The Midnight Promise

THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE
Zane Lovitt
Text, $29.99

Zane Lovitt's debut gives us John Dorn, a private investigator working out of a tiny room in Chinatown. It's a book of stories not quite intertwined but meant to be read sequentially: there's a purposefulness to the running order, with a mildly humorous story to kick things off and a burst of high drama at the end.

Dorn is the detective loner from central casting, though Lovitt hasn't given him any standout gimmicks; he doesn't collect porcelain or play the kazoo. He does crack wise, and well at times: ''Maybe that's why doctors and lawyers are forced to take oaths. It's a ceremonious way of saying, 'You're going to make a fortune. Try to have some standards.'''

Dorn is separated, of course, and although he doesn't start out as a drinker, by halfway through, the life is starting to take its toll. His mate is a Greek solicitor and older-brother figure, Demetri. More openly formulaic is his nemesis, another PI who turns up working for whoever the enemy is: he's a tall, blond psychopath and you have met him before.

Dorn's most distinguishing feature is that his old man was also in the business, until no-fault divorce took away most of his trade. Even without the divorce courts, there's enough turpitude to keep a PI busy.

The poet John Forbes once remarked that the crimes in Shane Maloney's books were just an excuse to write about Melbourne, and Dorn also moves around town, from cramped flats in Coburg to nouveau riche palaces in Sandringham, encountering depraved teenagers in Ferntree Gully and not-so-bright crims in Highpoint, aka Knifepoint (it's all society's fault, because if someone had taught Anton to read, he would have read the sign about security personnel and wouldn't have tried to rob the place).

For Melburnians, this will work partly as a kind of family joke, while it also draws on the idea of crime writing as a kind of urban tourism: the PI goes wherever he is needed, wherever something untoward is going on, and part of the form's vision is that everyone, rich and poor, can go bad at some time or another.

Lovitt trades on his readers' knowledge in other ways. One of the stories features a psychotic crook not unlike our old mate Chopper Read, though even more off-putting. Another has as its set-up that other tabloid staple, the high-school teacher accused of having sex with her students. Gambling-addicted investment advisers and porn-shop owners involved in business rivalries also fill out the cast.

Lovitt has a neat way with a yarn: in ''An Ordinary Job'', for instance, the second story in the book, he lulls you into thinking you've got his - or his characters' - number, then after the foreseeable twist, he gives you something you didn't expect.

And just when you think he is going to stay close to a kind of downbeat realism, there is a slide into something a little thrillerish and action-packed in ''The Crybaby Technique''. Some of the stories move a little too briskly - they sit between being chapters in an ongoing narrative and stand-alone pieces.

As he goes on, Dorn starts making decisions that whoever oversees these things could only call unprofessional, though higher ethical standards are usually the reason; at times he finds himself working against the interests of some of his or Demetri's clients. By the last story, he has landed himself in a right mess, which is where Lovitt leaves him. But let's hope it's not for too long.

The story The Midnight Promise first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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