Yesterday I finished the latest (and by “latest” I mean it’s not out till December) book of Andrez Bergen’s, he of TOBACCO-STAINED MOUNTAIN GOAT, WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CAPES OF HEROPA? and DEPTH CHARGING ICE PLANET GOTH fame, amongst others.
SMALL CHANGE (A Casebook of Scherer and Miller, Investigators of the Paranormal and Supermundane) is, as its subtitle suggests, a set of individual stories/vignettes about a PI duo who specialise in “investigating” (more often than not blowing the brains out of the perpetrators of) paranormal crimes and events, and tracks them over three broad time periods (“A bit over two years ago”, “Way back when”, and “More recently”; easily the best timeline title cards I’ve seen in fiction).
The split, and he notes in his afterword that even though many of the stories have been published here and there down the years, he always had exactly this broad time separation in mind, allows for a steady establishment of character, reveal of past history/mystery, and then demonstration of how they’ve changed. This is particularly true for Roy, the POV character, whose past is an interesting poacher-turned-gamekeeper one, but both he and Suzie have plenty of time to shine, and the shift in dynamic and relationship in the final couple of stories is good and helps the collection feel tied-off.
The stories are a return to the knowingly sardonic classic hard-boiled style of TSMG. If you’re going to write the (young, here) Bogart-analogue PI and sidekick duo sprinkled with classic pop culture references, the characters have got to be enjoyable and the whole thing has to have a sense of fun and zip. Happily, both are true. This is as entertaining a slice of paranormal PI fiction as you’re likely to find. And unlike its probable closest lazy “if you like X you’ll like Y” comparison, the Dresden Files books (note: partly a guess; I’ve not read them, but I know the RPG based thereon, so your mileage may vary), neither Roy nor Suzie have any remarkable abilities of their own. They’re everyman characters, not even, in Roy’s case, especially capable in any sense except of keeping his head in a crisis, and thoroughly likeable and believable as a result.
The pace is fast, like the dialogue. Most of the stories are barely about an investigation at all - a good portion of them start in media res with the pair of them dealing with the villain in question already - but about the characters, and so the whole thing rattles along from scene to shining scene.
So, good characters, smart structure, entertainingly zippy pace, screwball style that’s light enough on cultural references to avoid bogging down, and a good mix of situations thrown at Roy and Suzie to keep things interesting. I’d happily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a nod and a wink to the hard-boiled classics with a sense of fun and its own identity. It’s good clean entertainment and the obvious enjoyment Bergen had writing the duo bleeds over onto the page.
My hairs to split number a grand total of three, none of them serious, and mostly revolve around the villains and other supporting cast.
The episodic style keeps things moving along, but other than Roy, Suzie and Art, Suzie’s dad and Roy’s former mentor, there are no recurring characters. Even - avoiding spoilers, as I’ll do throughout - Mocha, who Roy takes a shine to and who he’s involved with long enough to at least theoretically come up directly again, is removed from proceedings off-camera at the end of her story. While Roy and Suzie - and Art, in the way back when section - are a solid centrepiece, the lack of other ongoing presences or longer storylines does risk leaving the backdrop feeling a little thin (note: “risk”; that’s a very subjective judgement and personally I enjoyed the main two enough to wave it off).
Secondly, and working very hard here to avoid spoilers, I wasn’t sure the case that turns out to be a sort of audition to see if Roy is ready for the big time really, truly worked as such for me. The challenge involved in it isn’t working out who the bad guy is, but in getting to him. That challenge is then removed and a bunch of people are killed - apparently by the auditioner - so Roy can get to the guy. But would the person in question have done what they did? Were they capable? And would it still be an effective audition given that it hasn’t shown Roy capable of facing that level of challenge alone? (Also: this particular villain is one I’d have loved to see more of or to come up again, since he remains a little unexplored in terms of how and why he’s doing what he’s done.) I couldn’t help wonder if the reveal was a way of writing the story out of a corner rather than something planned from the start.
And thirdly, while the Roy-Suzie arc develops nicely, and the last case is entertaining enough, it felt like less of a resolution and more as just another step on the journey. I like the shift in Suzie’s role here, don’t get me wrong, and I like that it’s shown in this way, but I was surprised this was the end of the book (the presence of the glossary and afterword fooled me in terms of length-to-go). Basically, I wanted more, which is never a bad thing, but worth noting.
And it’s not a hair split at all, but I was left with a really burning case of the what-ifs by one story. It’s not a spoiler to say it, because you know it happened (years before) right at the beginning of the book, but Art dies, and his final case could so easily, so so easily, have been a tragic metaphor for his fatal alcoholism instead of just a final case. If it hadn’t been a villain who got him - particularly given the nature of the one he thinks he’s looking for - but he’d been genuinely delusional just this once and died in the most sad and mundane way for Roy to find, I’d have loved that as a touch, a little tragedy to show the flip side to the bizarre life the characters lead. Roy already knows, and has already seen, X and Y and Z by the time it happens, so it’s not as though Art’s view of the world as a scary place full of the paranormal needs any reinforcement in the manner of his end. Wishful thinking on my part, but it stayed with me after I’d finished the book.
Those are the only quibbles I had, and they’re minor in the extreme. So when SMALL CHANGE comes out, buy it.