Crime Scene: ZANE LOVITT Black Teeth. Reviewed by Chris Maher
Zane Lovitt, winner of the 2013 Ned Kelly Award, has produced an original Melbourne take on the noir crime novel.
Black Teeth is peopled by loners. A protagonist who suffers breathless anxiety in public, his neighbour who cloisters herself away in her flat, an absent father who drinks himself blank in his rundown cottage, and the loneliest of all, the young hermit who lives in a world of dust and nail clippings in his decaying terrace, plotting revenge.
The novel starts with an intriguing interaction between a life insurance salesman and the 20-something recluse, Rudy Alamein. His father died in prison, falsely put away for killing his mother, and Rudy plans to murder the person responsible for locking him up.
The orphaned Rudy, having pretty much raised himself, is barely socialised:
He wore a woollen jumper too short in the sleeves and tracksuit pants too big at the waist, held them up with a fist on his hip and they were stained with something purple, maybe beetroot. A few tufts of red hair sprouted from a smooth, enormous cranium. The tiny eyes in there continued to blink against the daylight.
Once inside the Albert Park terrace, we discover a place ‘plumed with the scent of decay, vaguely rancid, plainly organic’. The tablecloth was scattered with a curious substance:
Strewn across the dull blue cotton were tiny shavings like crumbs of parmesan cheese and it took a moment to determine they were in fact nail clippings, hundreds of them, chewed off and left to mingle.
This elicits a constant sense of unease: you just know things aren’t quite as they seem.
In prison, Alamein senior was branded on his hand with a series of black triangles – teeth marks that meant he belonged to someone. Rudy has the same patterns tattooed on his hand in sympathy for his now dead father. And when the insurance salesman removes his glove – so does he.
From there we jump back in time to the first-person account of Jason Ginaff, an edgy young man who is also ‘orphaned’, his father absent and his mother dead. Jason is a tech-savvy researcher who pries into people’s lives, using his hacking nous to navigate the deep web and uncover secrets that may render job applicants unsuitable.
In this way, he is perhaps a little like Stieg Larsson’s antisocial hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who also worked for the establishment while pursuing other, less mainstream activities in The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series. And while quasi-orphan Lisbeth would well and truly kick Jason’s butt, they do share a sense of justice and both lack a normal social life.
Jason’s personal research task has been to find the phone number of the father he never knew. When his hacking skills finally yield success, he arranges to meet him.
Although Jason is not at all the tough and rugged PI type, he does cynical observation very well – a younger, nervier Marlowe with an Aussie accent. He’s acerbic and amusing, keeping us entertained as he delves into various locations, such as the Good Times club where he first meets his father, the disgraced ex-detective, Glen Tyan:
The Good Times on Cemetery Road is so what I expected that I’m literally giggling as I make entrance. A bright green banner in what else but Comic Sans promotes bingo nights and chicken parmigianas, neither of which can be enjoyed anywhere but in this cupboard-cum-bistro overlooking the vista of the staff toilets.
Finally, he spies his father:
I … watch Tyan’s slow jaunt to the bar, see the broadness of his shoulders, the pregnant glory of his stomach, and I recognise a man at his home ground. He doesn’t seem to know the staff, but he knows soulless vinyl drinking barns like this one, knows they were built for white men with pot bellies and polo shirts. This is their Green Zone, and no amount of immigration or feminism or gay pride out there in the world has yet breached its ramparts.
The meeting doesn’t go well, with Tyan half drowning his son in a urinal. But later he asks for Jason’s help in tracking down a stalker, and Jason feels some sort of loyalty to the absent, almost grotesque man who is (probably) his father.
So he begins the investigation that leads to the Alamein case and a slew of neatly drawn characters – most of whom are not quite what they seem; sometimes, not anything like what they seem.
We discover it was Tyan who put Rudy’s father in prison, and he is the one in line for execution.
When Jason tells his father about Rudy’s plans, Tyan surprisingly welcomes the news; his logic being he can then legally kill Rudy in self-defence and remove the threat forever.
So unless Jason can discover the true identity of the murderer, either the simpleton seeking revenge or Jason’s own father will be killed. Rudy plans the murder for Friday: the clock is ticking.
As Jason attempts to untangle the mystery, he is aided by Beth, the only person who could be vaguely considered a friend to Rudy, and together they delve into the decades-old crime.
One entertaining character they come across is the odious Kenneth Penn, the ex-lover of Rudy’s mother. Now an ageing Lothario, he is ensconced in a distant nursing home, his bedroom door graced with a poster reading ‘Old Bananas are the Sweetest’. Jason and Beth enter his dark room like two unsuspecting innocents in a David Lynch movie.
The rich vein of dark humour is entertaining and the subtly telegraphed twists keep the book moving at a good pace. And as with all compelling noir, there is both deception and counter-deception.
One curious print effect might annoy some more traditional readers, while others may enjoy the innovation. When Jason recalls his mother’s final months in the hospital, those memories seem to drift into his consciousness as the narrative text fades out, only to slowly re-emerge at the completion of the memory. The effect is reminiscent of a movie vignette – and Lovitt did study scriptwriting before he began writing prose.
Lovitt’s character Jason Ginaff is needy and sometimes even creepy – but he has an endearingly smart-arsed turn of phrase, and tucked in somewhere beneath his fallible, self-obsessed personality is a twitchy moral compass. He is well worth another book.
Zane Lovitt Black Teeth Text 2016 PB 368pp $29.99
Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist who occasionally blogs at Not a Book Review.
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