"In what part of the universe does this guy’s mind reside?," I asked when I reviewed Kris Saknussemm's first novel. I'll admit that his latest, Private Midnight, brings him closer to our universe. But his is still more than slightly bent.
Saknussemm described that first book, Zanesville, as "techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville." Private Midnight is of a different genre. The jacket flap calls it "a psychoerotic noir fairytale." Makes sense. Saknussemm has taken noir crime fiction, infused it with a fantasy/horror/supernatural flavor and slathered it with kinky, at times graphic, erotica. Private Midnight's noir has a quintessential feel. The horror and eroticism seem to flow from the private dreams that strike at midnight or later. And it is a fairy tale to the extent the original Grimms' fairy tales were at times quite gruesome and violent, albeit not so overtly sexual.
The tale is told by Birch Ritter, an amiable, no-nonsense police detective with more than his fair share of demons. Imagine Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes as a public servant who's toting plenty of childhood and adult personal baggage. Then put him under the direction of David Lynch and you've got some of the idea.
From the standpoint of crime fiction, Private Midnight takes and follows a relatively straightforward path. Ritter and his new, younger partner are assigned to investigate the death of a wealthy businessman who appears to have committed suicide by pouring gas over his Mercedes, chaining himself to the steering wheel and lighting the vehicle on fire. Ritter can't quite put his finger on why the death seems so suspicious to him. As he's puzzling over it at his desk, his former partner drops a card on the desk that contains only an address on Eyrie Street and walks off without a word.
When Ritter goes there, he meets Genevieve Wyvern, a sensual, highly mysterious woman with seemingly hypnotic powers. Not only does she know details of Ritter's past, she claims he's there because he wants her help. She says he wants something he doesn't know how to ask for and that he wants to "see life through a new window." The meeting seems to transport Ritter into another dimension.
The next day, Ritter is called to another crime scene. This time, a minor city employee has emasculated himself and bled to death outside a seedy bar. Relying on his instincts, Ritter begins pouring through various records and discovers a connection between Genevieve and both the businessman and the city official. He intends to use a hard-boiled detective approach to have her reveal the full nature of those connections and why he was sent to her house to begin with. Yet with each meeting with her, not only does his detective sheen evaporate, he becomes more and more enraptured with her. Each encounter delves deeper into Ritter's past and his psyche and they become another step on a supernatural, erotic journey that is truly life-altering.
The noir feel and police detective setting serve as the stage upon which the heart of the story — a salacious fantasia — unfolds. Some might find the two a bit too divergent and the supernatural fantasy a bit too unbelievable. Other readers may be put off by the graphic and often deviant nature of some of the carnal scenes. My personal gripe is that Saknussemm seems to have a few too many characters appearing and reappearing for the reader to keep track of. For example, at one point about 100 pages in, more than half a dozen new characters appear in the space of about five pages. Two show up again later as Genevieve begins to reveal more to Ritter but most seem tangential at best.
Despite that, calling Private Midnight a fantastical and at times bizarre novel is a little like calling a Mike Hammer or Philip Marlowe tale a mystery. It doesn't effectively convey what you're in for. There's one thing I know about the universes Kris Saknussemm creates (or inhabits): they leave an impression.