Northtown Eclipse: hardboiled and harrowing

NorthtownOriginal and inventive, Northtown Eclipse takes the typical crime cliché of a seedy private eye and subverts the standard hardboiled detective story into something significantly more substantial. Author Robb White twists the tropes of the genre to tell a much more meaningful story, one which explores the human condition at its most personal – a troubled relationship between brothers – and on a grander scale, the post-industrial decline of American small-town society.

Robb White obvious revels in his writing; his love of language shines beyond mere storytelling. It’s rare, for instance, that you encounter someone who can inventively apply the word ‘spaghettification’ to emotional distress but White makes it look almost easy. You almost don’t care where the story is going: these are words worth reading in and of themselves.

He creates a tremendous sense of place which vividly brings to life the polluted waterways of lakeside mid-America. Chemical contamination leaves the dead fish washing up on the shore, while the town itself is stifled by industrial stagnation. During the scalding heat of an unrelenting summer, private investigator Ray struggles to make ends meet and to find any meaning in his pretty pitiful existence. He’s hardly a natural detective, and barely scratches a living by grabbing peep-shots of marital infidelity.

Ray is horribly broken; his emotional damage is as crippling as his visible facial scars. His disfigurement isolates him from society; he’s so conditioned to people’s disgust that he lives his sad, lonely life in the shadows, shrinking away from social exposure. His few intimate relationships are fraught; he’s destructively tormented by manipulative lovers who maul what little remains of his self-esteem.

Ray’s failings are brought into sharp relief when he’s compared to his macho, handsome sibling. His brother is physically impressive and superficially successful; yet his flawed life choices drag both of them into a chaotic spiral of intimidation, exploitation, corporate espionage, insider trading, sabotage and – inevitably – cold-blooded murder.

In this meandering narrative, the weak and the foolish are easily abused by the brutes; those high-school bullies who wield casual violence to terrorise their allies and who do far worse to their enemies. The vivid text is layered with real-world significance and it sidesteps almost every anticipated outcome. The scales swing between violent betrayal and emotional indifference as Ray struggles to make sense of a complex conspiracy, and to salvage his failing relationship with his one remaining close relative.

Literary and complex, the narrative of Northtown Eclipse might actually be a bit too convoluted for its own good. I was paying close attention but even I quite literally lost the plot at one point. In truth, by the end of the novel I didn’t really care about the superficial story of greedy men doing bad things. The soul of this story is about Ray’s last chance for redemption. It’s a powerful and poignant accomplishment.

8/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Northtown Eclipse by Robb White is available at Amazon

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