Flight of Aquavit - Anthony Bidulka
One type of modern private eye novel is a long way away from "down these mean streets a man must go". A typical one that comes to my mind is Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series. These detectives are anything but loners, they always have an abundance of friends and a strong domesticity, although they are generally single -- following the developments in the characters' personal lives are one of the main things that pulls readers on from volume to volume in the series, and unresolved romantic tension is an important bait for that purpose.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Flight of Aquavit, starring Russell Quant, more than I expected to -- I took the bait, so to speak. I want to see Russell's friend Kelly get her enjoyment of life back, I want to hear about Sereena's mysterious past, and I want Russell to get intimate with somebody -- the opportunity for sex slips away from him several times in this book. What makes this story, like others of its kind, so cozy is not just the abundance of camaraderie (and hugging); Russell, in spite of his daily complications, is fundamentally a happy man. As he tells his mother, "I have a life I love and I'm not looking to change it."

Where Bidulka's writing really shines is in the presentation of all the people that Russell interviews in the course of his investigation. Although most of them will only appear in the book for the length of one ten-minute conversation, they are described with great clarity and individuality. Most of them are so distinct it's a shame they're only present for such a short time. And the majority of them are women, which is really refreshing. The one who gets by far the most page time, Russell's client David Guest, a closet case in an oh-so-familiar situation, has a nice mix of the predictable and the unexpected to him; likewise, he can be highly exasperating, then say or do something that wins some sympathy.

Not all the writing is perfect -- the portrayal of Russell's mother's "ethnicness" is exaggerated and stereotypical, and it's odd that Bidulka makes Russell react to her cooking as if it's a bit strange to him and not as if he grew up with it (shouldn't be making the protagonist spokesperson for the reader's reaction). But when Bidulka gets away from this somewhat strained comedy and focuses on the particulars of her life and her relationship with her son, it gets quite interesting. In general, I noticed a sort of battle between some stereotypes and some vivid portrayals of characters and interactions, and the former were almost always in the service of "comedy" -- oddly enough, I think Bidulka would do better if he stopped trying to be funny. There would still be comedy emerging more naturally from some of the interactions. The one outlandish character I quite liked in this story was Jane Cross, who'd probably call herself a "private dick" or "shamus". I hope that Bidulka might reintroduce her in a future book, and give her a chance to demonstrate a little more competence.

Another downside of the novel is that the author telegraphs the plot developments and the identity of the villains in a way that makes Russell seem really slow on the uptake for not spotting them. But you can't have everything; not all authors are really skilled at plotting and writing suspense.

Would I read another novel in this series? I would.