October 29, 2009


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Hound, by Vincent McCaffrey, Small Beer Press, 2009, 271 pages.
By Nate Graziano letters@hippopress.com

I love the small presses. When I pick up a book and glance at the spine and see it’s not Penguin or HarperCollins or Scribner, I’m automatically rooting for it to do well. It’s like rooting against the Yankees: you want to see the little guy succeed. So when I picked up former Boston bookshop owner Vincent McCaffrey’s first mystery novel, Hound, and glanced at the binding and saw Small Beer Press, hell, what’s not to love going into it?

And for the true bibliophile, this is a book you’ll love. McCaffrey peppers his prose with all kinds of allusions and references to books and literature, new and old, classic and arcane, as well as multiple passages of verse. Clearly, as a career bookseller, McCaffrey knows his books. His protagonist, Henry Sullivan, is a Boston book-collector and -seller who gets a call from an old paramour, Morgan Johnson, the wife of a famous literary agent, to appraise her now-deceased husband’s — you guessed it — book collection.

Then Morgan is inexplicably murdered.

When Henry, at first a prime suspect, decides to solve his lover’s murder on his own, the plot is set in motion. McCaffrey successfully interweaves an ancillary plot involving the letters a young woman found in a sequestered room of a condemned house in Dedham, a plot that, in many ways, carries more suspense and unravels more neatly than the main plot in the end.

On the whole, like any good mystery, this tale has enough narrative hooks to keep the pages turning and the reader guessing. McCaffrey knows his setting and does an exceptional job placing the reader in the heart of old Boston. He captures the sights, the sounds, the landmarks, and the essence of the blue-collar folks who inhabited the city before Boston was overrun by urbanites. As a former bookseller, McCaffrey quickly establishes narrative authority, and his prodigious knowledge of books and literature and a love for them leaps from the page.

However, the book falls in the same spot where many first novels slip: it’s overwritten. At times the dialogue is tinny (“I was sorry to hear about your mother. She used to make a wicked peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”) and at other times it seems forced, as if McCaffrey is stuffing too much back story into the characters’ mouths. For entire pages, the characters will speak without a pause for breath. There are also places where it seems the author is using his characters as mouthpieces for a political agenda and to flaunt literary acumen, at the expense of plausibility. An example of the former occurs toward the end of the novel when Henry’s best friend Albert, a local blue-collar guy at the bar, rants about the loss of a sense of place and identity in Boston, saying:

“But we’ve replaced tradition with law. Traded our prudence for jurisprudence. And we’ve replaced simple prejudice with hate. We homogenize and pasteurize, and the milk that used to keep for a week is now bad in three days, and it doesn’t taste as good even when it’s just bought.”

That just doesn’t sound like dialogue I’d overhear in an old Boston dive bar. I have a hard time seeing this fat guy on a stool, wielding words like “jurisprudence” and slinging milk metaphors.

McCaffrey also opts for euphemisms that deflate some of his stronger scenes. In one scene, the somewhat asexual Henry has an old girlfriend step in the shower with him, a tension that McCaffrey builds exquisitely throughout the book, but he leaves us with: “Through the break in the shower curtain he could see the red petals of the rose, not far below the dark chocolate bud of her right breast.” End of chapter.

But, again, I’m rooting for the little guy, and McCaffrey is a more than competent storyteller, and he weaves an interesting tale easily mined for thoughtful subtext and musing on life, death, pain, and the role stories play in our lives. When you’re thinking about whom to give your hard-earned cash for a mystery novel to take you out of your life for a while, I can guarantee you this: Vincent McCaffrey will be much more appreciative than James Patterson.

BNate Graziano