One of my favorite quotes about storytelling is attributed to the legendary Jim Thompson, an early noir writer whose name deserves mention alongside other greats like Chandler, Hammett, Goodis, Himes and Cain. “There are 32 ways to write a story,” Thompson says, “and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.” This is certainly the case with Michael Peck’s debut novel, The Last Orchard in America.
When we meet private detective Harry Jome, our first-person narrator of the novel, he is broke and on the verge of losing not only his seedy office, but his apartment as well. Then he is visited by Sue Longtree, who offers him $8,000 to investigate the suicide death of her brother, Ben Bergen. Jome takes the case, gets his pistol out of hock and begins to learn of the crazy history of the the Longtree family. Along the way he spars with a police investigator, his tailor, several other private dicks who seem to be on his tail everywhere he goes, and develops a love/hate relationship with Sue, beautiful and obvious femme fatale. It all spirals to a bleak and bloody conclusion that doesn’t find its climax without a surprising twist or two.
If you’ve read any detective novels, or seen any movies, these plot points are all familiar to you. And that is where we hit the “things are not as they seem” part of this book. Peck has delivered a story here that manages to perfectly capture so many tropes of the genre that I can’t help but feel this novel is a send-up, or even pastiche, of the hardboiled gumshoe stories of some of those names mentioned earlier. The thing is, I’m not completely convinced. There are some chuckles along the way, but it isn’t quite a black comedy. The stereotypical beats are so obvious they must be intentional, but the way the story unfolds leaves me less than certain that there is a joke for me to be in on with Peck. The writing even gets quite purple at times, a not-uncommon trait of the early masters, but I can’t tell if that is intentional or just a sign of a loose hand on the editing reins. Which means Peck’s send-up is either subtly brilliant and I lack the sophistication to really get it, or he missed the mark of what he is trying to do.
Peck has written for The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer and Pank, and he’s a sometimes book reviewer for the Indy. The Last Orchard in America began life in 2008 as a kind of flash fiction piece, which Peck described as an “attempt to dilute the common detective story to everything but its essentials in less than 2,000 words.” It appeared at the online journal The2ndhand. In 2012, the earliest stages of the novel were serialized, again via The2ndhand. Ultimately Peck partnered with the journal to publish the entire novel via Kickstarter, a successful campaign that reached its funding goal in December 2014. It is a short book, one that can be—and maybe should be, if one wants to keep everything straight—read in a single sitting without too much difficulty.
As in all successful noir, there aren’t too many likable qualities in any of the principal characters. The setting, a perpetually rain-soaked environment simply referred to as “the city,” is handled very well in Peck’s adventurous prose. The homes the characters live in, the bars they inhabit, the dark streets and looming architecture are key elements in the mood of the book. The cast of characters is suitably quirky, whether captured in the personas of a pair of bumbling detectives hired by Jome’s employer to keep an eye on him, or in the regular appearance of a “midget” named Leo who shows up, guitar in hand, often enough to warrant attention, which never really materializes. Who is Leo and why is he always around? Is he really there, or just a figment of Jome’s imagination? I closed the book without really knowing.
This is probably the biggest problem I have with Orchard. We spend significant time with Jome wandering seemingly in circles, interacting with this posse of characters whose reasons for being around are cloudy, without much happening. Jome’s snappy, wise-ass dialogue is fun until it gets tiresome. It isn’t until the final quarter or so of the book that any interesting reveals occur to advance the story. Those revelations are a bit anti-climatic at that point, and I found that by then I didn’t really care. I’d lost interest in learning how Jome arrived at the predicament he seems to be in during the prologue, and I’d certainly lost interest in the wacky Longtree family. I would have liked to know more about Leo, though.