This breezy noir, set in contemporary Los Angeles, begins with the titular narrator, a private detective named Happy Doll (his real name; some people call him Hank), receiving a visit in his office from an old friend wanting a favour. Lou needs a new kidney but, as a lifelong smoker (‘his open mouth was like the engine of an idling car’), he’s finding it hard to obtain one through official channels. Happy decides to help. Complications ensue; Happy kills a man in self-defence; bad things happen. It’s all knowingly reminiscent of Chandler and classic noir fiction as Happy stumbles deeper and deeper into an insalubrious network of shady realtors and unscrupulous doctors. But Happy’s self-deprecating narration is so fresh and funny that there’s never a hint of pastiche. He drives around town with George, his Chihuahua-terrier cross, upright in the front, his paws on the dashboard ‘like the handsome sea captain at the prow of his ship’. He likes to keep a joint and some painkillers to hand. The narrative manages to be both discursive – Happy interrupts the story at one point to provide a brief outline of psychoanalysis – and plot-driven, with the book building to a sinister conclusion in its final third. Like Chandler, Ames writes for the screen as well as the page, and it shows in the deft dialogue. Unlike Chandler, he can also tell an intelligible story.
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