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Zane Lovitt, The midnight promise (Review)

October 14, 2012
Zane Lovitt, Midnight Promise

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Zane Lovitt’s debut book, The midnight promise, is one of those books for which I can’t decide how to start my review. I could go with the point, previously made in this blog, that I’m not a reader of crime and so cannot speak with authority on the subject. Or, I could write about the fact that one of the chapters in the book, “Leaving Fountainhead”, won the SD Harvey Short Story Award in Australia’s top crime awards, the Ned Kelly awards*. I could start with how Melbourne-based Lovitt joins the growing number of lawyers who write fiction. Or, I could start with the topic that interests me most, its form.

Because, if you haven’t noticed, I didn’t use the word “novel” once in my opening paragraph. There’s a good reason for this: The midnight promise is, if I can draw from the main media through which I consume crime, more like a detective series than a movie. I could have described it as a book of short stories, but that would be misleading. The ten chapters or stories all feature the one detective or “Private Inquiry Agent”, John Dorn, and they are told chronologically. Moreover, even though the book comprises ten separate cases, rather than one main case as would be expected in a novel, there is an overarching, albeit not immediately obvious, plot, defined by “the midnight promise”.

This form may, in fact, be one of the reasons I liked it. Each story is complete in itself while also forming part of a greater whole if you keep reading. The form is also, however, responsible for my only real criticism, which is that, almost without exception, the stories are structurally the same. They follow a present-flashback-present-flashback (and so on) structure. In a “true” book of short stories, I like things to be mixed up a bit; I like to see variety in style, in voice, structure, tone, language. That’s not the case here – but neither, I suppose, would it be the case in a television detective series, so perhaps my criticism isn’t valid. Still, a couple of times, I felt myself saying “here we go again …”.

John Dorn is not, I think, a particularly original character, for the genre. Like many crime protagonists, he’s somewhat of an outsider, a loner with a broken engagement behind him. He’s also a man of some principle which is why his is pretty much a hand-to-mouth existence. In the early stories his fee ranges from $400 a day to $250 a day to nothing depending on whether he wants (or believes in) the job or not. The higher the charge the less he wants it! For this reason we like Dorn, and want things to work out for him, but somehow, more often than not, he manages to shoot himself in the foot.

Being a private eye, his cases are varied, from marital spying to finding missing people to protection (of the innocent or the guilty). But the theme is consistent. It’s “the shitty things people do to each other” or, as he puts it more colourfully when describing roadkill in the final story:

We drive over two foxes, parallel, like one of them couldn’t bear to live without the other. Though what’s more likely is one fox was eating a dead fox and got hit by a car because he didn’t see it coming because he was distracted because the other fox was so delicious.

Not a grammatically beautiful sentence but appropriate and effective in the context. In fact, I liked Lovitt’s writing. The voice is first person, and the writing is generally direct and spare with the occasional well-placed image which works partly due to its rarity. Like this, for example:

I’ve heard rumours about his shady GST schemes, but everything I know about tax offences wouldn’t rouse a chihuahua from its beauty sleep.

The dialogue is realistic. There is humour – mostly in Dorn’s sardonic view of the world – which varies the tone. There is irony, as in the name of the character, Comedy, who is anything but funny, and in the story “Grandma’s House” whose title belies the horrors within.

And this brings me back to the form, to the fact that while each story is complete there is a trajectory in the book, heralded by the occasional bit of foreshadowing. We know something is going to happen that will change Dorn’s life, and probably for the worse. The crisis occurs in the seventh story, “The Crybaby Technique” – and it’s ironic because he was, in this particular case, only a bit player. Things change gear from here, leading to the final crisis in the tenth story which is significantly titled “Troy”. It’s a gripping read with a beautifully controlled out-of-control last page. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, to non-crime readers, like me, who look for character and good writing, and to crime readers who, I’m presuming, like intriguing cases with a detective who keeps you guessing. If I were a crime reader, I’d be saying I hope this isn’t the last we see of John Dorn, or of Zane Lovitt. In fact, I’ll say it anyhow …

Zane Lovitt
The midnight promise
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
283pp.
ISBN: 978192192230

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

*In 2010. It also appeared in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, that same year.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2012 9:35 pm

    Sounds like a thrilling read. I went on a lesbian crime writer series when I was expecting once – don’t know where that came from – and don’t read much crime either. The form sounds very alluring and the language too.

    • October 15, 2012 9:23 pm

      I won’t delve any more on that Catherine! But I reckon you’d like this book…for the form and the language as you’ve noted.

  2. October 15, 2012 1:37 am

    I’d like to see a book of short stories written about the main guy from The Guard…

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 15, 2012 8:26 am

      What or who is The guard Hannah?

  3. October 16, 2012 3:49 am

    I am intrigued by the form, unusual for a crime “novel.” But the repetitive structure of the individual stories is why I tend to not read crime. Still, it sounds like the writing and the overall form won out over the flaws of the parts.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 16, 2012 8:20 am

      They certainly did Stefanie. It’s a great debut I think. Like you though, I tend to avoid true genre books because of their formulaic aspect. For some readers that’s comforting I think while for others of us that predictability loses us doesn’t it?

Trackbacks

  1. Book Review - THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE by Zane Lovitt
  2. Book Review – THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE by Zane Lovitt | Booklover Book Reviews

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