Quill & Quire
Loyalty – personal, professional, and, more often than not, criminal – is the abiding theme in Lee Lamothe’s novels, whether it’s an old-school Russian mobster determined to uphold the strict code of honour known as Zakone in 2003’s The Last Thief, or a dreadfully scarred killer’s adherence to his boss – a hugely wealthy, sexually ravenous, obese drug dealer known as Captain Cook – in Free Form Jazz. In addition to facilitating Cook’s ecstasy trafficking operation and helping to take out the competing Chinese Triads, Phil Harvey supplies Cook with women who are forced into sexual slavery. But Cook’s increasingly sadistic perversities begin making Harv uncomfortable and he considers ending his life of crime.
Tracking the two criminals through the unnamed American city that serves as the backdrop for Lamothe’s novel are Ray Tate, a disgraced cop trying to reform his life, and Djuna Brown, a state trooper who has been partnered with Tate in a politically motivated effort to bring them both down. Brown is a black lesbian; Tate’s downfall came about after two separate incidents in which he shot black men. Against all odds, these two misfits form a bond that becomes a true partnership as they pursue the two murderous drug dealers.
An investigative journalist who has written extensively on the subject of organized crime, Lamothe has an undeniable facility when it comes to describing the unsavoury world of career criminals. He also has a sharp eye for the kind of politics – racial, sexual, and jurisdictional – that infect a city’s police force. It’s unfortunate that the behind-the-scenes machinations of the city’s mayor and the newly appointed police chief are summarily dropped in favour of a more quotidian cops-and-criminals story.
Moreover, a number of plot points strain credulity almost to the breaking point. A twist in the middle throws Tate and Brown into an unlikely romantic relationship, and precipitates a ludicrous scene in which Tate is attacked in his home by a gun-wielding assailant – a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. This may be the “free form jazz” that Brown defines as “just hitting notes and hoping you find a riff that makes sense,” but from the perspective of dramaturgy, it falls flat.
There’s a neat twist at the end involving Harv’s last acquisition for Cook, but by the time it arrives the reader has long since lost interest. Diffuse, overlong, and frequently plodding, Free Form Jazz reads like ersatz Elmore Leonard or Richard Price, but without the tight plotting and careful pacing of either.
An investigative journalist who has written extensively on the subject of organized crime, Lamothe has an undeniable facility when it comes to describing the unsavoury world of career criminals. He also has a sharp eye for the kind of politics racial, sexual, and jurisdictional that infect a citys police force.
(Quill & Quire
Lamothe takes the time to turn Tate and Brown into characters with depth, not just habits, and then lets them follow the evidence and build the case. Lamothes novel The Fingers Twist, which eerily predicted events last weekend in Toronto, was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award. This one is even better.
(Globe & Mail, The
Lamothe emerges, delivering a superbly crafted morality play where the scurrilous become wrenchingly sympathetic and the plot is just along for the free-form ride. Lamothe now has a genre-stretching hat-trick. Pray for more.
(The Winnipeg Free Press
Toronto journalist-turned-mystery-writer Lee Lamothe is back with his brand of crime writing so punchy you feel it in your teeth.
(Telegraph-Journal (St. John NB)
It's a fascinating story that has considerable ring of reality to it, polished by the developing friendship between Tate and Brown. The scene where they both visit a beauty salon is worth the price of admission.
(The Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon)