Published 9 June 2015 by Polis Books
Read from 26 October to 31 October 2015
“My memory gets fuzzy around the bottle’s halfway mark. Everything after that is jagged. Bar tops distorted through the bottoms of empty glasses. Bodies in a crowd smothering me. White subway tile. Then my bedroom floor.
At least I made it home.
I bring my hand up to rub the sleep off my face and find the words you promised written on my palm. It’s my handwriting, but nothing else about it is familiar.”
Ashley McKenna, a native New Yorker, does favours; sometimes for money, sometimes for whiskey, but always with his trusty steel umbrella in close reach. When the woman Ash loves, Chell, leaves him a desperate voicemail - a message he hears the morning after she’s murdered - he grips that umbrella and hunts for her killer, finding himself in the middle of a criminal turf war and a hard-boiled role playing game along the way. It’s the morning after another blackout drinking binge, and the words “you promised” are the only clue to his whereabouts and actions on the night of the murder.
Ash tries to stay sober while he navigates the dirty and complicated mess left in the wake of Chell’s death, but along the way he finds himself evicted and confronted by unresolved anger over his father’s death. The New York that Ash has always called home is suffering from a case of ‘extreme gentrification’, and his home turf is threatened by an impending war with Brooklyn’s ‘Hipster King’.
New Yorked is Rob Hart’s first novel. It is hardboiled noir, but it is also an epic break-up novel (in the sense that it seems that Hart himself is coming to grips with an impending need to end his relationship with New York). We see New York through the eyes of a smartly developed cast of personalities: from those who pine for the authenticity of the ‘bad old days’, to Ash’s cousin Margo, who provides the insights of a newcomer who only knows the city through what she’s seen on Sex and the City. Through a far less embarrassing kink than Margo’s, my understanding of New York comes almost exclusively from Kinky Friedman novels, so I was happy to expand my horizons and figuratively wander east down 9th from Greenwich Village to meet our self-destructive narrator in the Lower East Side. This is the key strength of Hart’s novel - it is New York.
Like Friedman, Hart honours the hardboiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler by nailing a straightforward style and knocking back a fair bit of Jameson’s along the way. He also has a similar knack for naming characters - one glance at the name ‘Ginny Tonic’ and Ash’s local drag-queen crime lord roars to life!
There is no subtlety to the naming of others - Joe Cairo, Iva Archer and Terry Lennox, for example, explicitly nod to the Maltese Falcon and The Long Goodbye - but Hart somehow avoids a feeling of kitsch by weaving these into the hardboiled role playing game underway throughout the narrative. The incorporation of this story-within-a-story has us riding the subway around New York with Ash, unsure of which violent threats are play and which are real. This is a complicated way to weave a narrative - and at times it can be disorienting - but the plot holes that appear as a result feel purposeful, as if to make us feel just as lost as our unreliable narrator.
This novel is gritty and polished in equal measure. Ash - and New York, alike - are flawed characters in a far from superficial way. But you’ll root for them both right to the end in this badass reimagining of hardboiled noir for the modern age. Well worth a read – it’ll leave you checking under your fingernails for signs of being ‘New Yorked’.
This review of New Yorked first appeared in Crime Factory 18 in March 2016.