Review - DROWNING CITY, Ben Atkins
Set in Depression era America, DROWNING CITY is set on one night when life, business and the future explodes in Fontana's face. A bootlegger by trade, it's a business that has a limited lifespan with political mumblings about getting rid of Prohibition. Meaning what money there is to be made, has to be made right now. Making the need to resolve a massive rip off even more urgent. Although you wouldn't normally expect everything to be discovered, investigated and resolved in one night especially in the 1930s, when surveillance was people standing around in doorways, communication was talking face to face or land-line telephones, and messages required paper and not instantaneous texts.
Noir in styling, DROWNING CITY uses the setting, and the time period to generate what feels like spot on atmosphere. The dialogue reads as you'd expect - it's part wise-cracking, part out of the side of the mouth, staccato tough guy talk from start to finish. Combine that with a sense of place that puts you firmly in the mean streets of the big city; lurking in the dark and threatening little corners where the street lights don't shine; leaning on bars, or lounging on banquettes in the clubs and speakeasy's; meeting in rooms at the end of darkened corridors at the back of those selfsame clubs.
Fontana is an enigmatic character (as you'd expect), single-minded about the pursuit of the truth, despite the moral question over the nature of that truth. His firm belief that his cause is just and right isn't going to sit well with some readers. Needless to say his methodologies aren't that of polite society into the bargain.
The highlight of DROWNING CITY is the atmosphere and the way that this author has invoked a time, place and sensibility from the past. The downside of the book is a tendency for style to overtake substance. Whilst the pace of the action and the limited timeframe used to resolve the entire story might explain the short-changing of some aspects, somehow there was too much that felt too broad-brush, often too convenient, and ultimately unconvincing. The plot seemed frequently subsumed by the desire to set a scene, to invoke a feeling, in other words, it got drowned out by the atmosphere. Whilst this reader is going to come down on the side of homage, there's certainly the possibility that others may opt for pastiche.
Despite the misgivings, DROWNING CITY is, a brave and very interesting undertaking. Assured in some aspects, sketchy in others, it's definitely a novel that would be worth consideration by readers of noir or crime fiction in general who like to support a new author, trying their hand at a well established format.
In a city of elusive agendas, it's hard to find the truth. It's even harder to find what's right. A bootlegger's dream is rocked by an attempt to destroy his lucrative business. What begins as a curious evening snowballs into a night-time odyssey as Fontana searches for answers he never thought he'd have to find. The city is saturated with criminal and political extremism - is there anyone he can trust?