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by James Anderson
Crown, March 2016
304 pages
ISBN: 1101906529

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The desert in question is one that I can't recall visiting in either fiction or film - the high desert of Utah - but it's familiar territory nevertheless. Sparsely populated, extreme in temperature and weather, and populated by a collection of loners, desperados, and dropouts of varying degrees and histories, it serves as a perfect setting for a certain variety of American noir fiction. In this, his debut novel, James Anderson does his best to bring the archetypical elements of desert noir into the 21st century. On the whole, he succeeds very well.

His narrator, Ben Jones, is an independent trucker whose route takes him along a secondary highway along which people live who prefer not to advertise their presence by planting mailboxes by the side of the road. Instead, they depend on Ben to deliver what they need, from machinery to ice cream, on a more or less casual basis. The most prominent landmark along his route is The Well-Known Desert Diner, Walt Butterfield, prop. This sports a permanent "CLOSED" sign on the door, a sign that the owner put up in the wake of a terrible crime that took place there years in the past. Since he did not take down the sign advertising the place on the highway, infuriated tourists have dubbed it The Never-Open Desert Diner. Walt does not care.

Familiar though he may be with his delivery route, one day Ben happens across a turnoff leading to an abandoned housing development that he's never noticed before. This discovery in turn leads to a hilarious send-up of a rom-com staple, the "meet cute." It also leads to Ben's falling in love with the woman he meets, a rather mysterious cello player who is inhabiting an empty house.

At this point, pretty much all the noir fixtures are in place. But it is here that is becomes evident that Anderson is not seeking to replicate the past but to bring it into the present century, whether it wants to come or not. Much as one might admire the noir classics, their inevitable and inherent misogyny is difficult to get past. Ben's cello player can perhaps be deadly, but she is no black widow, patiently waiting for her post-coital snack until her male lover drops his guard. Ben is involved as well with another woman, a teen-aged expectant mother who displays considerable grit and self-reliance, but his involvement is not erotic but paternal. Neither woman conceals the dark heart of evil often revealed at the climax of American noir fiction.

James Anderson employs a deceptively and appropriately simple style, but it is one that effectively captures the atmosphere of the desert setting as well as the reader's attention. This was a book I found difficult to put down, not so much because of its suspense and tension, or even its mystery, though there is plenty of that, but simply because I so much enjoyed surrendering to the spell it wove.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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