Sam Wiebe’s Last of the Independents has been characterized as “Vancouver Noir” for a reason. The book, while in many ways a typical hardboiled detective story, has a style to it not often seen in the modern hardboiled genre, a throwback to an older era where almost all crime ficiton laid its roots. Think of a young Raymond Chandler writing in a new-millenium Vancouver and all the culture that comes with that, and you’ll have a good sense of what style to expect. Last of the Independents won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Novel (obviously it has been published, now) for a reason.
Wiebe does something totally unique with this book. He shows that detective work isn’t all about hurtling through a thrilling who-done-it mystery, or fist fighting bad guys at every turn. Instead Wiebe captures what I suspect is the stark reality of detective work: long hours for low pay, a whole lot of plodding along, combing back through what you already know in hopes of uncovering better information. It’s a slow process that no doubt ends in mystery more often than solution, and that process takes a toll on all but the most devoted detective.The process also involves a lot of luck, though luck only shows up for the thorough investigator.
Wiebe’s protagonist Michael Drayton has a thoroughness that is exceeded only by his will to follow his own very specific moral code at all costs. Wiebe takes the reader along for the ride in a narrative that is as much about what that slow process and need to meet very personalized moral codes does to the rest of Michael Drayton’s life, and the effect unsolved cases have on his psyche as a whole, as it is about the mysteries themselves. Drayton is a gentle tough guy who walks the reader step by step through cases that include a necrophile at large, a cold case that has, if nothing else, brought Drayton a new friend in the missing boy’s techy, sharp-tongued overweight brother, and the new mystery of a boy namde Django who disappered in front of a local pawn shop.
Last of the Independents is about the sacrifices it takes for a man to wade into cases that have very little hope of being solved, and even less hope of bringing in enough bank to put food on the table in the meantime. Michael Drayton is a sympathetic protagonist, and an easy man to root for because even when he breaks the rules it’s in the name of a higher good, and this often gives him an angle to pursue the case that police simply do not have, being bound by the rule of law.
The novel is filled throughout with all the tropes one comes to expect from a hardboiled novel (including a little romance), but makes them feel fresh with Wiebe’s fairly young cast of characters (Drayton is just 29, and most characters in the book fall somewhere in their twenties). Somewhere along the way the book becomes quite touching, but never lets go of that dark, gritty feel that has become synonymous with hardboiled detective stories.
I highly recommend Last of the Independents, it’s a strong first novel from a young writer already pushing his way to the head of the pack in the next wave of fantastic noir writers. Pick up a copy here, and find Sam Wiebe online at www.samwiebe.com.