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Wiley's Lament

Lono Waiwaiole

St. Martin's/Minotaur

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-30383-1

275 Pages; $24.95

Publication Date: March 15, 2003

Date Reviewed: September 14, 2004

Reviewed By: Terry D'Auray © 2004




In Waiwaiole's dark and violent debut novel, 'Wiley's Lament', one can but give thanks that all these characters are safely caged between the covers of a book instead of out roaming about where one might meet up with them. These are personalities one doesn't want to meet up with, ever, even in broad daylight. There are simply no good guys in this novel, just different varieties of bad guys. The criminals, local cops and federal DEA agents are all pretty depraved, pretty brutal and unquestionably immoral. In fact, the criminals might be the best of the bunch, if you don't make too fine a point of it.

Wiley is a drifter, estranged from his wife and daughter, making his way through a lamentable life in Portland. When he needs money, he drives up to Seattle and steals it from drug dealers. "I picked Seattle because you don't piss in your own peonies." (Wiley does, indeed, have a way with words.) When Wiley's daughter is found dead, brutally sliced with a knife, in a motel near the Portland airport, he at first suspects his old school buddy Leon, local magnate of strip clubs, escort services and other less-than-wholesome activities, of being the killer. But when he finally locates Leon, (having, in his search, been forced to shoot a couple of strip-club no-goods in the foot) he discovers his initial suspicion is incorrect. Wiley and Leon join forces to track down the true slasher.

Waiwaiole lets the reader know early on who's responsible for the murder. In fact, he lets us graphically experience it. Wiley and Leon on the other hand, spend the rest of the book nailing down the "who, what, where, when and why" of the knife-wielding DEA agent who's responsible.

Waiwaiole's plot stumbles from place to place, person to person, and scene to scene, stopping long enough in each to pump the violence meter a little closer to the red zone. Wiley and Leon spend much of their time driving from one location to another, each drive described in enough detail to qualify for a Map Quest print-out of Portland's back roads and freeways. When they're not driving together, they're driving separately, and talking on their cell phones. The point of this aimless gadding about, apparently, is to find somebody who knows something about some aspect of the motel slashing, and the subsequent killings of three other women in similar style. Wiley and Leon share the case with another old school buddy, Sam, now a Portland cop, who does little but show up at each scene after the havoc to clean up the mess. All in all, the plot has little to recommend it until the closing chapter of the book, when it takes a surprisingly wicked turn.

But what's lacking in the plot is redeemed by Waiwaiole's talent at characterization. Wiley is a well-drawn, if pathetic, character, lonely, lamentable and utterly uninvolved. His quest for his daughter's killer is, for him, the one admirable activity of his sorry life, and one he is determined to do right. Leon is a cagey lowlife power player, a man at the top of a violent world, who occasionally displays compassion and always displays intelligence. Wiley and Leon together form an engaging pair - with Leon providing the brains and Wiley providing nothing but determination. Waiwaiole is unusually adept, for writers in this noirish mode, at creating smart, believable female characters. Although sketched lightly, the women in this novel, Wiley's ex-wife, Leon's wife, and the mother of one of the murdered girls, are honest, smart and believable. The rogue DEA agent also reports to a woman, who turns out to be far smarter, and far more diabolical, than the rest of this dark crowd.

Waiwaiole's prose, too, rises above the norm. It's laconic, but punchy, just right for this type of noir novel. His dialogue is realistic and humorous, and his descriptions are cleverly phrased and evocative. Though often repetitive, the Waiwaiole's language is strong, his phrasing original, and his voice convincing.

While 'Wiley's Lament' is an imperfect debut, there is unquestionable talent at work here. Strong editing, a little polish and sharper plotting could easily elevate Waiwaiole's narrative from average to exceptional.