English writers are well known for mysteries, but not (so far as I’ve noticed) much for hard-boiled mysteries. English private detectives tend to the very cerebral, like Sherlock Holmes, or the very domestic, like Miss Marple. If novelists want to write gritty crime stories, they’ve traditionally chosen police procedurals.
But Keith Dixon has broken ranks. In the novel Altered Life he introduces private eye Sam Dyke (one assumes the name’s a tip of the fedora to Dashiel Hammet), a two-fisted shamus who works the mean streets of Manchester (and they’re plenty mean).
As the novel begins he’s meeting with Rory Brand, who runs a high end consultancy service that’s branching out into software development. Rory believes somebody’s plotting to ruin him, and he wants Sam to investigate. Sam says no thanks. The job calls for skills he doesn’t possess. Anyway, he doesn’t like Rory much.
The next day Rory is dead, his neck broken. And when Sam (rather guiltily) attends the funeral, he meets someone important from his own past. One of Rory’s subordinates hires him to investigate the murder, and there’s a kidnapping, and things get dangerous.
The prose is good, and I had only a few nitpicks about word choice. Although there’s one sour comment about Margaret Thatcher, there’s also a positive view of the business world that frankly surprised me in an English book. Sam Dyke is as tough a detective as you could ask for. All to the good.
On the negative side, I found him kind of dull. I know it’s a trope to make a hard-boiled gumshoe a wisecrack artist, but that serves a purpose, like the fools in Shakespeare’s tragedies. It prevents things from getting too dark, and keeps the detective from being a bore. Although Sam has a couple moments of cleverness, all in all he’s a dour fellow, and I got a little tired of him.
Also, in the final showdown, I thought he was just foolhardy, walking unprepared into a situation he knew he couldn’t control, leaving his fate to dumb luck.
Nevertheless, I thought Altered Life a commendable debut, and I might just read another Sam Dyke story.
Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.