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FOLLOW HER HOME
by Steph Cha
Minotaur Books, April 2013
278 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 1250009626


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Raymond Chandler set the literary bar almost impossibly high when he published his seminal series of tales featuring the exploits of jaded private eye Philip Marlowe. Set against the background of Los Angeles from the nineteen thirties to the fifties, with its rich spectrum of villains ranging from petty hoodlums to wealthy, but no less flawed, scions of society, Chandler's stories continue to captivate new generations of readers and spawn dozens of imitators. Some of their efforts work, but it is in the nature of things that some also must fail.

Friday on a warm Los Angeles night, and a twenty-something Korean woman named Juniper Song is all set for a night out. Arriving at a party at, appropriately, the Marlowe Apartments, she finds Luke Cook, a friend from college days, with a bimbo on his arm and hosting the event. His father is the head of a large and prestigious local legal practice, but marching to his own drummer, Luke has set his sights on making documentary films. With Cook, Sr funding the effort one might be excused for thinking that Luke has the world by the tail.

But Luke is not without his troubles. He suspects his father has been cheating on his mother with Lori Lim, an intern at his law firm, and asks Song to look into it. As an old pal, and an unabashed devotee of the Philip Marlowe novels, he knows she won't refuse him.

Song is no Marlowe, however, and before long she's in up to her pretty neck with a half-drunk airhead entrusted to her care, a self-styled gunsel who calls himself Humphrey Bogart and who bludgeons her into unconsciousness, and a body that disappears from the trunk of her car.

Complicating matters, Song can't get her kid sister Iris out of her mind. Somehow she and Song had drifted apart once she started college, and Iris had gotten into trouble, as the expression goes. Bringing shame onto the family was a big taboo in Korean culture, and Iris – and Song – had paid dearly for the events that followed.

So Song commits to helping Lori untangle the mess that is her life, and to get to the bottom of Luke's fears. It is a decision that will jeopardize all of their lives, and other lives as well, and before it has ended Song will have shed her illusions about the romantic side of being a PI.

Deliberately more than a little reminiscent of THE BIG SLEEP, like Chandler's novel FOLLOW HER HOME is a debut tale of perversion, blackmail, and murder, but where Marlowe was tough and knew how to fight back, Song is out of her depth, striving to understand, and hard-pressed to fight back. This damsel-in-distress motif quickly tires, though it must be said that in the end Song finds the resources to prevail over a very nasty customer.

As an unabashed fan of Chandler myself, I really wanted to like FOLLOW HER HOME, but the writing kept getting in the way. Cha follows tradition in using a first-person point of view, which lends her tale immediacy. But while this helps to project her own voice, the author's constant asides on wardrobe, makeup and designer shoes utterly break the Chandleresque mood, and reduce the whole to the level of chick-lit.The story feels like it was written for trendy twenty-somethings; the juxtaposition of noir narrative and contemporary dialogue, using such expressions as "Seriously?" "dude," and "like" (as in "I'm a huge mess, just an unbelievable, like, I don't know what historical catastrophe…") is often jarring.

The book is marred also by the occasional awkward phrase: "She folded her knees under her" (it must have been painful). She drops similes in all the right places, but often they seem forced: "A bushy hedge that licked in the dark."

And maybe I'm becoming picky in my advancing years, but has it become too much to expect that a graduate of Stanford and the Yale Law School knows the difference between affect and effect - or that, at the very least, the editorial staff at a major publishing house might pick up on such gaffes? Of course, in today's world of often indifferent (and sometimes illiterate) readers, such flaws may be ignored: people may be satisfied with a better-than-average yarn, told in what, with all of its shortcomings, is a better-than-average way. But that does not obviate the fact that despite its historical roots, FOLLOW HER HOME is a novel of its time, and its time is depressingly banal. Song's effort to become Lori's surrogate sister to atone for the tragedy of her own sister's death, becomes, to use one of her own similes, "like swimming down a jar of mayonnaise." In the end, Cha's debut literary effort is not so much THE BIG SLEEP as THE BIG SNOOZE.

Clearly an informed enthusiast of Chandler's work, Cha sets herself an ambitious goal: to follow in the master's shoes. If she doesn't always succeed, hers is at least an understandable, even laudable, effort. But if your taste runs to neo-noir, you might want to have a look instead at Howard Shrier's MISS MONTREAL, Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP, or Linda Richards' DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN.

§ Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on such websites as Spinetingler, The Rap Sheet, Shots Magazine, Crime Time, Reviewing The Evidence, January magazine, and Type M for Murder, as well as on his own award-winning site, Deadly Diversions. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.com

Reviewed by Jim Napier, May 2013

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