When THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE won the Ned Kelly Award in 2013 it was impossible not to agree wholeheartedly with the judges' decision. That book telegraphed clearly here was an author to be followed closely. Three years on, BLACK TEETH is worth the wait. Unusual, dark, often funny, always disquieting, this is an intriguing novel.
In it, the lives of two loners, slightly lost men, collide as they search for the same man. One, Jason Ginaff is a technical wiz. He earns his living researching job candidates, finding out the things that people don't want discovered. Raised by a single mother who recently died, he's socially awkward, suffers from anxiety and is grieving the loss of his mum deeply.
Rudy Alamain is also grieving the loss of parents. His mother died years ago, his father much more recently. The difference here is that his father was serving time in prison for the murder of his mother - whose body Rudy discovered years ago.
When these two damaged and hurting men come across each other, Rudy is looking for life insurance before settling some scores with the cop he thinks framed his father. Jason, on the other hand, is searching for the same man - the father he's never met. As simple as that scenario sounds, nothing should be taken at face-value in BLACK TEETH.
In what seems like a brave move, Lovitt hasn't set out to create a cast of characters here that everyone is going to like, or connect with. As vulnerable, fragile and broken as everybody in this book is, they are also unlikeable, untrustworthy and in many ways complicit in their own destiny. Yet somehow readers will be drawn into a form of caring, almost barracking for somebody, anybody really, to rise above their circumstances and do something. Preferably the right thing, but more often it comes down to anything, to take charge, or make a difference.
It's also a book, that in the early part, is littered with hacker terminology that kind of works, if you don't look too closely. Convincing in a way, slightly questionable in others, there's enough truth in the methods and terms that Jason uses to let it go (although to be honest the confluence of doxing, brute force attacks and rainbow tables was a What The? moment).
What's more important is that the character of Jason as a hacker quietly working on google dorks in his lounge room, discovering people's hidden secrets, works. It also makes him the sort of person that would dig into the past and people's backgrounds to find the truth. It's still what he would do even after he discovers the truth can hurt. It also means that he has some choices in how he approaches a fragile and damaged person like Rudy. Whether or not he, or any of them for that matter, make the right choices is less predictable - you can't code a human emotion and expect somebody to run the script to completion after all.
The complex set of character interactions at play in BLACK TEETH are ably supported by an equally complex and well-executed plot that keeps everyone (including, it seems, the participants themselves) guessing until the end. Add to that some touches of excellent scene setting - from tired old blocks of brick flats in tired old suburbs, through to the mouldering and neglected house that Rudy lives in, surrounded by disconnected and disinterested affluence, and you've got all of the necessary elements of noir crime fiction with none of the predictability.
In fact predictability is the one thing you can forget about if you're about to read BLACK TEETH. There is so much in this novel that's unusual and unexpected but never once does it feel out of place or overly engineered. It's dark, it's classic noir, it's very Australian and it's about as pitch perfect as you can get.