Happy Doll

Created by Jonathan Ames

There’s nobody in the world Jonathan Ames likes writing about more than… Jonathan Ames? 

“Jonathan Ames” has been his favourite subject in numerous semi-autobiographical articles and essays, collected in such books as What’s Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer and The Double Life is Twice as Good. “Jonathan Ames” also showed up as the nebbishy New York writer turned Craig’s List gumshoe in Ames’ short story, “Bored to Death,” which was the basis for the popular HBO series of the same name, and “Jonathan Ames” was the tormented New York writer of his acclaimed, semi-autobiographical 2009 graphic novel, The Alcoholic.

So maybe the first big surprise for me was that the hero of Happy Doll (2021), Ames’ terrific but grisly new detective novel, is not Jonathan Ames. Not only that, but the hero doesn’t live in New York, and he’s not even a writer. Nope–he’s an honest-to-goodness private eye.

And what a private eye! Ames’ obvious affection for the yellowing pages of old pulp fiction and the flickering images of classic black and white detective films merges nicely with his own cock-eyed and thoroughly post-modern mojo into a bracing blend of old and new; and one potent series debut.

Ex-Navy and ex-LAPD, HANK “HAPPY” DOLL (blame his dad for the boy-named-Sue monicker) is low-hanging fruit on the P.I. tree, barely scraping by, reduced to moonlighting as a security guard at the Thai Miracle Spa (a not exactly upscale massage parlor), as his life slowly implodes, mostly from his own inertia.

Sure, he tries not to drink too much, and keeps his regularly scheduled appointments with his therapist Dr. Lavich (yeah, he’s seeing a shrink), but his get-up-and-go has got-up-and-gone. He can’t even summon up the courage to ask out Monica, a bartender at his local bar whom he clearly adores. 

Happy’s saving grace is that he’s a stand-up guy—decent, conscientious, and loyal to his friends. He also clearly loves his feisty little mutt, George, “half Chihuahua, half terrier of some kind and quite springy,” with whom he shares a white Spanish two-story bungalow just under the Hollywood sign, a gift bestowed on him years ago by a grateful client—back when he had clients.

Then a bad night at the Thai leaves him with a dead customer and a broken face, and the next day his old friend Lou shows up at his front door, just in time to bleed out from being shot in the gut. And that’s just the beginning. Soon the bodies are piling up, and Happy, his battered face sporting more bandages than Jake Gittes, and popping Dilaudid (a.k.a. “the good stuff”) like it was going out of style, sets out to “do something” about his murdered friend.

It’s all safe, familiar, middle-of-the-road hard-boiled detective schtick, until about two-thirds in, when Ames heads for the ditch, and goes all Grand Guignol on us. Horrid, bloody, wrenching things ensue that shouldn’t happen to a dog.

The always affable Happy may work at a tug-and-rub joint, but don’t expect a happy ending here. For those of you looking for a new private eye series, who don’t mind the hard stuff straight up, it’s a promising one.

And if A Man Named Doll isn’t dark enough, there’s always Joe, Ames’ grim, troubled and pretty much humour-free mercenary from You Were Never Really Here.

UNDER OATH

  • “While the macabre seriousness of the crimes and the narrator’s good-nature and sardonic humor might seem to be at odds, Ames makes it work through assured plotting, superb local color, and excellent prose. Readers will happily root for Doll, a good detective and a decent human, in this often funny and grisly outing.”
    — Publishers Weekly
  • “… a dark new private detective series that’s a tightly coiled double helix of offbeat humor and unflinching violence… Wherever Hank Doll goes, no matter how strange the trip, I’ll definitely follow.”
    — Sarah Weinman (April 2021, The New York Times Book Review)

NOVELS

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply