Gun-for-hire Walter Steale, a world-weary veteran of World War I, finds himself in the middle of a political quagmire when his brother, Sam, the lieutenant governor of California, asks him to exert some muscle on behalf of his boss, Governor Edwin Davies. But when the man he’d muscled ends up dead, Steale must go on the run, hiding from the authorities and the political gamesmen who hope to use him to further their own ambitions. His only allies: a gubernatorial hopeful with secrets of his own, and a Hollywood starlet who uses her immense charms to help the detective crack the case. But will they unravel the plot before Steale’s number is up?
In Ten-a-Week Steale (Solstice Publishing, 2012), author/actor Stephen Jared‘s second novel (after 2010’s Jack and the Jungle Lion), silent-era Hollywood is enticingly reconstructed with a post-World War I “noirish” flair–a city that is, by turns, glitzy and grimy, showing its best and its worst in one fell swoop. The world-building here is impressive in its scope–it is obvious that Jared has done copious amounts of research in creating these settings, which are described in great detail throughout the novel. The rich backdrop sets the stage for an exciting–and violent–series of events as Steale delves into the mystery behind his frame-up.
The strongest element of the novel is, without a doubt, its appealing and fully-realized protagonist. Similar to anti-heroic literary ancestors such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Walter Steale is not exactly what one might call “likeable.” Yet, despite this, we are drawn to the kind of bad-boy sexiness at the heart of the character, and we innately understand why Ginny is drawn to him. He is rough-edged, guided by emotions and cold calculation in equal measure–clever and resourceful, but flawed by hubris and a sense of discontent with the world at large. He is a rich character in a land ready-made for rich characters–set across the backdrop of silent-era Hollywood, Steale is as appealing a figure as any dreamed up by the movie dream factories. If only the other characters populating the story were as judiciously drawn! There is no lack of intriguing characters, but none are so thoroughly portrayed as Walter Steale, and this makes investing in other figures in the story a bit of a difficult task. This would be more acceptable were the story told solely from Walter’s point of view; however, the omniscient narration–marked by the frequent jumping between character perspectives–begs for fuller character development.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the plot and the machinations of the main character, I was left with the feeling that something was missing. The ending feels a little lacking; I was mainly disappointed in the lack of resolution in the relationship between Steale and the police chief, Heath, who had an uneasy yet intriguing rapport in earlier chapters that I would have enjoyed revisiting in the final chapter. Part of that sense of incompleteness also comes from construction issues throughout the book, for ultimately what Ten-A-Week Steale needs, more than anything, is a good editor. It’s not just issues of grammar and spelling, even though there are some noticeable typographical errors sprinkled throughout the books (repeated misspellings of the word “chauffeur,” for instance). But there are also some problems with pacing, particularly in the first few chapters (which have an almost scatter-shot feel to them), and instances of stilted language in some scenes that distract from the action on the page. Furthermore, the transitions from one scene to the next are sometimes startlingly abrupt, resulting in a kind of staccato forward movement of the plot. Again, however, it’s important to note that this is much more prevalent in the first part of the novel; thankfully, as Jared brings the story to its endgame, it finds its rhythm and begins to flow quite well, and quite easily.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Bottom line: This Dashiell Hammett-lite detective story boasts an entertaining plot and a memorable anti-heroic protagonist. Despite some issues with character development and narrative construction sprinkled throughout the book, the novel finds a brisk and effective pace in the second half and winds down to a mostly satisfying conclusion. Recommended for fans of detective fiction and silent-era Hollywood.
[Disclosure: True Classics thanks author Stephen Jared for providing a copy of Ten-a-Week Steale for the purposes of this review.]