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Done for a Dime

David Corbett

Ballantine Books / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-345-447531-0

Publication Date: 08-01-2003

384 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: 08-20-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction

08-25-03, 06-14-04

Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, homeowners, families, the police -- everyone gets tangled up and dumped in an untidy mess in the places we live. Old neighborhoods create an artificial association of people, a cross-section of society that pulls itself apart as often as it pulls itself together. Novelists love to deal in landscapes and neighborhoods; Stephen King visits Castle Rock, Raymond Chandler haunted Los Angeles, George Pelecanos hangs out in Washington, DC. In 'Done for Dime', David Corbett creates Rio Mirada, a community in turmoil east of San Francisco and South of Napa. An aging gaggle of run-down homes hangs precariously on a hill, populated by downwardly mobile families in decline and transient criminals in crack houses. Corbett's carefully drawn characters collide with one another seeking love, vengeance or redemption. In a seemingly simple mystery, filled with raw complexity, Corbett crafts a story that offers no easy answers. It's not that the questions are difficult. People are difficult, and Corbett's people come life with a purity that's as powerful and confounding as life itself.

Raymond "Strong" Carlisle is an old jazz bandleader who played with the best. He's got his own group now, but as the novel opens, he's gunned down in his front yard. Suspects abound; his son Toby, also a jazz musician, Toby's fragile, flipped out, white girlfriend, Nadya, the local drug dealer, Arlie Thigpen, or any one of a number of people that Raymond Carlisle fought with; Carlisle was good at fighting. Detective Dennis Murchison is a white, weary cop who is paired with Jerry Stluka, a racist who makes working in the mostly-black neighborhood that much harder. Tensions are high, and there's lots of money to be made here, one way or another, none of them strictly legal. Murchison finds that the devil is in the details; and there are lots and lots of details in this novel.

'Done for a Dime' offers some of the grittiest, most realistic writing about crimes and investigation you're going to find on the shelves outside of the police station. Corbett covers not only the criminals and investigators, but also the victims and the accused. His insight into the important details of on-the-street investigation of crimes is stellar and riveting. Murchison skirts the law like a surfer sweeping up and down the face of a moving tsunami. Corbett conveys lifetimes of experience in a couple of paragraphs. In 'Done for a Dime', characters are king. Each is lovingly, carefully brought to life, with an inner passion that can't be faked. Every point of view that Corbett follows --and there are a lot of them -- is a compelling, sensually enjoyable reading experience. Sex and violence are kept to a minimum. But there's angst, a sorrow, a joie de vivre that shines through each life like a beacon, a searchlight. You may not like everyone you meet in 'Done for a Dime', but you'll feel as if you know them better than your best friends.

With a cast of characters as large as this, one might think that it would be hard to keep track of who is who and who is doing what, but it's never, ever an issue. In fact, Corbett is so skilled at his characterizations that there are characters we hear about from other characters who take on a vivid life of their own. By the time we finally meet them in person, it's a relief, because we really, really want to meet them. While there could be a cost to having such a large and well-realized cast, Corbett maintains a steely, ever expanding focus as he hones in on the social issues that created his characters.

'Done for a Dime' is much more than a simple crime novel, though it features a detective trying to solve a crime. A dense and evocative social background matches the intense and detailed characters. The difficulties of establishing relationships across racial boundaries inform the relationship of Toby and Nadya. The corrupt world of California's politics infects the police. The avaricious policies of lenders and real estate developers cast a blight upon the land. The devotion of musicians to their art swells up from within Toby and Raymond. Each theme is expertly revealed, developed and threaded through the dense narrative of events. Corbett's plot unfolds seamlessly, as each character contributes to the holocausts that follow. Each grows from the characters. Each is satisfyingly -- or at least realistically -- resolved in the violence and terror that follow the initial murder.

'Done for a Dime' is riveting reading, informed by emotions so pure they hurt. The larger social themes inform and enrich the mystery but don't overrun it. The cast of characters is an impressively rendered group of individuals. The events that follow Raymond Carlisle's murder are the stuff of big-screen drama, bursting forth from the page into the reader's mind. Admirably terse, beautifully detailed, 'Done for a Dime' is a success of contradictions. By being such a perfect genre novel, it transcends genre, and ends up being a great novel. It does an end run around itself scores outside its own boundaries. It plays the small game so well that it wins the big one.