Start with a hack writer as narrator. Add a serial killer and you could have a recipe for another cliché-ridden piece of crime fiction.
But in his first novel, “The Serialist,” David Gordon walks the cliché tightrope and succeeds. The book is funny, with a satirical edge, and unlike some literary authors who play with genre, Gordon knows how to write a potboiler.
The writer-protagonist here is Harry Bloch. His credits include 23 novels: vampire books, sci-fi knockoffs, hard-boiled inner-city yarns. His column in the porn magazine Raunchy has a following among prisoners.
One avid reader is Darian Clay, the so-called Photo Killer, who has been convicted of four murders. He makes Harry an offer that he probably should refuse: to write his biography, with a pornographic twist. Harry balks but is prodded by his friend, a 14-year-old Lolita named Claire.
In many ways, Harry is a noir convention. He’s the bottom feeder in need of a break, the weak-willed loser who gets in over his head.
But unlike the archetypal hard-boiled hero, Harry doesn’t even pretend to be a tough guy. He’s self-effacing and a little meek. At one point he muses, “If only I could solve it from here, while watering my orchids, like Nero Wolfe.”
Still, when he must transform himself from writer-for-hire to detective on the trail of what appears to be a serial killer, his metamorphosis is believable.
Part of “The Serialist’s” success has to do with Gordon’s intent to satirize current fads in publishing. Excerpts from Harry’s novels are dead-on send-ups of the various genres of trashy popular fiction.
Such set-pieces can kill the pacing of a thriller, but these are so funny that they enhance the book. Harry may be a loser, but he isn’t stupid. And he can write.
Using the nom de plume Sibylline Lorindo-Gold for his vampire series “Crimson Darkness Falls,” Harry describes his narrator’s fear melting “as he drank from me, and I lost myself, feeling his presence everywhere within me, every nerve, every vein.”
And as J. Duke Johnson, his pseudonym for a series of hard-boiled mysteries, he writes: “Down at the Hi-Lo, two drinks later (whiskey sour for her, Chivas rocks for me), Cherry Blaze tried to clarify her story. It was clear all right, clear that this girl was either crazy or lying.”
One especially funny scene places Harry at a publication party for a Brooklyn literary magazine, the Torn Plaid Coat, where the crowd is dressed in “expensive jeans, ironic T-shirts, and interesting glasses.”
Later, when the contributors offer to help his investigation, Harry imagines " Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem, dressed in windbreakers . . . with flashlights, waiting for Squad Captain Don DeLillo.”
Gordon avoids serial killer stereotypes -- the murderer doesn’t eat his victims, thank goodness -- by keeping Clay in the shadows for much of the book.
Scores of serial killers have rolled off the assembly line post-Hannibal Lecter. We’ve read too many gruesome details and met too many quirky psychos; we’re immune to the grisly.
Gordon’s is more menacing because he is a background presence. Eventually, Clay takes center stage for a witty and weird monologue. But then he’s off again, and more interesting characters take over.
There are a couple of minor missteps. Gordon is a little too bashful in his handling of Harry’s relationship with Claire. No hard-boiled hero should be that well behaved.
Noir is about blurring moral lines until the reader feels uncomfortable, even (in the case of the great ones) queasy. Yet Harry doesn’t seem compelled -- or even that tempted -- to take the (jail) bait.
Using Brooklyn as a setting is another tricky choice. After countless Brooklyn novels we all feel we know the place, and with the exception of the Torn Plaid Coat scene, Gordon’s Brooklyn seems a little bland. Perhaps this is intentional? That would be interesting, but either way the landscape could use a little more depth.
Novels that play with mystery conventions have become their own sub-genre. To be successful, they must possess the ingredients that make up any good mystery: a compelling story, a tight plot, strong characters, a good sense of place.
Noir adds other elements -- that dark, edgy quality, a somewhat cynical view of humanity and the feeling that violent chaos is just on the other side of the page.
Fail to pull all this together and you have noir-lite. “The Serialist” hits most of the marks, and it’s funny also. Gordon has written an impressive debut.
Hill is the author, most recently, of “The Incredible Double.”