I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.
The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.
So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)
As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.
So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)
At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC. What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.
What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)
Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.
This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.
While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.
Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.
My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.