Review – Craig McDonald’s ‘One True Sentence’

I first heard about Craig McDonald’s series of historical mystery thrillers fairly recently via a review by fellow Ellroy scholar Steven Powell. In it, Powell draws some fascinating links between McDonald’s work and James Sallis’s ‘Lew Griffin’ mysteries – a series of compelling, unusual and beautifully written crime novels. Probably better known as the author of Drive (which was subsequently made into an excellent film by Nicolas Winding Refn), James Sallis is one of the most underrated – and one of my favourite – crime writers working to day, so this comparison was intriguing enough for me to pick up one of McDonald’s books.

McDonald’s novels follow the exploits of Hector Lassiter, a crime writer/amateur detective who finds himself swept up in some of the most violent and infamous events of Twentieth Century history. One True Sentence places us in 1920’s Paris, an historical milieu populated by bohemian artists and real life figures from ‘the Lost Generation’. Not long out of fighting in the First World War, Lassiter and best friend Ernest Hemingway are both jobbing writers struggling to make ends meet in Paris’s nepotistic and narcissistic literary scene. Whilst Hemingway labours to crack the ‘Great American Novel’, Lassiter secretly subsidizes his similarly lofty ambitions by writing trashy crime novels for pulp magazines back in the U.S.

The novel begins with Lassiter crossing the Pont Neuf on a freezing Paris night, when he is suddenly alerted by the sound of a body falling into the icy depths of the Seine below. This ultimately transpires to be the first in a long line of brutal murders of literary magazine editors that throws Paris’s artistic scene into disarray. Determined to halt this frenzy of killings, Gertrude Stein assembles a collective of prominent crime and mystery writers. Among these is Lassiter’s love interest Brinke Devlin, a seductive yet mysterious crime writer who Lassiter desires but cannot bring himself to trust.

Inextricably weaving fact with fiction, One True Sentence offers a vivid historical setting with vibrant and engaging characters. Lassiter in particular is an empathetic and complex creation and the relationships that he forms (most notably with Hemingway and Devlin) are both nuanced and authentically constructed by McDonald. The novel is also full of metafictional musings that constantly make you question the reality of what you are reading. One True Sentence is a crime novel about writing crime novels and – as the title suggests – the question of what is ‘true’ pervades the narrative throughout. This is certainly where you can see the influence of Sallis’s work on McDonald’s writing.

One the whole, the novel is well plotted and builds to a satisfying conclusion, but there are some issues along the way. For one, the body count is a little out of control. By the end of the text I could barely keep track of who had been killed and for what reasons. I also found aspects of the action a little bit repetitive, particularly the various scenes in Parisian cafe’s. Nonetheless, on the whole One True Sentence is a deftly constructed, humorous and intelligent novel that provides a vivid insight into a rich historical and cultural setting.

If you enjoy the work of writers such as James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, McDonald is definitely for you!

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