There’s a point about two-thirds of the way through Too Close to Miss, John Perich’s excellent debut novel,* right after the plot twist that sends the story into its final act, where Mara Cunningham (the novel’s protagonist) drops a reference to The Untouchables. It’s a fairly obvious reference–even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll recognize the line–and the way Perich casually puts it into Cunningham’s words is a tribute to the easy style he brings throughout the novel. But, more importantly, that moment–a character in 2011 referencing a line from a 1987 movie about a Prohibition-era crime fighter–crystallizes the tension and play between eras that gives Too Close to Miss its sense of life.
(Note: I will try to avoid spoiling the plot; as with any mystery, Too Close to Miss is more enjoyable on first read if you don’t know how it ends. I think that nothing I mention plot-wise happens in the second half of the book, but be warned.)
Too Close to Miss lives with a foot firmly planted in the noir, hardboiled detective fiction genre; Mara is a former member of the establishment on the outs (a former Beacon Hill reporter busted down to photographer because she got the wrong people upset). Like so many noir protagonists, she is ensnared by a relationship that she really shouldn’t have gotten into in the first place. And, as we rapidly find out, what seems at first like a simple murder born of greed is part of a much bigger conspiracy.
However, recalling the noir genre so faithfully forces the reader to confront the fact that it is, attitudinally, a genre of the past. It’s Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. Even something from the ’70s (like, say, Chinatown) is traditionally set in the 1930s. Add to this the fact that Mara, a young professional in the journalism business, is acutely aware that she works in an industry on the decline. The Boston Tribune, the fictional paper she works for, is on the path to failure, even if its employees don’t understand that fact. The Tribune’s best days are, in fact, in the noir era–the days of the morning and evening editions. The echoes of the past are present.
Too Close to Miss highlights this contrast of eras; in fact, the book starts with a cell phone call. But, crucially, modern technology is often of little use: the cell phone caller ID is blocked. A critical conversation takes place over a pay phone. A city government hasn’t put records on paper. A camera doesn’t work properly. Modern technology, in other words, is just another obstacle to be overcome by the modern noir hero. At the end of the day, nothing beats good old-fashioned gumshoe work. (And a flash drive.)
Too Close to Miss is a briskly-paced, thoroughly entertaining thriller that lives up to the heritage of the noir genre. It’s ten pounds of style in a two-pound bag. It’s also a book with one foot in the 1930s, and another foot just as solidly in the modern day. It comes with my high recommendation.
*Disclaimer: The author is a friend of mine, and I helped with some arcana of the legal system as he was writing the book. But, if I hadn’t liked it, I could have just not written about it. Trust me–it’s good.