City of Hate is a frustrating book. I want it to be more than it becomes. Starting with a promising premise, filled with often-colorful, eccentric characters that feel excellently hardboiled and noir in a truly alluring way, the novel is compromised by an often-aimless plot and an unlikable protagonist.
Not Every Gun Fires
The book opens with a death. Hal, the protagonist, finds his best friend dead. He leaves, but not before grabbing some illicit photographs that portend the unraveling of Hal’s already-fragile existence. It has all the makings of a thrilling, cerebrally-tortured amateur detective-against-the-world book.
Built on shady business, conspiracy, and an image of the Virgin Mother appearing in an underpass, City of Hate is at its best when it leans into the shadowy underworld. Hal and the supposed bastard son of Lee Harvey Oswald make various endeavors to find someone named the Colonel, purpose unclear. Conspiracy Books, a store owned by the former mistress of Oswald, is in danger of being razed to make way for luxury condos. The illicit photographs Hal picks up from his murdered friend’s apartment in the early pages might endanger a conservative politician’s run for governor.
In isolation, each plot thread has the potential and atmosphere of what could be thrilling fiction. With Hal at the center, the individual threads never knot into something greater than their disparate parts.
For starters, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the catalytic death to play any type of role. Hal’s coldness in response to his best friend’s death, something a generous reading might grant to his psychologically unstable personality as a recovering alcoholic, mostly makes him unsympathetic too early in the book. The book seems to discard the legs it told the reader it would stand on and struggles to regain a steady cadence thereafter.
Hal, meant to be the epicenter, is the character I became least attached to. His various love interests and friends were more colorful and whole. In fact, the crafting of the supporting cast is an obvious mark of Miller’s talent at creating seedy, earthy characters with obsessive quirks and foibles. The side characters feel larger than life yet recognizable, pieced together out of equal parts make believe and a distillation of the weird relatives you wish never showed up at family functions. The supporting cast and the rabbit-hole draw of their world kept me around. But filtered through Hal, this conjured world and its underbelly storyline retains just a veneer of its promise.
The stream-of-consciousness prose set against a noir backdrop often betrays the atmosphere the plot inherently creates. The result is clumsy repetition and sentence structures that would have benefitted from condensation and crispness. Multiple times I got the impression I was reading a hastily-penned early draft that needed another tightening of its bolts to smooth the pace and delivery. Hal ultimately comes across as dour, mostly one-note. And his character arc only arcs through a deus ex machina near the end that resolves the tension with an unsatisfying flourish. In the turn of a page, Hal’s physical and emotional precariousness evaporated, the mystery along with it.
City of Hate is published by Goliad Media.