Friday, 10 July 2009

PHILIP REED'S LOW RIDER: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Harold Dodge was the eponymous 'Bird Dog' of Reed's first novel, published in 1997, a spotter of suckers for used car dealers who reformed for a honest life in the aerospace industry. At the end of Bird Dog, Dodge fled to Chile with his girlfriend Marianna, who'd killed Joe Covo, a crooked car dealer who'd fleeced her. In Low Rider, he's back in LA, because Marianna needs an operation, and Harold can help Vikki Covo, Joe's grieving widow, find the body, prove he was murdered, and collect on the insurance, of which Harold's cut will pay for Marianna's op. Sound easy? Amazingly enough, problems develop, not least that, once the body's found, harold becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of detectives Torres and Gammon.

Reed assembles a great cast of characters, all of whom are conning each other, or thinking about swo doing. Even when they don’t intend to lie, circumstances force them to, so what the hell. It leads to car chases, gunplay, and even a little guilty sex for Harold, which in noir terms, is the classic formula for disaster, but who can resist?

While all this goes on at a frantic pace, the cops, perhaps because they're focused on Dodge, seem strangely inert. You could blow up the Santa Monica Freeway and kidnap Monica Lewinsky’s mother and they probably wouldn’t notice. What’s a few corpses here and there, between friends? This California laissez-faire allows things to move to a double slam-bang finish. And speaking of double slam-bang, Harold has to choose between women, wondering if he’s being conned by one or the other or maybe both. It’s somewhere between the dilemma of classic film noir and being the hero of a country song.

And as in country music, Harold also wants revenge, on whoever stripped his father's cherry '64 Chevy Impala SS, the kind of muscle machine even someone named Dodge can appreciate. After all, you can take the bird dog out of cars, but you can't take the cars out of the bird dog. As Harold’s father says, “there’s no replacement for displacement”.

POSTSCRIPT: I reviewed Low Rider for Petrolhead back in 1998, and wondered where Reed might take the character. That he would continue seemed a given, in that he was being routinely compared to Carl Hiassen, and a breakthough seemed just around the corner. Another novel, Marquis De Fraud, came out in 2001, similar in that it apparently is a fast-paced novel of sleazy people conning each other, but set in the world of horse racing. Reed's other books have been non-fiction, but Harold Dodge would seem primed for a revival, especially since the money-grubbing days of the 1990s have given way to the new austerity, and gas-guzzling muscle cars have a whole new status, or lack thereof.
Low Rider by Philip Reed Hodder & Stoughton 1998, New English Library (paper) 1999


David Cranmer said...

It sounds like a fine read and has been duly noted and added to my TBR pile.

Btw: great blog you have here.

Bob Cornwell said...

I loved Low Rider back in '98 when I reviewed it for Tangled Web – so much so that Bird Dog now reposes on the shelf beside it. So its astonishing to hear that Reed's career petered out so dramatically. Just goes to show (maybe) that those automatic Leonard/Hiaasen comparisons just don't pan out in the end.
Meanwhile anyone for Tom Kakonis?

Michael Carlson said...

I remember liking Michigan Roll and Criss Cross, but not going crazy for them, though lots of people did. I may have to go back and check whether I read Double Down or not. My memory says that Waverly was a little too professorial in the end, but I could be wrong!