The Contract by J.M. Gulvin

Review published on March 3, 2017.

I would recommend this slice of ‘Americana’ to any reader of modern crime fiction. This is a novel that combines elements of a conspiracy thriller with a pinch of police procedural, although is mostly a very satisfying lone wolf detective story.

The Contract is set in Texas and New Orleans during the Spring of 1967. A savage robbery at a gun store by an oddball duo (one a local young felon just out of prison and the other a seasoned three-time Vietnam veteran) initially appears to be a random violent crime, but it is actually the beginning of something much more sinister. John Q (Quarrie) is a Texas Ranger and he picks up the call when the fugitives hit the road out of the state and intercepts them. The young man surrenders easily enough but his compatriot forces John Q to shoot him dead. Something about the way the whole thing goes down just doesn’t sit right with John Q; how and why did these two men team up and what were the stolen guns intended for? When John Q delivers his prisoner to the station he hears about a sudden death of another young man in a Wichita Falls hotel; there is no ID on the body. John Q is instantly suspicious and convinced that this is more than a coincidence. Something bigger must be going on and he intends to find out what. The man in the hotel was poisoned and there are only two clues to go on: a date ‘April 28th’ and an empty prescription bottle of pills for the treatment for thyroid problems, which is what takes John Q out of his jurisdiction to a New Orleans pharmacy. He soon finds out that this is a city that is a law unto itself, from untrustworthy D.A.s and cops to gangsters and pimps and a shady local grandee. John Q has wandered into a mine field. He is working to a deadline and he is on his own in unfamiliar territory. Something big is going to happen and everyone from the Feds down don’t seem to want him poking around. The only way John Q knows to get things done is to keep sticking his nose in and to keep ruffling feathers to see what shakes loose. Why is the 28th April so important? Why is everyone going to such lengths to hinder his investigation? Just what are they trying to keep secret?

It feels like there has been an upswing in quality hard boiled/noir American crime fiction, although of course it has never gone away, it does seem to be branching out. Authors like Gulvin are taking familiar locations and stories and pepping them up with new twists, a modern pacing and a fresh eye on events based on knowledge of the history that the distance in time helps to give perspective. Strictly speaking, Gulvin was born in the UK but he spends a lot of time in the USA and this is firmly ‘Americana’. Maybe authors have stepped up in the light of the inventiveness and popularity of Scandi-noir.

I have never read Gulvin before and even though this is the second John Q mystery I didn’t feel that not having read the first novel The Long Count (Faber & Faber, 2016) was in any way a drawback to enjoying this novel. Equally, there are no details concerning the previous story here to spoil the possibility of going back to read the first book after reading The Contract. In fact, having enjoyed this book, at some point I might go back and do just that.

There are several thing I liked about The Contract. It is a strong story that is well told with interesting characters and a few surprises along the way. John Q, Texas Ranger, is part of a law enforcement body that could be seen as anachronistic but goes to heart of what makes Texas – Texas. He is a perfect foil for contrasts that help to make the story come to life and give it texture; the distinctions between the modern world and the old. John Q is a sort of belated cowboy hero in the close claustrophobic confines of the city and on the vast open planes, and he possesses a sense moral integrity in a murky world.

This is the time after the John F. Kennedy assassination when the bubble of hope was punctured for a lot of people, where conspiracies gained traction, the mob thrived, Vietnam hovered and a darker atmosphere prevailed. Gulvin manages to capture this in a subtle blending of the fictional story with the real people and places of the time. Equally, Gulvin is comfortable writing about Texas, but he also builds a picture of New Orleans, a city most of people would recognise as having a distinctive character, that feels right: the nightlife, the brothels, characters, leafy avenues, the river and the levee.

John Q is a stand-up guy with a few rough edges, single minded in his pursuit of the truth and trying to bring about the right outcome. He is resourceful and smart enough to get there in the end. There are elements of Coogan’s Bluff and Justified in the story, but it has its own heart. John Q has a good boss who trusts him and a cast of villains who create a credible story.

Gulvin has a style that fits the time and place but is alive to the pacier rhythm of the modern thriller. Once you get all the strands in your head, it is a straight-forward telling of a story that builds in intensity and complexity as John Q dive deeper into the mystery.

I am not surprised that luminaries such as John Boorman, director of Point Blank (one of the really great American Noir movies) and Ann Cleeves are enamoured of Gulvin’s storytelling. For me, Gulvin is a better thriller writer than Rod Reynolds, another British writer doing post-war American Noir that blends fact and fiction. The best novel of this kind I have read recently is Fever City by Tim Baker, but The Contract is right up there with the best. Faber and Faber are very selective in the thrillers they publish, so it is worth having a look when a new book comes out. It is likely to be a cut above and certainly Gulvin fits this standard. This is a quality thriller for lovers of hard-boiled fiction. There is a conspiracy that ramps up the tension, making it a very satisfying read.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Contract by J.M. Gulvin
Faber & Faber 9780571323814 pbk Apr 2017

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