Jason Starr’s 1997 debut is an acerbic story of white collar crime and a quarter-life crisis that brings new meaning to the term ‘dead-end job’. First picked up by the UK’s No Exit Press, the book’s publication marked the author as an exciting new voice in noir, and now, almost 20 years on, Cold Caller is still as fresh and relevant as ever, signifying it as a modern crime classic and Jason Starr as a noteworthy talent for his highly adaptable brand of crime fiction.
Bill Moss hates his telemarketing job. Once an up-and-coming vice president at an advertising agency in Seattle, Bill now lives in New York, is in his early thirties, and growing increasingly frustrated with his life. Despite being good at his job the work is unfulfilling and the petty office politics he’s forced to play between his overbearing, bureaucratic boss and his slimy line manager are almost too much to bear. But Bill is a smart guy, and through a combination of deceit and manipulation he works his way into a powerful position on the telesales floor.
Jason Starr’s story is angry, stylish and acutely observed, perfectly capturing that middle-class, working hipster ennui. Blending the aesthetic satire of Bret Easton Ellis with Jim Thompson’s intimidating ability to adopt a psychopath’s point of view and flirt with us to empathise with these unhinged anti-heroes, Starr makes Cold Caller funny, witty and human. And it’s this humanity that lends the story its endurance, the idea that we’ve all been there; the boss we fantasise about killing, the suffocating relationship, the lure of the dark side.
Lucky for us, through Bill Moss we can vicariously kill our boss. When Bill ends up getting fired rather than the promotion he was expecting, he snaps, murdering his line manager Ed. With an improvised cover up and attempted alibi, Bill continues on with his life so unencumbered by what he’s done it’s comedic. Perhaps with this utter lack of conscience some readers may even covet Bill. Although his amoral, laissez faire attitude stems from entitlement, its effects are hilarious and all too familiar. Alas, this can’t last. Soon Bill’s pretence of sanity slips and as the detectives close in, Bill’s lies become more and more convoluted until they inevitably trip him up.
Despite his actions, through the engrossing first person narrative Bill is a charming and intelligent protagonist we can’t help but like, and this characterisation pre-cognitively echoes the 21st century obsession with villainous heroes; the latest incarnation of Hannibal Lector on NBC, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and of course Tony Soprano. Even when he’s wrestling with the decision of whether to sleep with a prostitute or not, Jason Starr’s sharp, deadpan writing style makes Bill funny and relatable. This human element in a modern setting is a successful formula throughout the author’s work, resulting in the sort of black comedy and slick dialogue that screams screen potential.
Cold Caller’s neo-noir climax manages to surprise and satisfyingly resolve Bill’s story, but it’s in the tantilising conclusion that’s both fitting considering the protagonist’s crimes, and playfully unforgiving to the reader, that Jason Starr seals the deal. By teasing that Bill hasn’t learnt a thing and is already planning how he can make the same blood-soaked mistakes again, Jason Starr was, and still is, an exciting name in contemporary crime fiction.
The author soon spread his wings and Jason Starr has not only gone on to write award-winning novels throughout the noughties, but graphic novels, TV and soon to be film too. With almost half a dozen feature films in development, 2016 could be the year Jason’s star rises in Hollywood. Cold Caller wasn’t a flash in the pan, one hit wonder, it was the calling card of great potential. A unique voice that could balance character and plot, with an atmospheric yet accessible tone of noir. It’s exciting to imagine how this brand of wry, modern-classic crime will play out on the big screen, and with the likes of Tough Luck, Twisted City and Lights out, our bet is Jason Starr’s holding aces.