Introducing Happy “Hank” Doll, P.I.
Happy Doll is a charming, if occasionally inexpert, private detective living just one sheer cliff drop beneath the Hollywood sign with his beloved half-Chihuahua half-Terrier, George. A veteran of both the Navy and LAPD, Doll supplements his meager income as a P.I. by working through the night at a local Thai spa that offers its clients a number of special services. Armed with his sixteen-inch steel telescopic baton, biting dry humor, and just a bit of a hero complex, the ex-cop sets out to protect the women who work there from clients who have trouble understanding the word “no.”
Doll gets by just fine following his two basic rules: bark loudly and act first. But when things get out-of-hand with one particularly violent patron, even he finds himself wildly out of his depth, and then things take an even more dangerous twist when an old friend from his days as a cop shows up at his door with a bullet in his gut.
A Man Named Doll is more than just a fascinating introduction to one truly singular character, it is a highly addictive and completely unpredictable joyride through the sensuous and violent streets of LA.
This is the first novel by Jonathan Ames that I’ve read. It will not be the last. A noir-esque crime novel set in Los Angeles, it introduces readers to Happy “Hank” Doll: former veteran and LAPD officer, now a struggling private investigator. Over the course of a few days, Happy’s life is upended by a series of escalating, deadly encounters that threaten not only his own life, but those closest to him. A quickly-paced, enjoyable read.
The novel opens with a conversation between Hank and a lifelong friend, who asks Hank if he’d be willing to take a test to confirm compatibility for a kidney transplant. Initially uncomfortable with the idea, after a violent altercation at work (which puts him on the radar of a couple of police detectives) Hank finds himself in a position to take the test: he’s a match. But, for some reason, his friend has become very difficult to get in touch with. And then things start spiralling far out of control, and Doll has a no good, very bad week.
In Happy “Hank” Doll, Ames has created an interesting and engaging protagonist. Through his eyes, we get a glimpse of some of the seedier side of Los Angeles life, and also some of the darker underground options available to those with considerable resources (I won’t go into any more detail, as it would be a spoiler). Devoted to his dog, George, Hank stumbles through personal relationships and connections a bit haphazardly, just about scraping by. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about his difficult and traumatic childhood.
Ames does a great job of bringing his characters to life on the page. Even if we’re only with them for a short while, the author gives readers everything they need to paint a pretty complete, engaging portrait — from diamond dealers, real estate agents, a bartender he hopes to see romantically, to skeptical cops and others. Doll, of course, we get to know very well. He is at heart a good soul, but a fractured one, trying to find a way to get through life and find a measure of happiness. When people are gunning for you, though, that’s a rather difficult proposition.
There was something about the novel that made me think a bit of Richard Russo — which is a little strange, given the considerably different genres in which Ames and Russo write. The humour, however, I thought was comparable and some of the strange situations, the observations about the small moments in life, reminded me of Russo’s novels like Straight Man. There’s a quirkiness to the characters that makes them distinct and engaging. Ames includes many interesting and amusing observations about life, law enforcement, and also pet ownership.
In short: A Man Named Doll is a very well-written, quickly-paced, engaging and quirky crime novel, and I really enjoyed it. I hope there are more novels featuring Happy Doll in the future. Recommended.