Hard-Boiled Vancouver: A Review of Sam Wiebe’s Last of the Independents

Posted: September 15, 2014 in Books, Hard-Boiled, Mystery, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Last of the Independents


Series: Vancouver Noir, Book 1
Pages: 336 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: Dundurn
Date: September 23, 2014

This is the debut novel of Vancouver writer Sam Wiebe, and the first in his proposed Vancouver Noir series following the cases of Michael Drayton, former Vancouver Police (VPD) officer and current independent private-eye. Independents was the unanimous winner of the Unhanged Edgar Award in 2012, an award given for the best unpublished mystery novel in Canada. Fortunately for us, Dundurn picked up Wiebe’s book, and we can now settle down to an evening or two of highly entertaining modern noir.

Before I get into the meat of the review, I need to come clean: I know Sam Wiebe. He was a student of mine at SFU back in the Fall of 2008, when I was his TA in English 399. In my defense, I gave his first assignment a C+ – a grade for which he promptly took me to task, a grade which he was able to successfully argue against for a review and upgrade. While I did adjust his grade in that case, it wasn’t due to any sympathy or lack of resolve on my own part – it was because Sam was able to argue pertinently and to-the-point. In fact, Sam’s formidable in-person nature – strong-willed without bullying, intelligent without condescension, a strong sense of justice – also comes through in his writing. Michael Drayton, Wiebe’s creation, is one of the more complete characters I have read in some time. Click through for my full review.

Drayton is a private detective, the self-proclaimed “Last of the Independents.” This is likely an homage to The Pretenders 1994 album, which fits right in with Drayton’s age and type – 29, and a bit of an outsider. His friends and his work are completely indivisible – they either work for him, or are his work. Drayton’s life is complex, and nothing about him is easy. He’s sympathetic yet flawed, honest to a fault, hard as nails, yet unable to euthanize his direly ill dog.

His best friend, Ben, hangs out in Drayton’s office because the PI’s been working on the case of Ben’s missing sister for several years. In his heart, Drayton knows she’s dead, but he can’t find it within himself to tell this to his client/friend. His secretary, Katherine, is a part-time college student who may or may not be in love with her boss, and has more innate ability at investigation than she cares to admit. Enter an old acquaintance, Father Flaherty, who wants Drayton to look into a case as a favor. It’s another missing kid, 12-year old Django James Szabo, and his father comes with the case – he and his bad temper. He also comes with almost no money; Drayton uses income from another ongoing case to pay his bills, taking on the Szabo case pro bono.

Drayton’s investigation takes him all over Vancouver and on the ferry to Vancouver Island, with a lot of familiar locales for anyone who has haunted local streets. His background as a cop gives him contacts that come in handy, including his ex and her new boyfriend – Drayton’s former best friend. The cast of eccentrics and lowlifes are well-fleshed out, giving a believable slice of the underbelly of Vancouver. In much the way that Chandler’s LA became a major character watching from the background, so does Wiebe’s Vancouver begin to take on a personality – a little wetter, a little cooler, but every bit as much a player in Drayton’s narrative as LA is for Philip Marlowe.

Drayton’s personality, however, is where the novel absolutely shines. He’s a true warrior on the streets, if a reluctant one. Never claiming to be more than he is, his well-developed sense of justice and a clear understanding that the world isn’t divided up into Manichean black and white means that he can easily shift between the worlds of official Vancouver and its darker alleyways, speaking the language he needs to be able to deal with cops, bosses, and bagmen. No rose-colored glasses on Drayton’s eyes – he sees all the world’s shades of gray. And despite his sense of honor and justice, when facing his own heart of darkness, Drayton can – and does – make the difficult decisions that define a person.

I think that terms like “tour-de-force” and “triumph” are bandied about far too easily in reviews, especially by those looking to get their copy on the front of a book or magazine. I’ve never used those terms myself, but here I think they do apply – Wiebe’s debut novel shows a masterful touch, an awareness of the giants whose shoulders he is standing upon, and a great deal of promise for his new Vancouver Noir series. I look forward to reading more of Michael Drayton’s investigations in the future.

Steve’s Grade: A
An intense and compelling debut novel by Vancouver writer Sam Wiebe, fans of noir and hard-boiled detectives need this book on their shelves – but only after they’ve read it. A new voice in a storied genre, with the promise of more to come.

Links:

Wiebe’s Website

Buy this book at:

Book Warehouse (local Vancouver bookseller – get it from the source!)
Powell’s
Chapters/Indigo
Amazon
No link for WH Smith as of yet, as the book is not available in the UK at the moment – but the stores linked above ship!

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