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Diary of a Small Fish Paperback – October 6, 2011
About the Author
Pete Morin has been a trial attorney, a politician, a bureaucrat, a lobbyist, and now writes crime fiction and legal mumbo jumbo. His short fiction has appeared in NEEDLE, A Magazine of Noir, Words With Jam, 100 Stories for Haiti, and Words to Music. When he is not writing, Pete plays blues guitar in Boston bars, and on increasingly rare occasion, plays a round of golf. He lives in a money pit on the seacoast south of Boston, in an area once known as the Irish Riviera. Pete is represented by Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency.
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But there's another level--let's call it the anal literary level--where it falls pretty flat. And it's a shame, because it might have been why this book is indie published, instead of appearing in a Barnes and Noble near you. Most readers probably don't notice it because it's a fun book: very well-written, full of inside knowledge, packed with humor, and highly ingratiating.
Let's start off with why it's such a cool book that you'll almost certainly like a lot. The main asset is Paul Forté--leading man, narrator, and pretty obviously "auteur a clef". And character sketch of Forté would coincide very closely with a bio blurb of Morin. Not really robbing Peter to pay Paul, but a strong dimension in why the book works so well: Morin is a great guy with an effortlessly engaging manner that moves us through the story on Teflon bearings. To include the experience in courtroom, legislature, lobbies, and golf courses that informs the novel... and the late father who is so obviously a major influence and benefactor of both.
The narrative voice is the other main asset: Morin slides seamlessly from simplifying legal thickets in lay/human terms to an elegant and easygoing traction with dialogue and exposition, to just the right soupcon of profanity, slang, musical references, and wit. (One example I liked, he's arrested by a Marshall named Tucker). Basically, it's a joy to read without stumbling blocks or speedbumps.
Then we have a guy being trapped into Federal indictment for playing golf and living it up--with food and drink richly named and savored. And a relationship between his ex-wife and new lover that manages to be touching while skating around "sentimental" or "bathetic" mostly because of that dry humor, almost an updating of Bacall romancing The Thin Man. So what's not to like. Get a copy. You'll love it.
Now, about that literary thing. It's not debilitating, but it really is a major problem: there is no risk, no "character arc", no real conflict. I don't personally subscribe to the idea that there has to be arc or growth of the main character, and have drawn glares for suggesting that a book doesn't really need it to be successful--this might be a classic case in point, like McMurtry's "Moving On"--but you really should have something at stake, some chance at failure that the plot averts. And when you have a princely guy like Paul Forté, you would be well served by a tragic flaw. Almost any flaw.
Because Forté is about as perfect as any man could dream of being. Handsome, sexy, funny, personable, low handicap, of amazingly good family, moral, experienced. The kind of man women desire and men admire. And maybe certain men would like to take down a peg. And we've got just the little creep to try to do that.
Trouble is, he's too perfect. He's morally irreproachable. Never cheated on his wife. (A LAWYER for crissakes!) Macbeth and Hamlet participate in their own comeuppance. That's why they're famous. A better comparison might be the leads in the novels of Louis Auchincloss. Which are actually very similar to "Small Fish", though set in rarefied Knickbocker country, rather than the political bogs of Brahmin Boston. The whole world of privilege, wealth, and elegance is very similar. But, see, those books work because our hero screwed up, betrayed, failed himself and his Others. The Embezzler, well, embezzled. His wonderful wife screwed his best friend. This raises the stakes. Timothy Colt messes up big time. We understand it. We might well have done exactly the same thing.
And that's a big key, right there. We, the people, aren't that perfect or privileged.
Much of the relaxed, easy mastery comes from having everything and being secure in having it: a class of people, one might say, with a serene assumption that the world is ordered for their own pleasure and propagation and that good food and drink and jobs and women come along of their own accord, and if threatened will repel said threats from behind entrenched bastions of established certainty. Most of us don't have that, and while we admire it in the same way we admire a guy driving a Lambourghini beside a supermodel, we don't really understand or accept it. And, being the people, would kind of like to see that guy sweat a little some time.
Forté's perfection has a worse feature, from the point of view of literature: he is too perfect to ever be in danger, or even doubt. He chafes under his indictment, but let's be real: he is coddled at every point. His antagonist is actually guilty of far worse crimes, which are deduced with childlike ease by a network of old family allies. Evidence against him is fabricated then hidden by an FBI agent! Cops apologize for arresting him, the judge practically dandles him on his knee, the Governor stops by for moral support. His father's name is a golden carpet through the valley of the shadow and he need fear no evil, especially the bumbling and incompetent evil aimed at him by the absurdly venal villain. He is worried at times (we aren't) and gets shaky when jailed. But come on... he never sees a cell, is practically fellated by everybody he comes into contact with. Far from the experience of the fallen aristocrat in "Bonfire of the Vanities" or even "Trading Places". I kept thinking, "What are you whining about? Try it when the cops and jailers and judges don't like you, pal."
The same sort of concern, or lack of it, spreads to his new relationship. There's no "boy loses girl" here. It's like boy meets perfect girl, she immediately falls for him, she steps up to everything along the way with never any setback or reversal from first sight until HEA. Again, there's a reason so many fictional relationships start off with mutual distaste, or suffer losses and betrayals, or get derailed by antic fate.
I am really confident that any serious critic would spot and comment on this failing of conflict/risk. And maybe any serious acquisitions editor. And that's all I'm going to say about it. Morin has started a new novel, featuring a detective main guy and I think there's an excellent chance that by stepping away from his own apparently charmed existence he will bring his obvious intelligence and gifts to crafting a story that makes is worry about what's going to happen. And having the success of "Fish" behind him is quite likely to mean that he ends up shelved at B&N after all.
And the thing is, how much does that really matter to you? This isn't a "mystery" or a "thriller". It's almost conversational, almost a novel of manners. Basically, it's a fun read that whisks you through an interesting world in nice company and is written well enough that you smile or laugh from time to time. What more could you ask. Grab a copy.
Okay, I need to come clean - I went to high school with the author, Pete Morin, but we did not know each other well, and I hope readers will believe me when I say that I wouldn't be raving about the book if I didn't love it. Seriously.
Diary would make a great movie.
And I'd like to see more of Paul Forte in a sequel. But I'm sure Morin has many other great stories up his sleeve. Watch out for this guy. He's VERY GOOD.
The protagonist, Paul Forté, is a past elected representative of the Massachuesetts House, an attorney and the current chief counsel to the MBTA, the transportation authority of the city of Boston. He is well-schooled in `how things are done'. He is also a blue-blood, not first shelf Kennedy style, but high enough that his family, education and career mirror a socio-politico class with rules of behavior and lifestyle that clearly set him apart.
Paul is also an addict of sorts, addicted to the game and traditions of golf, so much so that his obsession may have cost him a marriage ... and provided an entrée into a world of questionable ethics when viewed through the lens of middle class propriety. Paul is a man convinced of his own moral authority, wedded to a strict tradition of reciprocity and smart enough to recognize potential wrong-doing in his position at the MBTA.
What he isn't canny enough to see is how a pattern of behavior could be twisted and misconstrued, how easy it is to fall into a scapegoat status where all he knows and understands about the system is turned on its ear, leading him to question his own judgment and complicity.
Paul has huge shoes to fill: his father was universally admired and loved and he must struggle to live up to that reputation--not easily accomplished when fingers point to his possible misconduct with lobbyists. And what could have been an easily dismissed state case suddenly becomes an indictment for mail fraud, tax evasion and other misdemeanors at the Federal level. In short Paul becomes embroiled in a witch hunt.
The beauty of how he deals with all the conflicting crises, the sense of powerlessness, the sheer terror of a man believing himself free of all implied collusion, yet the evidence says otherwise, is what makes this crime suspense tale stand out. Told entirely from Paul's point of view, we know intimately what he feels during every step of the process--the fear, the doubt, the self-recrimination, the anger, the disbelief. And, although he is an attorney, he is not a specialist so he must seek out assistance, utilizing resources he's built up over the years via exactly the same kind of relationships for which he is now under indictment.
Paul is also a man alone, despite a wide network of friendships, professional and otherwise. He is still struggling with a failed marriage, unconvinced he is ready to move on. A chance encounter with an artist, the gun-shy Shannon, a woman with secrets and baggage, eventually leads to a slowly developing romance that eventually explodes with a passion neither of them expected.
The trial itself is riveting and I shall say no more because that would be *spoiler alert* and I've no wish to ruin the suspense. What I will say is ... this would make a nice screenplay and let it go at that.
The author also gives us a very strong sense of place with an immediacy and authenticity that rivals that of Greg Rucka. There may be no shoot-outs or car chases but the amassing of evidence, the analysis and thought processes are demanding and engrossing to the point where I simply could not put the book down.
The characters are engaging, sympathetic and multifaceted. The antagonist is a true piece of work. And there are moments that will rip your heart out. The dialog is spot-on. This is a legal suspense with absolutely nothing pedantic to mar the narrative, yet it engages the reader in asking questions about the nature of political cronyism and how an individual's moral authority fits into a system built on roots as old as time itself.
I thank you, Pete Morin, for keeping me up all night. And I hope to see more from this author very soon. And oh yes, don't forget about that screenplay... Five Stars with the utmost pleasure.