City of Hate - Timothy S. Miller

Usually when a book doesn't work for me (and frequently when it does), there are problems I can point to—thin characters, bad prose, dull language, plot issues, etc. I don't particularly enjoy talking about those, but they're easy enough to write about. I hate talking about books that left me cold and disinterested despite being incredibly well-written.


The publisher's blurb reads:

Recovering alcoholic, lover of secrets, and quickly approaching middle-age, [Hal] Scott discovered his best friend dead in his downtown Dallas apartment. And all fingers point to Scott as the murderer.


There is a conspiracy under way, and it is tied to a gubernatorial campaign, illicit photographs, and a video that will undermine the election. And more than likely get Hal Scott killed.

The only one Scott can turn to is "Lemon" - the self-proclaimed bastard son of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lemon's mother owns Conspiracy Books, just blocks away from the old Texas School Book Depository, and she used to dance at the Carousel Club, owned by the notorious Jack Ruby. The FBI, the CIA, and the John Birch Society all want what Lemon has discovered in her mouldering attic. What he found is bigger than them all, and there will be a price to pay for it exposure.

Bank teller Hal Scott seems like an unlikely protagonist in a story of murder, blackmail, and conspiracy theories. Scratch that, he is an unlikely protagonist—I don't understand why so many characters are drawn to him, rely on him, open up to him, or (the most unlikely) find him to be a threat. But they do. So, you roll with it as he investigates the suicide/murder of a friend and stumbles on to the rest. The resolutions to all the storylines feel incredibly appropriate and fitting—yet I found at least two of them dissatisfying.


Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. One of the reasons I don't see why anyone in Scott's life would rely on him is that the reader can't. He's the worst kind of unreliable narrator—I trust his narration so little that I honestly doubt everything he said. There's not one word in the blurb above that I can be sure actually ever happened (obviously, I'm speaking in terms of the novel itself, I'm aware that it's fiction).


I didn't realize when I read the blurb is that Oswald's son's important discovery would've been tied to what made his father infamous. That's on me. I don't know if I've ever been interested in any use of the JFK assassination in fiction—and Miller devoting so much of the novel to it was a major turn-off for me.


I think contemporary noir relies too much on vulgarity, I don't want to open that can of worms right now, though. I think Miller serves as a prime example of this, and too often comes across as unnecessarily crass. It's entirely and clearly purposeful. Many writers fall into it out of laziness, I don't think that's the case here. I just think it's wasted effort.


The depictions of addiction—its pull, its effect on the choices (both while using and while clean and sober), the destruction it leaves behind—are the highlight and saving grace of this book. They're powerful, heart-wrenching, and beautiful (in their own way). There's an account of suicide that's so well-written I had to stop reading and simply soak in it for a while after I finished it.


This book comes across as being precisely what the author intended—no mean feat. There's not a wasted word, not a sentence that doesn't seem painstakingly crafted. While I can't recommend this novel, any book that comes across that way isn't going to get panned by me, either.


There's a pretty clear theme to my observations—this was not a book written for me. I'm cool with that. It describes most books published, most of which are probably not as well written. There are plenty of people who will feel differently—and should. I hope this book finds its way to their hands.


Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this, I do appreciate the opportunity (despite what it may read like).