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the rainy city

25 january 2017

Earl Emerson's Rainy City is a good dumb violent private-eye yarn. A few years ago I thought that I really should read more private-eye novels. (Some cultural imperatives I have). So I found one of those lists on the Internet that directs you to 15 or 20 sleeper fan favorites of the PI genre. I have read a few of these now and at the rate I'm going the list should last my lifetime. Of course by that point (I hope) there will be another few decades of newer hard-boileds to catch up with.

Rainy City was high on that list. The first in what became the long-running Thomas Black series, it made its debut in 1985. The rainy city of the title is Seattle, Washington. Thomas Black is an ex-cop who has become gunshy after (justifiably) killing a wrongdoer. Gunshy he may be, but he is no distance above smacking, socking, kicking, and stabbing people who get into his way. Emerson is careful to make Black's victims do far worse things first, at least in his maiden novel.

The plot of Rainy City is your classic daughter-of-a-powerful-man problem for our hero. With overtones of Chinatown and The Big Sleep, updated to drizzly desperate '80s suburbia, we watch Black try to find Melissa, impulsive young wife and mother who has abandoned her poet husband and her baby girl to become a Tacoma streetwalker. The move seems extreme till you meet Melissa's dad Angus, who is one of the nastier pieces of work in the literature. Bodies accumulate, terror is inflicted, long-buried secrets are unearthed.

The distinguishing feature of Thomas Black's life is his housemate Kathy Birchfield. Well, tenant, technically. Black has a house with a basement apartment, but his law-student tenant Kathy rarely stays put downstairs. The relationship between landlord and tenant is a classic of wish-fulfillment. Not in the sense that Thomas Black has a hot young girlfriend – that would be somewhat banal – but in the sense that there are tensions between them that never become sexual. Thomas and Kathy are closer than any married couple: seamlessly intimate, perfectly complementary, deeply caring. In other words, fantastic, in both senses. Many crime-fiction series depend on stoking unresolved sexual tensions, but Rainy City presents a situation unusually piquant because it is so damn implausible.

Emerson, Earl. The Rainy City. 1985. New York: Ballantine [Random House], 1997.