Speed of Life by James Pate

Speed of Life by James PateIn the back of the van were two men, both naked except for their underwear and the burlap bags over their heads and the handcuffs on their wrists. Liz drove the van south through a night so black and dense only the stretch of space in front of the headlights was visible.

James Pate’s Speed of Life is a lot of things. With its downscale Memphis and New York settings, and a villain fond of cheerfully—and literally—crucifying her victims, it’s often boiled harder than Gulf shrimp. With its amateur detectives—dropout rock star Oscar and his cousin Juanita—it’s a private-eye procedural with a whiff of the cozy mystery. Given that it’s set in the late 1970s, it’s a period piece. And, without giving anything away, it crosses occasionally into the realm of the paranormal.

Most of all, it’s a calmly confident, sturdily crafted work of crime fiction. Speed of Life is just as distinguished by what you won’t find it as what you will. You won’t find any try-too-hard prose. You won’t find any over-the-top action sequences. You won’t find much testosterone splatter or Tarantino-type dialogue.

You’ll just find a good story stitched together in an original way from familiar parts.

It’s 1978, and Oscar, whose hit-making days as the singer and songwriter of two Memphis bands are behind him even though he’s not even thirty, learns that his former bandmate Tommy, the McCartney to his Lennon, has died of an apparent heroin overdose. Oscar’s Uncle Frank puts Tommy’s time and place in perspective:

“You know, it’s getting harder not to run with a bad crowd these days. It’s like the spine of the country got broken and we’re all running around trying to find our little cubbyholes before the whole goddamn thing stops breathing.” He took another sip of his beer. “Everyone has a gun these days. Everyone is aiming at each other.”

Oscar insists on tracing the path of Tommy’s descent after the two bitterly fell out over the usual artistic differences that break up most bands. His poking about starts from a spasm of guilt over having gotten hold of his drug problem and not being there to help Tommy through his. But when he discovers that the drug dealers Tommy was involved with have been stretch the boundaries of their schemes into political blackmail, Oscar and Juanita realizes that what started as a grief purge is becoming a murder probe—for which they’re ridiculously underqualified:

She eyed them skeptically. “If you two are playing detective, shouldn’t you all be writing this down? Isn’t that what they do in the movies?”
Oscar looked at Juanita. He mouthed, “I don’t have anything to write with.”

Juanita went through her purse. She took out a memo pad. She dug around further into her purse.

“All right, I guess I’ll help you out,” Grace said. There was a mason jar of pens and pencils setting next to the coffeemaker. She took a pen, she handed it to Juanita.

Their ham-handed questioning brings them in their sights of Liz, a cheerfully fat, sociopathic middle manager in the Memphis crime world who likes to break the will of her competitors by nailing their hands and arms to planks in the deep woods of Choctaw County, Mississippi. She has a soft spot for Oscar because she’s a fan of his music, but when it becomes clear that Oscar won’t give up in his search for Tommy’s killer, business comes first, and leads to a bloody showdown in New York’s Chelsea Hotel.

James Pate’s previous work is unknown to me, but I note that he’s an English professor with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and Speed of Life appears to be untainted by that experience—there’s no fussy, Richard Ford, no-hair-out-of-place prose here. Speed of Life feels like it could have been written by a talented autodidact who’s lived on his belly and emerged with his mind intact. For the most part the storytelling is straightforward as the prose craft, and once in a while a serendipitous bit of Southern elegance emerges:

“In my day we courted by taking river boats along the Mississippi,” Frank said, stirring his drink with a fork. “We would wear straw hats and someone on board always knew how to play the accordion. It would be hot as blazes but the ice in our drinks never melted.”

In short, there’s something to please every crime-fiction lover here. While Speed of Life deals with dark themes, it treads through them on cat’s feet, wearing its weighty burdens lightly. That’s tougher to do that it seems.

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