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Booze & private eyes

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeBookCrime (genre)Dashiell HammettDeath

Crime fiction and alcohol may not go together as much as, say, bagels and cream cheese or toast and jam, but they are very close kin. Thanks to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler -- as well as the later trend toward psychological insight -- the genre has been inundated with tortured protagonists washing away their demons with oceans of booze.

The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh attracts throngs of tourists because John Rebus, the hero of Ian Rankin's bestselling novels, drinks there on a daily basis. Lawrence Block gave Matthew Scudder a local hangout in the form of the late, lamented Hell's Kitchen bar Armstrong's -- a staple even after Scudder stopped drinking and began making AA meetings part of his regimen. It's difficult to imagine Donald Westlake's comedic creation John Dortmunder meeting with his cronies anywhere other than the O.J. Bar & Grill.

Con Lehane goes even further. His protagonist Brian McNulty may spend his down time at the Upper West Side joint Oscar's, but he also works as a bartender in a changing series of saloons all across New York. No wonder that, as in "Death in the Old Hotel" (St. Martin's Minotaur: 240 pp., $23.95), McNulty's profession provides ample opportunity to investigate the possible connection between his employers and organized crime.

But none of these bars is quite like the Greasy Tuesday, the Southern California dive that may be the strongest character in Christopher Goffard's debut novel, "Snitch Jacket" (Overlook/Rookery: 264 pp., $24.95). "I never knew how the bar got its name," muses narrator Benny Bunt. "It probably had to do with the cost-efficiency of tacking a couple of letters to the front of a prior, prettier one, judging from the Frankenstein neon hanging now above the grimed, mustard-colored façade: GREasy Tuesday." If that description doesn't indicate how tourist-unfriendly the bar is, its "fetid compost of alcoholic sweat, sawdust, Kmart cologne, Brylcreem, cigarette ash, piss, intestinal bile [and] domestic beer" does.

At 41, Benny fears that smell is getting inside him, and with good reason. His marriage has deteriorated to the point that he can't recognize the love he used to have for his wife, Donna. His ability to hold down a proper job falls away when faced with the prospect of petty crime. Then there's his real occupation: snitching on his closest friends and piling on the self-justification. "Freedom was bad for them. They didn't know what to do with it. Lockup kept them from drinking and smoking themselves to death. I was doing a kindness." The cop Benny reports to is more succinct: "It's totally respectable to save your ass. Everyone knows that. Even Sammy the Bull did it."

If it's not a great life, at least Benny is resigned to it. Then Gus "the Dog" Miller shows up at the Greasy Tuesday and in short order, makes the place his own. The fights decrease and the resentment simmers, but Benny realizes this multi-tattooed, potbellied giant has the potential to be his new best friend, and another target for his snitching. What he doesn't count on is how far Gus will take him on a downward spiral of criminal activity, with the inevitable rock-bottom of murder.

"Snitch Jacket" is a wonder of sentences that sing. On occasion, though, the beautifully crafted sentences get in the way of the story, making for something of a "forest for the trees" effect. It's as if Goffard, a general assignment reporter with The Times' Orange County edition, wanted to jam his first effort with every possible turn of phrase in his arsenal in case he never had a chance to publish again.

Fortunately, the story is artfully told, with shifts between action and first-person narration that are almost seamless. Benny's voice is full of idiosyncrasies that rarely cross into overused tics, and his behavior stems from an unfulfilled desire to belong. Rather than get caught off-guard by would-be friends, he finds a way to channel his thwarted anger into an activity that, although ostensibly based in betrayal, is based in a misfit's attempt to understand the world around him. Snitching is a way for Benny to control the situation in the face of disparate agendas. But when a man's fate is inexorably tied to the actions of others, it can only lead to trouble -- and does.

Perhaps the Greasy Tuesday is not a healthy environment for Benny, especially in light of what transpires over the course of "Snitch Jacket." The care Goffard takes in depicting the place, however, makes me hope he writes about it again. The Greasy Tuesday may be like "any bar in America," where lies mingle with "stone-righteous veracity" at a ratio of "about 60-40, maybe 70-30." But the sights and smells and fast talking are all so memorable that we can't help looking forward to what comes next from this talented writer's mind and pen.

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

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