reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck
Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004
For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.
Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.
Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.
These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.
Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.
But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.
With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.