In The Wheel of Doll, Jonathan Ames immerses us once more in the world of private detective Happy Doll, introduced in Ames’s previous novel, A Man Named Doll. Our hero (and narrator) is now ‘fifty-one and missing a kidney, which made me more like sixty-one’; he also wears a hefty scar on his face, a ‘pink worm’ that makes people turn away.
The book opens on ‘just another nice cold Los Angeles day’ in January 2020 (there is a reference further on in the book to a ‘terrible flu’ they’re talking about on TV). Doll, working in an office that’s ‘shaped like a coffin, long and narrow’, welcomes a new client, Mary DeAngelo, who needs help tracing her mother, a homeless drug addict who has ended up in Olympia, Washington. The mother, as DeAngelo proceeds to reveal, is one Ines Candle, a former girlfriend of Doll’s who disappeared from his life thirteen years previously after he found her lying in a bathtub with her wrists slit.
Ames sketches the underbelly of urban America in a way that is inescapably and enjoyably resonant of the hardboiled style of Chandler and Hammett. At one point, Doll’s cataloguing of his own apparel – ‘worn-out blue-sponge sport jacket; navy sweater with tiny moth holes; frayed white oxford shirt’ –