start now. The Small Shop Keeper with No Name is only very loosely based on him!