Wife gone, house gone, possessions gone,reputation gone. No job and no money in my pockets beside a handful of puny gate dollars. My prospects were glowing.
If anything transpired of my reading of Pearce Hansen's STREET RAISED, it's that he was a talented writer with no control whatsoever over his narratives. It had good elements, but took so many unexplainable detours, it drove me mad before the ending. For that reason, I put STAGGER BAY on ice for longer than I should've. Unfairly so, I might add, because it's a great novel in its own way. Published six years after Hansen's debut, STAGGER BAY marks a dramatic improvement in every aspect of storytelling, as well as a revamped philosophy for prose. But most important, Pearce Hansen remains this curious character with a borderline operatic vision of the world, which created an hardboiled thriller like no other and that thriller is called STAGGER BAY.
Markus has left behind a violent past to settle down in the small, cozy city of Stagger Bay, California with his one true love and his baby boy. When the massacre of a neighborhood family is pinned on him, he is condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole, only to be exonerated of all blame seven years later due to DNA evidence. Markus comes back to Stagger Bay and discovers a city that's not the place he left. The killings have never stopped since he left. Someone has been killing for seven years with the blessing of the authorities. With nothing left in the world but an estranged son, Markus walks into Stagger Bay's underbelly, hoping to provoke a confrontation with the man who stole his life.
A recurring trait of Pearce Hansen's writing is that the most interesting aspect of his stories often emphasize its biggest problems also. In STAGGER BAY, Hansen foster what I call the illusion of moral ambiguity. The novel is structured to be morally ambiguous, but it's not. There are morals amongst thugs and murderers and they are obeyed with a grudging sense of honor. On the other hand, lawmen are frustrated drones with their humanity dulled out by power, comfort and a steady pay check. Making it so clear-cut was a bold move by Hansen and with the ambiguous scope, it reminded me of the 19th century underdog novels of Victor Hugo. There is something healthy to examining violence from both the perpetrator and the victim's point of view. STAGGER BAY made a lucid observation about it, they're often on the same side. My favorite passage of the entire book is about that, when the chief of police compared Markus involvement in a shootout to "putting mad dogs down", meaning Markus had no pleasure killing people he recognized himself into.
"I'm tired of being in love with pain," she said, harsh and anxious. "Hate won't warm my bed. It just takes. And takes."
But the illusion of moral ambiguity isn't without its shortcomings. My only real concern with STAGGER BAY is that I didn't believe one second that Markus was a violent person. To me, he was just a gun-wielding goodie-two-shoes and the support cast didn't do anything to prove me wrong. Markus is like a fish in the ocean as an outlaw and whatever other outlaw who could make his life miserable is quickly conquered by Markus' purity of intent. The moving force of STAGGER BAY then lies on the fact that Markus has been wronged and that following events make that he'll have to right those wrong very publicly, but it often gets lost in the larger-than-life scope of STAGGER BAY.
Once again though, Pearce Hansen nailed the sense of place. The fictional city of Stagger Bay makes for a tremendous setting. It's a character in itself, for it has its own pulse. It's inspired by iconic stories, yet it has its own identity. Think of Stagger Bay as Silent Hill meets the Far West. I enjoyed reading STAGGER BAY for it kept challenging my perception of traditional hardboiled novels and it forced my pried my horizons open. It's also a work of tremendous atmosphere, which reconciled bleakness with Pearce Hansen's operatic ambitions. I thought he was confused about what he wanted to do after reading STREET RAISED, but reading STAGGER BAY, it's evident that Pearce Hansen found his voice. If you want to get into Pearce Hansen, you can start with this novel. Whatever your expectations are, STAGGER BAY will challenge them.
I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.