You Can’t Make Old Friends is an impressive debut novel by author Tom Trott. Despite having “Brightons #1 Detective” on his door, private detective Joe Grabarz is the black sheep of law enforcement in Brighton. Broke, blacklisted and being sued, Joe is hanging on by a thread. An old friend on the force finally throws him a bone when a body washed up on shore.
At times Trott walks a thin line between classic and cliched noir. But, he manages to stay on the right side of it more often than not. Admittedly, I was initially put off by some of the rougher edges to Trott’s writing. Some of the private eye tropes or literary flourishes Trott employs felt flat or clunky. Once the story got going, however, I found it almost impossible to put down (authors note: I have since devoured the second one and am hounding his publisher to see if I can weasel my way into getting an advanced copy of the third.) The sensibilities that Trott embuses in his characters and the developments of his story are surprisingly fresh. The detective/mystery genre is one of the most crowded of the literary world. To develop as story that feels both new and familiar is no small feat. That is essentially what the author has done here.
Trotts sparse prose pulls the reader in and moves the story along at a blistering pace. Plot developments feel natural and earned by Joe’s dogged persistence. There are plenty of moments of genuine suspense as well as pathos that keeps the reader on their toes. The touches of humour and humanity Trott employs keep the gritter aspects from being overwhelming and depressing. The combinations makes you hopeful for happy ending, but unsure that your going to get one. It’s genuinely a compelling mix.
Joe Grabarz in many ways is the typical smart mouthed, streetwise, private eye of traditional detective stories. However, Lott throws some surprisingly intimate details of the character that shift him from caricature to character. You can see elements of classic detectives like Sam Spade or Parker’s Spencer at work here. But the complexities and moral ambiguities make him more akin to Hellbalzer’s John Constantine or Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel. He’s a perpetually down and out detective who is far more capable than he seems and more of a hero than he believes.
The setting is a nice change of pace. The contrast between the tourist friendly Brighton and the dark, grimmy world of detective Joe Grabarz is effective. It provides an interesting parallel for the similarly juxtaposed detective who identifies strongly with his hometown.
Trott, who lives in Brighton, makes the city a central character to the novel. It’s a smart move that gives the novel a lived in sort of feel. Character connections that could otherwise feel overly coincidental instead create a sense of world building.
The sleazy villains, homeless informants and local residents that Joe interacts with make up a fascinating social network. The secondary and tertiary characters do a great job of not only developing the plot but informing the reader about Joe. Trotts characters run the gamut of starkly realistic to pure noir fantasy, but they’re never dull.
At times Lott’s work has a feel of Robert B. Parker meets early Guy Ritchie. While the rougher elements of the writing detract from the work, they should not deter readers (Note: especially since all the rough edges are gone in the next novel.) Trott has a solid understanding of the genre. He has created a work that is both comfortably familiar and manages to find some new territory. You Can’t Make Old Friends isn’t so dark you’ll want to scrub your brain with bleach afterwards, but Miss Marple it ain’t. Trott has laid the groundwork for what could be a really brilliant detective series. This is an easy recommendation for fans of the mystery/detective genre.
You can read other reviews on Tom Trott’s novels on this months blog tour – details below.