"The Barbary Dogs" by Cynthia Robinson: Book Review


"The Barbary Dogs" by Cynthia Robinson
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 328 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James


Opera performer Max Bravo of San Francisco has a return engagement that is, well, operatic.

Factor in ghosts, figurative and literal descents into the Underworld, suicide, murder, affairs, shrieking and screeching galore, and a panoply of Grand Guignol images.

IOW: It's the sort of thing Max lives for, on- and offstage.

Pour him three fingers of Vermouth, then four fingers of tequila, then a sloshing snifter of Calvados. Fire up a ciggie, a cigar, a cheroot, or a little something extracted from a Ziploc in the bottom of your purse.

He likes a good drink and a nice smoke. Otherwise, he's terribly un-PC. PC never really reached this part of the PC (Pacific Coast), anyway.

Gotta love the scene where an "I Am Mother, Hear Me Roar" wearing pink Crocs and pushing a stroller commands Max to allow her toddlers to pet his pug, Dixie.

To which Max counters that Dixie is being trained as a bait dog. That bit of bluster will come back to bite him in his substantial behind, as he gets away with precious few of his peccadilloes and outbursts.

Author Cynthia Robinson channels noir as she did in her first novel, "The Dog Park Club." With all that mist and fog rolling roiling in off the coean, with all that vertigo induced by all those dizzying heights, how can you be sure of your footing in The City by the Bay?

That's before you even tap into the sociologist's wet dream of subcultures (or did he just spill coffee on his lap?) and the pre-noir criminal grandeur of the Barbary Coast, heavily referenced herein.

Moreover, San Francisco is a city built over its own grave, its own literal collapse in the 1906 earthquake and fire. It nurtures noir. It harbors haunts.

As much as Robinson moves on from her penchant for noir, into the realms of Alfred Hitchcock (the aforementioned "Vertigo"), Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," and John Milton's "Paradise Lost"
(along with other auteurs, reaching back into mythology), nothing is as delectable as her forays into retro bars.

Retro, mind you, because the aging owners have never redecorated, have made their attitudes as much a part of the ambience as the leatherette, the banquettes, and the brass railings. Somewhere in the authorial firmament, Raymond Chandler is attempting to steal this passage for his latest celestial novel:

"Blashky introduced me to Miss Vicky. She leaned her forearms onto the bar, framing her bounteous breasts in the strong embrace of her bare arms. A man could lose his motel keys in that cleavage."

Robinson's stylistics and Max's theatrics-- equally bravura-- make for a most exotic port of call in a mystery that defies categorical gravity, quite alike a perpendicular cable-car ride.

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