Friday, December 7, 2012

The City Man by Howard Akler

This is a book with a very distinct style, but unlike some other stories with a similar cadence, it is immensely readable. Set in 1934, The City Man is the story of a pickpocket named Mona who becomes an anonymous source on a series of Star articles about the pickpocketing racket (or "the whiz") in Toronto. She becomes romantically entangled with the reporter, Eli Morenz, which leads to lots of trouble for both of them.

At around 150 sparsely populated pages, this is a super quick and easy read, but somehow Akler manages to stuff it full of evocative description and emotional depth. It's not even worth trying to understand the slang, which whizzes by at a mile a minute. I picked up on the meaning of what they were saying most of the time. I love the jazzy underworld talk from that time - I am personally trying to bring "what's the rumpus?" back into play.

I liked how the novel was littered with Eli's newspaper articles, which are short and somewhat quaint. The action is set into motion by the city's centenary celebrations, where the police band and bystanders are hit by the pickpockets in force, leading to the formation of a special "whiz squad" on the police force to catch the "Centenary Mob". The descriptions of Toronto are sparse but excellent; lots of recognizable streets and landmarks are sprinkled through the text.

It was especially cool to read about the role of female pickpockets - Mona does not do the actual picking of the pocket, but she has a more difficult job: framing the mark. She basically uses her body to very gently, very subtly move the mark into position and cause a slight distraction by her touch so that her partner can grab the cash more easily. Pretty sneaky.

This is the sort of book that takes a "less is more" approach to feelings, but it works. Morenz's editor tells him a heartbreaking story about his first scoop, and you never read Morenz's reaction, and the story is never brought up again, but you can imagine how it affected Morenz and you certainly feel it affecting you. There are so many little snippets of things that the characters are never shown struggling with, but it opens up those ideas for you to reflect on after closing the book. It is very effective writing.

I really enjoyed this book - it's a quick read but a deep one, and it will stay with you.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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