I had the privilege of hearing this line, amongst others, at the Noir in the Bar crime-writer event in downtown Vancouver, June 2014. Dietrich was one of several Vancouver-based crime writers who read an extract from his work. This line alone was enough to tell me this was a writer of quality and a lover of language, fresh lively description and most of all, dialogue.
“If your man’s breathing, we’ll find him; if not, we’ll point out to where he’s buried”
This book falls right into the bulls-eye off that camp and what a book and what a ride it was reading it. The hero, Karl Morgen works as a bounty hunter in Seattle. For those reading this article outside of North America, you are forgiven for an image of Boba Fett of Star Wars fame, rising from the steamy swamps of your imagination. In Seattle, a bounty hunter is a privately employed enforcer, collector of debts and server of summons. In this novel, Karl is assigned to hunt down low-life drug dealer, Miro Knotts. Miro is in deep, shitty hot water over his dalliance with an under-age girl he met at a party.
Karl is good at what he does and catches up with Miro at an all-night rave – but Karl is a rough diamond and engages his fists before his brain and gives Miro a hiding before cuffing him and dragging him to the local police, but the police don’t like the shape Miro’s in. Karl has a story, but Miro presses charges, resulting in Karl losing his bounty hunter licence and livelihood.
Marty, his partner, takes pity on Karl and fixes him up with a job over the border in Vancouver where he now works as a process server, a low octane version of what he was in Seattle with a fraction of the pay. Karl is slowly getting back on his feet but still licking his wounds. He finds love in the lovely PJ Addey, and it looks like the stone off his Spartan acetic bachelor life may finally be smoothed by the love of a good woman.
But it doesn’t take long for the contrails of Karl and Miro’s lives to cross in their foggy skies when Marty phones Karl to tell him that Miro is wanted for jumping bail in the US. Marty waves the idea of revenge under Karl’s nose, and Karl likes the sniff, thus setting the scene for the rest of the novel where Karl hunts down Miro amongst the murk and rent of Vancouver low-lifes, gangsters, users and weed producers in their grow-houses.
There are just the right amount of supporting characters on both sides that provide a well-balanced mix of dark humour and foil for dramatic action without ever veering into farce or the fantastical. The dialogue is snappy, quick-witted and realistic and in keeping with the register of the characters themselves. The pacing is just right, with focus switching from Karl to Miro in just the right tempo and similar on the occasions when their stories intertwine.
Karl doesn’t feature until the 4th chapter, the first three chapters introduce us to Miro and his gang where amongst the activities we may expect from such a drug gang, Miro shoots a ram in cold blood for no reason indicating a particular psychopathy. I found it interesting that the killing of an animal, a ram, served the plinth upon which Miro’s flawed character was succinctly illustrated as opposed to the killing of a person, but in my opinion, this illustrates the inherent, in-built self-destruction and recklessness of a psychopath who indulges in sporadic irrational. The morality of murder, whilst morally reprehensible, could still be justified in utilitarian terms within a criminal world where human life has little value, but the killing of a dumb animal served Miro no purpose whatsoever, which to me, is more telling of his nature as a character.
There is a case to be made that the best crime novels depict deeply flawed heroes who are not beyond redemption. Such characters endow the reader with the conceit that he/she is a helpless God, willing the hero to make a few not unrealistic changes to part the Red Sea of circumstance and walk down that narrow damp path to that rooted for redemption. The hero of this novel, fits this bill and while some of his behaviour may not win him gold stars for winning the reader’s heart, he does show a capacity to change and to let the light of experience fight its way into the narrow cracks of his conscience. But at the end of the day, his heart is always in the right place and perhaps his, just like our less than honourable and savoury ways, could be a reflection of the despair one may find oneself in, but with the right goals and people around us, redemption is always on the menu. This makes Karl a very credible protagonist and one the reader will enjoy sticking with to the final page of the book.
I also was fascinated by a crime novel whose geographical setting (Vancouver, British Columbia) is largely and woefully under-represented within the world of English-language crime fiction. There are numerous references to streets and towns that give this book one of its piquant flavours and aromas that is uniquely Vancouver. To the reader who likes to see the world in his/her reading material, this is an added bonus.
Ride the Lightning is Dietrich’s debut novel, and I thoroughly recommend it.
Ride the Lightning is published by ECW Press and is available in all good bookstores and in ebook format.
For more information on Dietrich Kalteis, you can visit his blog http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.co.uk