Bad Publicity, by Brian C. Baer, is a modern twist on the hardboiled noir detective story. The book centers on Jackson Hardy, a grizzled alcoholic unraveling a mystery who contends with his fair share of femme fatales and massive thugs. It all sounds very Dashiell Hammett except for the particulars.
Jackson Hardy isn’t a P.I.—he’s a tabloid reporter, and he’s not a very good one on his own.* One of the femme fatales is a ghost named Madame Blue who feeds him his sordid tidbits about movie stars. It’s these clever subversions that make Bad Publicity worth reading. Where noir literature was always a wry satire of its times—a reflection of the lose-lose nihilism of post-Depression American life—Baer’s writing sends up today’s empty fishbowl fascination with celebrity culture. To this end, making Hardy a tabloid reporter is a brilliant update of the genre.
The book follows Jackson Hardy as his use of Madame Blue (by way of an unplugged fax machine) lands him a string of high profile tabloid stories. But with those stories come ruined careers and retaliation from the movie stars he writes about. As Jackson digs deeper with Madame Blue’s help, things get stranger, questions about these celebrities pile up, and the plot twists and turns.
The structural criticisms that can be leveled against Bad Publicity are largely the same ones that can be leveled against noir fiction in general: the women characters lack dimension, and its cast is as White as fresh-fallen arctic snow. In updating the conventions of the genre, Baer could have included some diversity to his cast. Regarding the female characters, a case could be made that Jackson is, for much of the book, a drunk and emotional mess, and therefore an unreliable narrator in terms of what these women are actually like. No such excuse can be made for the lack of characters of color, though.
That said, the characters we get are well-drawn enough that they held my interest. I was particularly impressed by Jackson’s evolving relationship to Madame Blue, who grows stronger and more corporeal over the course of the book. Also of interest was Fitzgerald, presented as Jackson’s one stable friend over the course of the book.** And, last but certainly not least, a brief interlude where we meet Jackson’s estranged ex-wife proved extremely enlightening. Layla was a fascinating creature who deserved her own book, in my opinion, and enriched this one.
If you’re looking for a well-paced paranormal thriller with roots in hardboiled detective fiction, Bad Publicity will scratch that itch.
*At least not when he’s drunk, which is usually the case. When he dries out, he proves he can do the legwork without Madame Blue’s help.
**Sadly, this never panned out, but I shipped it.