Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Lime Pit (1980) by Jonathan Valin

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Jonathan Valin's The Lime Pit, his first novel and Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner’s debut, has strong points, but isn’t wholly successful. The book’s publication came during a period when the style’s resident titan, Ross Macdonald, fell silent and the thriving paperback market made room for potential successors like Valin, Stephen Greenleaf, Robert B. Parker, and Loren D. Estleman, among others. Valin never reached the same level of sales and visibility enjoyed by Parker, but his Stoner series has largely weathered posterity’s judgment and deserves revisiting.

Key components are, admittedly, dated. The idea of underage sexually explicit materials circulated via Polaroids is as quaint to 2018 experience as phone booths and recording weddings with a camcorder. Valin engages questions of morality and conscience in a manner reminiscent of Macdonald, but still groping for its voice. These questions are, ultimately, more important to Valin than the novel’s plot mechanics. The character of Cindy Ann, her disappearance functioning as a sort of inciting incident for Valin’s story, is a MacGuffian. The Lime Pit is much more about Stoner’s reactions to and challenges with the situation.

We learn a little about him. Stoner played football in college, served in Vietnam. He isn’t practically monastic like Marlowe and beds the occasional lady painfully aware of modern love’s vagaries. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a profound influence, but never in an overly imitative way and Stoner never comes off mired in the same cloudbank of dispirited melancholy emanating from Macdonald’s legendary character,  Stoner, however, isn’t fully fleshed out.

Some of his crucial motivations are glossed over or outright tossed aside to keep the plot moving. Valin tries to pick his spots with underwhelming effect. Authors never need to belabor the underlying history and thought processes informing every decision, but laying a bit of breezy social commentary and two cents worth of psychology on readers is perfunctory at best. Promising opportunities for bringing added depths to Stoner’s character are passed over to serve formula and form. We get some, but Valin could have given so much more.

The book reflects its time period. Stoner’s 1979/1980 Cincinnati is a microcosm of an America on its heels stumbling into a new decade still punchy from the punishing one-two of Vietnam and Watergate. The national concussion makes Valin’s characters come off slightly woozy and bearing the claw marks of marginalized people hanging on for dear life.

Sometimes the dialogue falls flat or else reads like it’s cribbed from movies and past masters. Too many, but not all, of The Lime Pit’s secondary characters are cardboard. In the end, however, you will likely forgive Valin’s failings in favor of his presence. He orchestrates the form’s conventions with a steady hand and Stoner’s first person narration is consistently engaging thanks to Valin’s vivid flashes of prose punctuating his lines. The Lime Pit is a solid opening to a great series.

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