RARA-AVIS: Leaving the 50s

From: Al Guthrie ( allanguthrie@ukonline.co.uk)
Date: 01 Feb 2003

Read a few for fifties month, but nothing I found exciting enough to comment on. Until now.

Bill Ballinger's "Portrait In Smoke". It's a gem that shouldn't be. It ought not to work. At all. Yet somehow, it does. I don't understand....

Part of the problem is in the character motivations. They're very, very poor. The reason, for instance, that the protagonist, Dan April, a collection agent, starts hunting down Krassy Almauniski (the femme fatale, who's debt is paid in full), is simply that he saw her once when he was a kid and thought she was beautiful. Er, right.

Anyway, as I said, the fact that Krassy is a female Lou Ford makes quite a bit of difference (to me, at least). Almost as much as the narrative technique. It's highly unusual. Particularly for 1951 noir. For most of the book the viewpoint characters alternate chapters between Dan (first person) and Krassy (third person). Dan lets us know how his search for Krassy is progressing, and then Krassy provides us with facets of her character Dan knows nothing about.

If Goodis had written this, the conclusion would have been inevitable. And Ballinger deliberately leads you down that same path. Utterly smitten, utterly used, poor old Dan looks like he's going to end up with nothing. But Ballinger's ending is very clever.

A nicely written novel. My first taste of Ballinger and I'll be back for more.


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