Stuart Sim descends into the murky world of the crime novel
There are only so many variations that are possible on the basic format of detective fiction. Either the detective figure is fighting the system from the inside (a policeman or lawyer, for example), or the outside (private detective, whether of the professional or inspired amateur variety). Then the author either focuses on the character of the detective figure (the Raymond Chandler method), or on the milieu in which he or she operates (the James Ellroy method). Robert Reuland takes the first option in each case. Andrew Giobberti in Semiautomatic is an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn's Homicide Bureau, and although the urban setting is well rendered in all its gritty seediness, it is the character of Giobberti that carries the narrative.
This is Reuland's second novel featuring Giobberti, and one assumes a series in process. Giobberti is a disgraced, flawed character with few illusions about either humanity or the system he works within. There's personal tragedy in his background too, with a dead daughter and a failed marriage in the recent past. His current relationship is edgy, with a partner, Ann, who wants children despite Giobberti's understandable reluctance to become a father again.They conduct a tense affair against her biological clock, and the prognosis for their future does not look good. Giobberti is 40, and comes across as a burntout case whose best days are long behind him. But his great redeeming feature is that he really does care about justice (even if he can be deeply cynical about how, or if, this can ever be achieved), and the actual job of being a prosecuting attorney itself. This is what he wants to do, what he feels he was destined to do, and the reader is drawn into that world, with all its frustrations yet compelling fascination.
The novel opens with Giobberti in disgrace, exiled to the dullness of the Appeals Section after badly mishandling a case in Homicide a couple of years back. He's ordered back to Homicide by his superiors, much to his surprise, and initially, doubts whether he wishes to return. Soon he's hooked on the job again, despite being asked to play second fiddle to a half black, less than friendly, female ADA Laurel Ashfield who has joined Homicide in his absence.
In classic, selfconsciously retro, fashion, Giobberti and Laurel discover themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top; fighting a system that cares more about the appearance than the reality of justice. A locally wellrespected shopkeeper has been shot dead in a robbery gone wrong. It seems an openandshut case: but is it? Giobberti digs away at the often contradictory evidence and reaches some disturbing conclusions that he cannot square even with his own cynical concept of justice. The plotting is professionally executed, although one suspects most readers will not be surprised by the true state of affairs when it is revealed. Interest lies rather in the impact of the unfolding events on Giobberti's psychology, as well as in the complex relationship that builds up between him and Laurel.
The Brooklyn setting is well realised. This is a New York totally lacking in glamour, with lots of mean streets for Giobberti and his associates to walk down in existential, Chandleresque fashion: a borough "awash in blood, with ghosts in certain doorways and vacant lots, on stoops and manhole covers". Giobberti himself is left in limbo at the end, and it remains to be seen where he will prosecute his next case from. Here's one reader intrigued enough to want to know.