Zane Lovitt’s The Midnight Promise – A Detective’s Story in Ten Cases is an original and highly compelling twist on crime fiction. Read on for our review.
The Midnight Promise Synopsis
Winner, Ned Kelly Awards, Best First Fiction, 2013
A brilliant Melbourne crime novel told in ten hardboiled stories.
John Dorn is a private investigator. Just like his father used to be. It says ‘private inquiry agent’ in John’s Yellow Pages ad because that’s what his old man called himself, back before his business folded, his wife left him and he drank himself to death.
But John’s not going to end up like his father. He doesn’t have a wife, or much business. He doesn’t really drink, either. Not yet.
In each of these ten delicious stories, Zane Lovitt presents an intriguing investigation filled with humour and complex, beautifully observed characters. At their centre is John Dorn, solving not so much crimes as funny human puzzles; but the crimes, and the criminals, are forever lurking nearby, taunting him from the city’s cold underworld.
It’s his job to unravel the mystery, or right the wrong, or just do what the client has hired him to do. Somehow, though, there is a misstep at every turn, and John takes another small stumble towards his moment of personal truth. His midnight promise. Perhaps even his redemption.
Genre: Crime-Detective, Drama, Thriller, Humour, Action
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With the number of books I consume, it takes something special to really surprise me these days and The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt did just that.
Why was I surprised by this novel?
Despite its obvious credentials, having won Zane Lovitt the 2013 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, The Midnight Promise exudes a particular modesty and introspective quality… from its no-nonsense cover art and small paperback publication, through to its protagonist, John Dorn’s lone wolf nature. Neither are seeking to force themselves upon the world… But their unassuming exteriors belie the depth to be found within.
I made my promise in a border town in the middle of nowhere, at what was literally my darkest hour. There was even a clock tower chiming midnight, right at the moment I said the words, if you believe it.
The promise I made was that I’d never let it become about me. Or at least, never again.
John Dorn, who calls himself a ‘private inquiry agent’ rather than a private investigator (just one of the many subtle yet meaningful details in Lovitt’s skilful characterisation) narrates this story in reflection… reflecting upon the series of events that culminated in him making his midnight promise.
A Detective’s Story in Ten Cases
The Midnight Promise‘s subtitle, ‘A Detective’s Story in Ten Cases’ refers to Zane Lovitt’s original twist on a common framework.
At first one might think this is simply a collection of interlinked stories, but it’s so much more than that. Read it again carefully and you’ll see the answer, like many in this tale, is in plain sight. The novel does feature detective John Dorn ingeniously solving ten cases (or more pointedly, puzzles involving people), but the real story being told is about the narrator himself.
Yet, at the same time I was surprised to find each of the stories could also be read in isolation, so efficiently executed are the reflective sequences, parries, clever feints and startling denouements.
You’ll recall I’ve used the term ‘unassuming’ to describe this novel’s form and its protagonist, and now I’ll apply it with the utmost respect to Lovitt’s prose. At first commonplace and very accessible, you soon begin to appreciate the understated artistic quality of the writing and the emotional response elicited by gritty simile and metaphor.
We turn right into Farrel Street, a stretch of run-down weatherboard homes and blocks of flats that smell of urine and all seem to slump against each other like penguins in the Antarctic. The ones that have gardens really only have weeds that seep into the cracks into the concrete paths and across abandoned playthings and up to the windows, threatening to breach the walls and ravage the people inside. The dogs that bark at us from behind torn wire fences rattle their chains and demand to know how they ended up living here.
Violent depiction and sarcasm
The Midnight Promise is not for the faint-hearted. Much of the violence depicted could not be shown on TV without a warning (or at all). And while in context we barrack for narrator John Dorn, he would be the first to say ‘he’s not always a nice person’. In this same context, the novel features many humorous moments – whether directly, from Dorn’s wry or sarcastic observations, or more subtly from his actions in response to the quixotic.
Authors choosing to use a reflective narrative often sacrifice the ultimate climax in return for suspense upfront, or find themselves tieing up loose ends with a lacklustre epilogue. Lovitt has avoided these pitfalls of the framework and written one of the most compelling and visceral final chapters of a novel I have read in years. Nothing was going to get this book out of my hands during those final pages.
I truly hope The Midnight Promise makes its way out of the shadows and garners this talented Aussie author the commercial success he deserves. I will certainly be reading anything Zane Lovitt publishes in the future.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5 — Overall 4.75
UPDATE: Read our review of Zane Lovitt’s second novel released in June 2016, Black Teeth.
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About the Author, Zane Lovitt
Zane Lovitt was a documentary filmmaker before turning his hand to crime fiction, and his stories have since appeared in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 and in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. ‘Leaving the Fountainhead’ won the SD Harvey Short Story Award at the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards for Australian crime fiction. This debut novel led to Zane being named one of the Best Young Novelists of 2013 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Zane lives in Melbourne.
This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2014.
* My receiving a paperback copy of this title from Text Publishing for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.