Friday, March 30, 2007

"The Crimes of Jordan Wise"

A man wearing a yachting cap walks into a bar.

No, that's not the start of joke but rather what happens at the beginning of Bill Pronzini's The Crimes of Jordan Wise (2006), and there's nothing funny about the story that follows.

Pronzini is a sure-handed story teller, and one of the crafty things I admire about this novel is how he sets the hook so early and so effectively. Before I even opened the book I was curious about this Wise fellow and the crimes he committed. Even better, on the third page Pronzini has the man in the yachting cap -- a writer, the man soon volunteers, a fact which the narrator is already aware of -- tentatively approach our narrator, who introduces himself as "Richard Laidlaw. No, Jordan Wise."

Now, why would Laidlaw/Wise offer his alias, and then immediately confess his real name? When he shortly offers to tell the story of his crimes to the writer, who happens to have a tape recorder and a spare cassette on him, I couldn't help wonder: who is the spider in this story, and who is the fly?

Why is Wise confessing his crimes -- he doesn't answer when it's suggested that perhaps the statutes of limitations on them have expired -- and how does he already know his counterpart is a writer? From the other side, is this writer very lucky to walk into this story -- "My sixth sense says you might have a story to tell," he says -- or does he have some prior knowledge of Jordan Wise's crimes?

I wondered: is Laidlaw/Wise a cousin of Hannibal Lecter, and is this writer serving himself up for yet another Jordan Wise crime? Or is he another Tom Ripley, and will he -- by virtue of his ingenuity and luck and psychopathy -- skate away at the end of the story, the writer discovering his mistake in trusting his storyteller only when it is too late? Or perhaps he is another Humbert Humbert, aware of the enormity of his misdeeds yet compelled to try to make us understand his compulsion?

Or, perhaps, the writer is in league with the authorities and playing on the criminal braggart to implicate himself in crimes of which they suspect him but lack evidence of.

None of these questions would have kept me interested if the story itself was boring but that is hardly the case. In spite of an unlovable and unsympathetic narrator, his story had me turning the pages -- curious about what Jordan Wise did, and worried about what was going to happen to the man in the yachting cap.

--Marshal Zeringue