Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: A Certain Slant of Light by Dale T. Phillips

By: Richard E. Gower

“There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –”

                 EMILY DICKINSON

When I closed the back cover after reading A Certain Slant of Light by Dale T. Phillips, a little tune-cootie popped into my head from the refrain of a song by the Eagles. “There’s a new kid in town.”  I had to actually go listen to the song to get rid of it, the tune-cootie I mean. The crazy thing is that the book has nothing to do with the song. Or the song with the book.  But that’s the way with some books. They will send you off on a little journey inside your head where you hadn’t intended to go.

           Zack Taylor is as subtle as the horn on a Kenworth.

In this case, the new kid is Zack Taylor. In the town that is crime fiction, he has been around for a few years (this is book number four in the series) but he’s new in my reading neighbourhood. And you can’t help but notice him. Zack Taylor is as subtle as the horn on a Kenworth.

The hero’s persona is deliberate on the part of the author, and it works. A blurb at the back of the book says that Zack Taylor is: “…a hero in the mold of Travis McGee, Doc Ford and John Cain, a moral man at heart who finds himself faced with difficult choices in a dangerous world…”.  As you find yourself being pulled through this book by the combination of a compelling story and good strong writing, you realize that this is not an exaggeration.

Although A Certain Slant of Light is set mainly in the towns and small cities along the coast of Maine—a far cry from the violent streets of Chicago or Detroit —Zack Taylor always seems to find the most dangerous places to hang out. But, hey, that’s the storybook world for ya. If there was no danger, the hero’s life would be pretty much a snooze. Where would the excitement be in that? And make no mistake.  A Certain Slant of Light takes a reader into places where the excitement is oozing all over the floor.

If you’re not familiar with Travis McGee or Doc Ford, you probably don’t read much crime fiction. How about: Mike Hammer or Jack Reacher? No? What about Raylan Givens? Whoa! some of you (the purists who DO read crime fiction) shout. Raylan Givens doesn’t fit into that category at all!  Well, you would be partially right.

Travis McGee, Doc Ford, Mike Hammer, Jack Reacher and Raylan Givens are all fictional characters, heros, in series crime novels. But why would a crime-fiction purist say Raylan Givens didn’t belong with the others? Because he (Raylan Givens) is an honest to gosh lawman with a badge. A Deputy U.S. Marshal, no less.

And the others, the first four? They are social outliers. A beach bum who lives on a houseboat. A former CIA spook with a secret life. A misanthropic private eye. A ex-military cop with no fixed address. Guys who don’t fit into any half-respectable mould. But they all, Raylan Givens included, have a couple of things in common. They all have moral centres. And they all attract trouble and crash through life like human tsunamis, creating havoc all around them wherever they go, for friends and foe alike. That is, in great part, their appeal for a reader.

Zack always tries to do the right thing. Even if he goes about it a way that the authorities don’t always appreciate.

Zack Taylor, the protagonist hero in A Certain Slant of Light and the new kid in my town of crime fiction, has some of that very same DNA.  He is a social outlier. He doesn’t have any credentials. He’s not quite respectable because of his past (a prison record).  He hates guns and doesn’t carry one. Nevertheless, chaos, violent death and the law of unintended consequences envelop him and everyone around him wherever he goes.

Zack always tries to do the right thing. Even if he goes about it a way that the authorities don’t always appreciate. A scene from the book gives some insight into his methods.

“The car driven by the thugs that had attacked Peggy was registered to a Dwight Pierce, with an address on the north side of Portland. I drove back to town and found the place, and saw a car on the street, a black Cadillac. I parked nearby and walked back. Taking out my Swiss Army knife, I spiked the two tires closest to the curb. Then I went to the gas station next door and stayed out of sight. About twenty minutes later, a guy came out and walked up to the Cadillac. I recognized him from the alley outside Bosco’s bar, the one who’d pointed his gun at me.”

The nasty guy comes out, sees his spiked tires and says a few nasty words. Zack slips up behind him and the following takes place.

“He whirled, and his eyes went wide as his hand shot inside his jacket for the gun. I dropped to one knee and drove my right fist into his crotch. I stood up as he went down, clutching himself. His mouth was open, gasping for air. Then he threw up. I waited until he was done. Then I dragged him backward by the ankles, as I didn’t want any of his mess on me.”

So there you are. Crime fiction featuring a hard-boiled protagonist may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re into it and haven’t yet been introduced to Zack Taylor, give A Certain Slant of Light a read.  If you like action, you won’t be disappointed. The story rollicks along in the above vein for a hundred and ninety three pages. Zack Taylor is an unlikely hero. He doesn’t have a license or a badge. He has a dubious past. He is no boy scout. He cracks heads. And knees. And fingers. But he has a good heart. He only does this to people who richly deserve it. How can you not fall for a character like that?   REG

Links for additional information:

Dale T. Phillips