The Peddler – Richard Prather

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4 out of 5

Brutal.  The kind of hard-boiled I’ve happily been able to rely on imprint Hard Case Crime to generally deliver, and another reminder – after happening into a string of shrug-worthy, half-finished books – that rapt writing can still grab my attention.

Prather’s The Peddler is a Scarface-esque rise to notoriety, a quick and dirty version.  If not for a somewhat abbreviated ending, it’d be a perfect killer; a gut-stuck twisted knife of amorality stacked against lead Tony Romero’s relatable endless quest for respectability; as-is, Prather just loses his nerve in the last few minutes and fades to black.  But this by no means undermines the effect of the gutter-trawling we’ve done in the pages prior.  (…That’s a good thing.  Books like this take you on a ride through the shit and you struggle with how you’d feel or act in the same scenarios.)

Tony is a young thug on the streets of San Fran, ready, willing and able to manipulate those in-the-know in order to work his way up the local food chain.  Tony is not a good guy – this is clear from the get-go, with his views of women as disposable objects and his tough guy posturing – but Prather’s genius in his presentation is in the balancing act he plays with the narration, which keeps Tony as a fascinatingly flawed person of interest that we want to read about, only pushing him over the line into out-and-out villainy once we’re already hooked.  It is by no means an empathetic characterization, but it is very human: Tony has natural and logical Street smarts that guide him from success to success, and without explicitly bearing Tony’s soul to us, Prather indicates his personal obsessions and excesses through his actions – what kinds of things set him off, and how he meticulously plots out his plans.  This is where we can “see” ourselves despite most of us not likely being Tony Romeros – the business-like approach to vice matches the politics of a work day; his push for more power in the organization similar to the games any one of us plays when begging or vying for attention.  And when Romero’s in deep, the subtle ways Prather shows us Tony losing himself completely in his pursuits is dastardly effective; we’re there with him, half-rooting for his success, and thus in too deep ourselves.

The B-plot of the girls within Tony’s world – who he mainly meets while trying to turn them into prostitutes – has some fascinating implications, as Tony becomes obsessed with a particular girl who clearly wouldnt figure into his lifestyle, but this is sort of the fuel for the excessive fire Prather sets at the end, so the implications unfortunately don’t pay out.  But we still can recognize the push-and-pull of relationships within Tony’s wheeling and dealing, perverted by his eponymous occupation, and so even here Prather gets us with some dark insight into the human condition.

The Peddler is bleak stuff, and the kind of bleak stuff you sort of sense where it’s heading.  Richard Prather layers this bleakness with a damnably exciting story-telling style, that makes the bleakness all the more effective.  Just like it oughta be.