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JUST THIEVES
by Gregory Galloway
Melville House, October 2021
248 pages
$$26.99
ISBN: 1612199372


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American noir crime fiction developed in the 1930s and 40s, when American social institutions were under enormous stress and threatening to collapse altogether. The noir hero - tight-lipped, jaw clenched, suspicious of women, ready to do what needed to be done regardless of legality - proved an attractive figure in an era of flux. He perhaps looks rather out-dated in the present moment, though the times we are experiencing are also quite threatening. Can noir be made relevant to the present moment? JUST THIEVES, by Gregory Galloway, a lover of noir, is an attempt to find out.

Rick and Frank are thieves. Actually, they engage in a kind of bespoke burglary, stealing small objects of no apparent value for a man named Froehmer who directs a ill defined but illegal enterprise. Rick was already engaged in his trade when he met Frank at a support meeting for recovering drug addicts, where Frank, a recovering addict himself but clean for ten years, acted as a mentor for members of the group.

In a sense, Rick was involved with Froehmer from the moment of his birth. Froehmer employed Rick's father, a building inspector and a corrupt one, to "steal from Uncle Sam in unspecified ways. Rick has known him from childhood when he introduced him first to coffee, then to beer. If Froehmer had a hand in setting Rick on the path to minor addictions, he also helps him get rid of a major one to oxy. But Rick knows he has to pay the price of his redemption - he would have to work off his rehab fees by doing jobs for Froehmer until he has paid in full. Of course, he never knows when that might be since he has never seen the bill. From time to time he reflects that he is caught in an existential trap, but the observation leads neither to resentment nor rebellion.

To the degree that Rick's life is capable of change, it does once he meets Frank. Frank's addict days are well in the past but he is paying off their cost by his services to the recovery group, where he is highly prized.

Since Rick narrates the entire story in the first person, we feel we know him, but although he comes to love Frank, he never fully understands him so neither do we. Frank is an obsessive planner, especially when it comes to thievery. Where Rick had relied on in and out quickness to avoid getting caught, Frank will spend a day or more sussing out the dangers in every burglary venue and doing what he can to counter them. Rick attributes Frank's caution to his belief that the entire universe is a trap ready to snap and he must be wary if he is not to be caught.

Nevertheless Frank is curiously unpredictable, disappearing without notice or an explanation on two occasions. One thing is certain - Rick loves him. Whether Frank loves in return is uncertain.

Frank is also attentive to whatever may perhaps be a sign. He pores over the messages in the fortune cookies that come with the endless rounds of Chinese take-away the two consume in their car while surveilling a target premises. He searches for signs and portents in odd events, like the appearance of a dead horse in the street outside the hotel where the pair are staying prior to what will turn out to be their last job together.

We do not get an explanation for the horse until the final pages of the book, just as we do not know why a scarred and battered trophy in the shape of a goat should stimulate the competition it does until the end, when the answer is revealed in a throw-away half sentence.

Readers of noir will recognize these as MacGuffins, that classic device of the sub genre. A MacGuffin is an item intrinsically of little value that drives the plot because the characters are heavily invested in it. As Frank observes, "'It's the things that don't have any value that are worth the most....Something I read in a fortune cookie,' he said, but it was something he had said before, something he believed." Galloway mines American noir, in both novel and film, to great effect and, just to remind us, appends a two-page list of his citations that is at once revealing and intentionally largely useless.

JUST THIEVES takes American noir, shaped by the Great Depression and the1940s, and hauls it into the 21st century. The result is a satisfying transformation, for what gets left behind is most of the unreflective misogeny and cast-iron masculinity of the earlier period. Instead we find male protagonists who are capable of intense feeling and are unashamed to mourn. There are two main female characters. One would fit fairly easily into a 30s novel; the other one is decidedly a contemporary of ours.

Rick and Frank are "just thieves" in part because they are, like their prototypes, essentially American. It does not matter that we have absolutely no idea of where in the United States all this is taking place. It can be anywhere. As Frank says, America was once a penal colony populated by thieves who went on to steal land and then steal the people to work it: "It's in our culture, our identity. We wouldn't be Americans without it. Everybody steals. We have to steal."

JUST THIEVES is definitely the most interesting novel I've read this year and perhaps the hardest to describe without spoiling the plot. But plot and tension it has, especially in the final third. This is a book that no reader with a weakness for noir should overlook. It is also one that any reader who takes pleasure in sharp and accurate prose and a sensitive development of character will be happy to read.

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, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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