Hammers on Bone

November 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boneHammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

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Right after I finished this novella, I rated it two stars: “It was ok”. That’s about how I felt, so it made sense. The next day, I sat down to write this review, and I started to wonder a bit more about what I’d read.

I don’t like noir that much. There are too many macho men who have too much disregard for women (sorry, “skirts”, maybe “dames”) for me to like them that much, and they’re usually the narrators of their stories. I knew going in to Hammers on Bone that it was a Lovecraftian noir story, but I also saw it was written by a woman, so I thought it might avoid those tropes, or at least use them in a new way. For the most part, the story reads like a standard private dick story, which put me off, but there was a moment toward the end that got me thinking further:

… the body strains to think of her as “the dame,” “the skirt,” or any of the other metaphors familiar to noir

The main character, John Persons, is a private investigator, sure, but he’s also a monster who lives inside a human body. So “the body” in that passage isn’t the character, though the character is trying to be someone he’s not (I mean, how did his name not tip me off to that at the start?), and I wonder if this line reflects the point of the story. Sure, it’s a standard noir story, but if the main character is struggling to pass for human, and his only point of reference is Sam Spade, how do we fault him for that?

I still have some issues with the story. The other characters aren’t defined well (though in true noir fashion, none of them are playing straight with Persons), the plot is a little predictable, and the story feels rushed. Interestingly, Khaw thanks an editor in her afterword for rejecting the story, feeling it “needed room to breathe”, but 11,000 words later, I feel the same way about it. I wanted to know more about the world and its characters than was included here, and saying this is the first in a series doesn’t excuse that lack.

Khaw does enough right with the story — her atmosphere, the creep level of how she incorporates the Cthulhu mythos, and her language (my favorite is “stubborn as capitalism”) — but the story itself feels insubstantial. If not for that one line to make me rethink Persons as a character, I’d rank this is just an okay story. I’ll elevate it to three stars (“liked it”) upon reflection, but Khaw is going to have to make a different kind of magic happen for me to bump up my rating on the next book.

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