Friday, August 01, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Coffin’s Got the Dead Guy on the Inside,” by Keith Snyder

(Editor’s note: This is the 16th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. This selection comes from Timothy Hallinan, the author of six Simeon Grist detective novels as well as the Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok. The latest of the Rafferty books is The Fourth Watcher, about which Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, said: “Stellar. Smooth prose, appealing characters and a twisting, action-filled plot make this thriller a stand-out.”)

If you’re among those who wonder whether there’s justice in this world, the answer is no. If there were justice, Keith Snyder would be selling like Robert B. Parker, and a bunch of writers who are selling like Robert B. Parker would be writing warning labels for cigarette packages.

In just four books--Show Control (1996), Coffin’s Got the Dead Guy on the Inside (1998), Trouble Comes Back (1999), and The Night Men (2001), Keith Snyder set the mark, as far as I’m concerned, for smart, effortlessly hip, and absolutely hilarious Southern California detective fiction. And he created the fictional group of characters to which I would most like to belong.

Snyder’s protagonist is Jason Keltner, who, at least during the first books in the series, occupies rooms in the Manor, the moldering, gerrymandered ruin of
a turn-of-the-century boarding house where Jason and his friends Robert and Martin lived. In its long history, people had certainly made love and died in it, but the romance had sloughed off long before Jason moved in, and it mostly just seemed urinated in.
Jason’s a composer. (So is Snyder.) Robert Goldstein, all 6 feet, 5 inches of him, is an actor. Martin Altamirano, when he can get work, is a graphic artist. They’re lifelong friends, and they’re all smarter than you and I are.

Few literary gaffes are more embarrassing than the character whom the writer has labored mightily to make smart, who is presented as smart, whom other people frequently describe as smart, and who … isn’t. I’m convinced that the inane gabbling of so many fictional serial killers, that ghastly flippancy that keeps me from opening most books in the genre, represents an attempt to show us a kind of mechanical soullessness animated by superior intelligence. Hannibal Lecter aside (and he has much to answer for), most fictional serial murderers just sound like twits.

Jason, Robert, and Martin don’t sound like twits. They sound like the friends you wish you had: brave, good-hearted, funny as hell, and kind enough not to point out that you--or, at least, I--are not quite in their IQ zip code.

Even the scenes in which the protagonist is alone (so often simply a sign that a writer’s editor dozed off when she should have been wielding the red pencil) are usually wonderful in Snyder’s work. Here, Jason, who is in the middle of Death Valley, wakes up in the middle of the night and goes out to look at the stars.
He crunched out into the middle of the dirt lot and lay on his back with his feet toward the building. He found Orion’s Belt and something that might have been some variety of Dipper. These were the only conventional constellations he could ever recognize.

He looked for the Keltner-Goldstein constellations, superior to conventional constellations in that they didn’t require specific stars, so no actual understanding of the night sky was necessary. He found three pinpoints of equal magnitude for The Last Piece of Pie and then searched for two, one brighter and one dimmer, to be The Little Sister Who Does Everything You Do. Then he found four in a trapezoid for Einstein’s Tongue, and five clustered together for Robert’s Five-Star Review.

A silent white pen stroke dashed through Einstein’s Tongue.

“Marvin,” Jason acknowledged. Martin’s contribution to the Kentner-Goldstein stellar pantheon was that all meteors were named Marvin Gaye.
The plot of Coffin’s Got the Dead Guy on the Inside involves the bane of Jason’s existence, a former friend named Paul Reno who, in an earlier book, demonstrated the depth of his friendship by sleeping with Jason’s former wife. Paul is not smart but believes he is, and can think of nothing smarter than finding and following the crookedest line between two points. At the beginning of the book, Norton Platt, a mysterious character with ties to the intelligence community, pays Jason to bring Paul into the Manor as a roommate and keep tabs on him. At Platt’s request, Jason takes Paul to a party that will be attended by someone named Huey Benton--Platt wants to know whether there’s any kind of interaction between Paul and Benton. There isn’t, but that’s because Benton enters the room drunk, keels over, cracks his head, and dies despite Jason’s attempts to revive him. Almost immediately, the Manor is invaded by a gun-toting man with two more armed men working backup, and Jason, Robert, and Martin find themselves racing thugs and ruthless venture capitalists in a quest to find a dongle (remember dongles?) with mysterious virtual-reality properties that are apparently worth killing for. And in the middle of all of it, boneheaded even in treachery, is Paul Reno.

It’s a good plot, as are all of Snyder’s plots, and it is paced beautifully. There’s always a thrill around the next bend or on the other side of the next door. But the real reason to read this book is to hang out with Jason, Robert, and Martin, the three best friends you never had.

The title, by the way, is the punch line of the last in a series of jokes about musicians that begins with “What’s the difference between a musician and a savings bond? Savings bonds eventually mature and make some money,” and ends with “What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin?” Since Jason has heard that one, Platt doesn’t bother with the laugh line, which makes this the only novel I know of in which a character intentionally avoids speaking the book’s title.

Oh, and the reason this is The Book You Have to Read is that if enough of us go out and get it, it’ll move on up the Amazon ratings ladder, and maybe some publisher will go looking for Keith Snyder. There’s no mystery writer alive today from whom I would rather have a new book.

READ MORE:A Conversation with Keith Snyder,” by Claire E. White (Writers Write); “Interview with Keith Snyder,” by Jon Jordan (Books ’n’ Bytes); “An Interview with Timothy Hallinan,” parts I and II, by Peter Rozovsky (Detectives Beyond Borders).


Ali Karim said...

Bloody Hell! I read this ages ago when I used to spend a lot of time on RAM - great choice / must grab my copy for a re-read


Keith Snyder said...

I'm so surprised and humbled by this, I don't even know what to say. So this is it.

RevJen said...

It's great to see this. I started reading Keith's novels when Show Control came out and have been waiting, tappy-fingered, for a new one for ages and ages. Back in the olden days, Keith often came into a chat room on AOL, "Bookaccino," where I was a host. I like to think we sold some books for him!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your recommendation. Keith is an excellent writer, his books are both fun and intriguing. One time on another newsgroup, the question was "which book character would you like to send a Valentine to?" I replied that my choices were Jason, Robert, and Martin. In reply, Keith wanted to know if I would include food in the Valentine. And, he gets the cat right. There are a lot of cats in books these days, and not many authors get them right.

Bill Peschel said...

Between your recommendation and mine (made for another site), Keith may rise up to cult novelist.

Seriously, Judd Apatow could learn a few things from listening to Keith's characters.