A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

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A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames front cover

Jonathan Ames is perhaps best known for his tense and emotionally draining psychological drama You Were Never Really Here, published in 2013. It was his first noir novel and told the story of a man driven by his own childhood trauma to rescue victims of abuse and trafficking and consequently drowning in other people’s tragedies. It came out as a film in 2017, directed by Lynne Ramsey and starring Joaquin Phoenix. A Man Named Doll is different – it’s a traditional hardboiled detective story but it also riffs on the theme of a dysfunctional upbringing creating a damaged man. It begins a new series featuring the troubled private investigator, Hank Doll.

March, 2019, a rainy day in LA. Lou Shelton drops in on his old pal Hank looking for a big favour. Lou’s not doing so well – he smokes, he drinks, he eats too much, his remaining kidney is failing. Cutting past the fact that it’s illegal, Lou wants Hank to give him a kidney and he’ll pay $50,000 for it. Hank is indebted to Lou, he owes him for saving his life way back when they were both PD. Lou is desperate enough to find someone on the Dark Web if Hank won’t help, so Hank reluctantly says he’ll think about it.

When Lou leaves, Hank heads to the Dresden Bar for a drink with Monica Santos, one of the constants in his life. They’re just good friends these days, he blew their relationship years ago. Then it’s off to the night job – unofficial security for the girls at the Thai Miracle Spa. It’s mostly low key work, dealing with drunks who need a lesson in manners. This particular night there’s a scream from the back of the parlour. A 340lb, six-foot-six punter on meth is strangling one of the girls. Carl Lusk is a heavyweight but Hank manages to get him off her. Then the man draws a hunting knife and slashes Hank’s face before the latter shoots him.

Hank only meant to wound the guy but life just isn’t that neat or easy and Lusk lies dead. As the nurses put his face back together at the hospital, two angry detectives quiz Hank on his version of events. Why are they so hostile? It turns out Lusk is an ex-USC football star, his chance of an NFL career shot by a knee injury way back. That’s not the worst of it. The real problem is that Lusk’s dad is a cop.

The cops accept Hank’s version, grudgingly, mostly because the girl backs him up, but it won’t end there. Monica picks Hank up from the hospital and takes him home. Maybe this is a second chance for them? Meanwhile, Lou seems to have gone missing. Hank intends to give him a kidney, gratis, but Lou is not returning his calls. A couple of days pass, Hank’s recovery is about to get a big set back and Lou is about to resurface but that’s not good news either. Things then get even more complicated and messy for Hank and Monica.

A Man Named Doll is about survival and redemption. A broken childhood leading to deep dysfunction in later life feeds into the story subtly, not slowing the action. If you’ve read Ames before, Hank Doll isn’t as damaged as Joe in You Were Never Really Here. The author draws complex characters allowing us to get a real sense of how the past weighs on them. While themes are constant across Ames’ work, the change of style from You Were Never Really Here is evident. This novel is more transparent, the prose cleaner and less fragmentary.

Ames gets the complex, layered structure of a hardboiled thriller, so this is a much more straightforward and open narrative. He knows noir too, so he slips easily into the language and rhythm of the Californian PI novel, riffing on Dashiell Hammett and John D MacDonald, catching the spirit of the genre very well. Yet this is very modern tale with modern sensibilities, not merely an homage to past greats and past glories. Naturally, there’s a dark cynicism and a black wit in play and as the story unfolds the narrative takes us deeper into a tunnel until the light is finally obliterated.

Damaged souls and citizens on the margins are the lifeblood of noir fiction and Ames revels in characters already wounded by life being put through the wringer. This gritty, hardboiled tale feels right. Hank Doll is a great name for a detective anyway, but his real name is Happy. Happy Doll. That is typical of the contrary way Ames tells his story, adding a little fun but never misting on the pain and suffering that is real life. A Man Named Doll is fresh, poignant and hardboiled pitch perfect.

Pushkin Vertigo

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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