Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hard-boiled High School

In Sean Beaudoin's You Killed Wesley Payne Dalton Rev is a teenaged private dick, gone undercover through an arranged transfer to Salt River High in order to investigate a students' death. The student, Wesley Payne, was found hanging from a goalpost , and his death has been declared a suicide by the police, the school faculty, and the student body. But Wesley's sister Macy doesn't think it was a suicide and hires Dalton through his website to solve the case. There's also the matter of $100,000 missing from the principal's safe, and while he's at it, Dalton figures he can find that to, for a suitable percentage.

Salt River High is corrupt. Fabulously corrupt. Over-the-top corrupt. Everyone belongs to a clique and every clique has its "racket." Bribery, blackmail, flat out theft and the sale of performance-enhancing home-brew energy drinks are de rigueur. The names of the cliques indicate fairly clearly who belongs in them: Balls (football players), Foxxes (hot girls), Euclideans (nerds), etc. Even the faculty and staff belong to their own clique, The Fack Cult and are at least as corrupt as the students, accepting cash for grades or for convenient inattention in their classrooms and hallways. Everyone behaves exactly like street gangs, protecting territory and battling rivalries, except that they're all afraid of two things: a call home to their parents, and a dark and mysterious clique of gun-toting snipers called Lee Harvies.

Beaudoin makes the environment of Salt River High is so ridiculously dark that even somber matters like school shootings can't be taken seriously in the story's context. (Though a reader could not be blamed for raising an eyebrow or two.) Dalton Rev wanders into the Salt High quagmire ready to act the part of the hard-boiled detective, ready to shake down whoever it takes to solve his mystery. It's clear fairly quickly that he's not terribly talented and lacks confidence in this role. But he does have a couple of gifts. For one, he can perfectly imitate the language and mannerisms of his favorite fictional detective, the tough wise-cracking Lex Cole. For another, he can take a punch. Or rather, several dozen punches.

Beaudoin is a genius with language. He paints entire settings by adopting perfect names for things. His dialogue is hip, funny and pitch perfect. By letting Dalton talk and lie and doubt himself, he creates a character that quickly fills out his cartoon facade. The supporting cast of characters play their own stereotypical roles, but Beaudoin allows each of them to reveal some secret or quirk that imbues him or her with just enough humanity.

The plot is appropriately dense, giving Beaudoin plenty of tangled web to pull his reader into. The actual mystery, though, is a little flawed. Beaudoin relies on shifts in point-of-view to keep vital information from his readers, a trick common to the genre, but one which I've always felt was a little cheap. And the conclusion of the story relies heavily on the clich├ęd "Scooby Doo" reveal in which various characters explain aspects of the mystery through speeches of dubious length. But what Beaudoin is after is not the perfect mystery novel, but a vehicle with which to perfectly send up the insanity of the high school world, to explore what it means to fit in, and what it means to be "real."

For more contemporary fiction borrowing from noir detective fiction, read Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music and Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, which I reviewed here. For more Beaudoin, try his VR mind-farck novel Fade to Blue, which I reviewed here.


Kristopher said...

This sounds really good. It reminds me of one of my favorite cult movies, Brick.

mr chompchomp said...

Haven't seen Brick. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the comment!

Colleen said...

I thought it was outrageous and fabulous and completely original. It's in my March column - glad to see you reviewing it here as well!

Anonymous said...

Oh, nice. Brick is a favorite of mine.