Small crime fiction presses like prequels, at least two of the publishers I enjoy do. 280 Steps published Eric Beetner’s Rumrunners (review) back in May 2015. They followed with Beetner’s prequel Leadfoot (review) in November 2016. There’s also Chris Rhatigan’s A Pack of Lies published by All Due Respect Books in November 2014 which was followed by Rhatigan’s prequel Squeeze published in April 2016, both reviewed here. And now we have Court Haslett’s Trouble No More (280 Steps) which is a prequel to his book Tenderloin (280 Steps) (review) which was published earlier this year. I’m not saying this is a trend of any sort, but I find it an interesting coincidence probably only because I have reviewed all six books.
The book at hand is Haslett’s Trouble No More which takes place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district the year before Haslett’s Tenderloin. The narrator in both books is Sleeper Hayes, a man who thinks all problems can be better solved with alcohol and if that doesn’t work then you haven’t drunk enough alcohol to attack that particular issue.
Trouble No More gets started as one of Sleeper’s tenants gets beaten up by some Chinese mobsters because her brother has skipped out of town owing a bookie money. Sleeper is the manager of a small apartment building and since it’s the Tenderloin upkeep on the building is not much, so Sleeper has free time. He’s sort of a neighborhood PI who subsists on gambling, alcohol, music and pot, the order of which depends on the moment.
Haslett’s novels are set in ’77 and ’78, and pop culture references are scattered subtlety throughout. Whether it is Jim Jones, the demise of the hippie movement, or Elvis, their existence within the novel come naturally from the characters rather than forced by the writer.
It wouldn’t have bolstered my tough-guy bona fides to tell him I’d spent hours pinpointing the exact dividing line between soft rock and soul music. That song is “Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton. I think it belongs on the soul side of the line. Maggie disagreed. Any song with birds chirping, she argued, deserves to be played in an elevator. I reconsidered briefly until Nelson weighed in on my side, definitively settling the issue. “Why, who do you listen to, tough guy?” I asked.
Sleeper might be an unofficial PI, but the mystery of the book is a backdrop character development. Haslett’s writing has made Sleeper, who is the narrator of the novel, exist outside the pages. Sleeper is a loner not by choice, he does yearn for human connection, he realizes that he probably is not the best companion for anyone other than Johnnie Walker.
Enlisting their help was the least I owed Maggie after neglecting to tell her about Ryan with the strippers. I rationalized my silence a number of ways— that it wasn’t my business, that men will be men, that Ryan might have been telling the truth, that Maggie had ordered me out of her life. Any of them worked at the time because they all contained an element of truth. None of them worked now.
The real reason I didn’t tell her was that I didn’t want to bring any more pain into her life. I’d done enough of that when we were married. No example is more excruciating than our final break-up. It was August 8th, 1974. I wish I remembered the date because I was the romantic type. The truth is I remember it because it’s the day Nixon resigned from office. She had noticed a lump in her chest the week before and I was supposed to meet her at the doctor’s office.
The good news: it was only a cyst.
The bad news: I didn’t show.
I told her I got caught up in the Nixon thing, that I knew the lump was no big deal, and look I was right! I didn’t expect that to fly and it didn’t. Instead of acting like a man and ending the marriage when I knew it was broken, I forced her to be the bad guy. Like always, she complied.
I needed a strong jolt to clear my head of this memory. I went back to the Nite Cap, the place where I last saw Ryan, and ordered a Johnny Red on the rocks with chaser of Johnny Red on the rocks.
Trouble No More is quite funny too, but not in a slapstick or overly comedic way, the humor effortlessly comes through the characters and situations.
“Meet me over here at Central Station in an hour and I’ll take a walk around the block with you. I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy you want to talk to, though.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Don’t be so sure, hombre,” he said and hung up.
I immediately committed myself to start calling people hombre.
Like writers who often believe that the last thing they wrote is their best work, readers have a similar problem — at least I do. Trouble No More is better than Tenderloin which I enjoyed the hell out of. I now know that Court Haslett is a damn fine writer and that I will read anything by him in the future.