Clay Blackburn, the hero of Owen Hill's elegant novel The Incredible Double, is not your typical detective. For one thing, he's a book scout: a guy who haunts used book stores and estate sales, looking for the one or two items of real value.
For another, he's a poet, with a couple of chapbooks to his name. Most tellingly, he's the kind of enlightened anarchist who could only come from Berkeley, where he lives near the "world famous open-air asylum" that is Telegraph Avenue.
In The Incredible Double, Clay is asked to investigate death threats against a drugstore mogul named Jerry Wally (think Sam Walton with an attitude), only to be drawn quickly down the rabbit hole. The Incredible Double is the second Blackburn mystery (the first was 2002's The Chandler Apartments), but to categorize it as genre fiction is to miss the point. It is a work of fiction that plays with genre, that slyly tips its hat to the conventions of the hard-boiled tradition even as it uses them to its own ends.
Like many great detectives, Clay likes to mix it up in the bedroom, although unlike Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he's not straight but bisexual. He also has a sidekick, "an old lefty," who tells Clay that he's "rooting for the killer" when he discovers the nature of the job. "The guy's a pig," he says of Jerry Wally. "Undercuts the competition, beats the unions. Middle America loves him, though. He's been born again, and he gives 'em cheap Twinkies."
The real power of the book comes in its evocation of Berkeley, which is, as anyone who's spent much time there recognizes, a universe unto itself. At a bookstore poetry reading, "Leonard Cohen's first album was, I swear, playing on a turntable next to the register. Berkeley."
This is territory that Hill knows well — he is a Berkeley bookseller and poet — and he gets its details with a fluid delicacy. The mystery is real, the stakes are high; some people make it through while others . . . well, let's just say they're compromised. In The Incredible Double we have the essence of noir, a sense of life lived at the edges.