Noir detective tale goes beyond its well-used genre conventions

Los Angeles TimesAugust 3, 2013 

"Men in Miami Hotels" by Charlie Smith.

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    HarperPerennial, 288 pages


Men in Miami Hotels

Charlie Smith

Perhaps my favorite moment in Charlie Smith’s terrific new novel, “Men in Miami Hotels,” comes not too far from the end. The protagonist, a Miami hoodlum named Cotland Sims, has snuck into Havana, on the run from a relentless line of gangsters who keep trying to kill him, as if his life had become an existential game of Whack-a-Mole. Cot is accompanied by Marcella, his longtime on-and-off girlfriend, who is traveling with an agenda of her own.

“You’re a real killer, baby,” he tells her, in a classic line from the noir novelist’s playbook – but just as we think we know where this is going, Smith turns it around on us.

“He felt – somehow felt – that what they were saying had been said a million times before,” he writes of his character, “as if the words had been scraped up from the grotty carpets of twenty-dollar bedrooms and second-run movie houses, and not even dusted off, not even looked at or sorted, used again. Old familiar scuds and wrake.”

That striking observation brings the author directly into the story by acknowledging that, yes, we all may recognize the conventions but there is something more beneath the surface, a self-conscious awareness of the roles life forces us to play. This, in turn, etches in stark relief one of the central tensions of the novel, which walks a line between genre and something considerably wilder, a fictional territory where a character might lose his or her soul.

As the book opens, Cot steals a cache of emeralds from his employer, the brutal mob boss Albertson, only to lose this tainted treasure before the first chapter comes to a close. Albertson doesn’t care that Cot has no idea where the gems are; he wants his property back. As Cot tries to stay one step ahead, Albertson sends waves of killers in pursuit, first to Key West, where he has retreated to his mother’s Craftsman, and then to Miami and to Cuba, where the novel winds up in an unexpected, but inevitable, denouement.

The novel’s violence, although pervasive, ends up feeling almost incidental; people fight or get shot with the matter-of-factness of shaking hands, and tense scenes (a kidnapping, a chase that leaves both cops and criminals dead on the Key West streets) dissipate almost without consequence, as Cot simply walks away.

It’s a strategy reminiscent, in some ways, of Elmore Leonard, who often treats brutality lightly, or Denis Johnson, where narrative arises out of language, and scenes are important less for what happens in them than for how they are described.

That makes sense, for like Johnson, Smith started as a poet; his seventh collection, “Word Comix,” came out in 2009. He has also written six previous works of fiction, including “Three Delays” (2010), which, like “Men in Miami Hotels,” unfolds in south Florida, and involves another ill-fated couple with a dodgy relationship to the law.

In this regard, it may make the most sense to read “Men in Miami Hotels” as an extended tone poem, in which the language of crime, of violence, informs the language of inner life.

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