Because the hardboiled genre has become so mainstream, many forget it has its roots in anti-establishmentarianism. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is on some level a mea culpa for his time as a strike-busting Pinkerton agent. Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe frequently made an enemy of the local police, whom he never trusted. His last short story functioned as a screed against the American healthcare system.
Gary Phillips’ The Underbelly may be seen as a unique take on the genre: a homeless PI maneuvering through the impoverished of LA trying to unravel the conspiracy but given the roots of hardboiled, this is a true-to-form throwback. A real nod to the genre.
The protagonist Magrady, a war veteran and recovering addict (how sadly those two often go hand-in-hand) is at once a familiar protagonist and a unique one too. He has many of the same qualities as Marlowe but whereas Marlowe’s hard drinking, tough talking, dame loving lifestyle was the envy of men of the 50s, Magrady has to eschew substances, often gets slapped for his tough talk, and the only dame he’s loving is a faded B movie actress in her 70s.
This is a book I enjoyed more for the main character and the atmosphere as opposed to the story, which I found even for a short novel to be overstuffed and overwritten. Gary Phillips has an eye for detail and I found myself lost (in a good way) with how he brought unglamorous Los Angeles to life. Hustlers, community organizers, drug dealers, junkies…Magrady has to navigate people with issues you don’t often deal with in a typical hardboiled novel. And Phillips makes it feel authentic.
Again, I wouldn’t recommend this for the mystery itself, which I kind of lost track of several times and felt had an unsatisfying resolution (I didn’t totally understand the motives of the big bad). But I would recommend this brief, hard case crime novel because of how it portrays the world its protagonist lives in.