I do not read a lot of noir crime fiction which, on the face of it, means I should not be writing this review - well, on the face the book presents after a few dozen pages, anyway. As John Dufresne's new novel opens, it appears to be not so much a crime-noir as a crime procedural, in the "civilian forensic specialist with quasi-supernatural gifts saves police from their own incompetence" mode so popular on television.
Wylie Melville - Coyote to his friends - is a Florida-based therapist, but one of the friends to whom he is Coyote happens to be a police sergeant, and Coyote's particular brand of therapy turns on his ability to get inside people's heads. "I can look at a person, at his expressions, his gestures, his clothing, his home, and his possessions, and tell you what he thinks, if not always what he's thinking.
"Carlos liked to call me an intuitionist. Bay said I'm cryptaesthetic. Dr Cabrera at UM's Cognitive Thinking Lab told me I have robust mirror neurons. I just look, I stare, I gaze and I pay attention to what I see. I'm able to find essence in particulars."
This seems a useful gift. We encounter it on the same very early page where we encounter five dead bodies, a set of particulars whose essence Carlos - Coyote's sergeant friend - would very much like him to locate. It looks as though this is going to be a forensics mystery, with Coyote in a cryptaesthetic Sherlock Holmes role.
Not so fast. We have yet to meet Coyote's toxic sister, or hear about his brilliant wastrel twin brother, murdered many years ago. His dying father, dead love life, and his many twisted if curiously insightful therapy patients are not yet on the scene. Before the book has gone much further it has begun to feel very much like an inheritor of the noir tradition: world-weary detective, corruption everywhere, twists, turns, betrayal, a bittersweet ending the best to be hoped for. I know this kind of fiction by its flavour, but I'm not well placed to judge it.
Still, I am probably as well placed to judge this book as most people would be, because another few dozen pages make it clear that it's no more crime noir than it's a crime procedural. Dufresne is not a great prose stylist - the fake-academia redundancy of his made-up "Cognitive Thinking Lab" gives the game away, and his characters are prone to deliver long speeches that all sound indistinguishable. But he's a nimble storyteller, and he hasn't given his hero a trickster name for nothing.
If you enjoy having your expectations constantly defeated, and if you can cope with shifts of mode so abrupt they sometimes approach the surreal, it's worth trying to keep up with Coyote.