At 35, Tommy Cochrane is a washed-up boxer who missed out on a shot at the heavyweight title and has to hang up his gloves for good when he’s diagnosed with an aneurysm. His best friend and former sparring partner, T-Bone Pike, isn’t in great shape either as the two of them head to Toronto on a quest for the $5,000 Tommy desperately needs to buy back his grandfather’s farm.
In the big city, Tommy and T-Bone encounter an intriguing cast of characters operating on the questionable side of the tracks. Fat Ollie runs the weekly poker game on Queen Street; Buzz Murdoch gives Tommy a job as a doorman at the Bamboo club; Herm Bell is a sharp kid on a run of luck; and Tony Broad is a small-time hood with big-time ambitions and a seedy sidekick named Billy Callahan. There’s also Lee Charles, a sharp, cynical, smart-mouthed torch singer, who happens to be Tommy’s ex-girlfriend.
In thetradition of James Ellroy, Brad Smith has readers instantly embroiled in a quick-paced plot that involves guns and money, good guys and bad guys, double and triple crosses, and an exciting, suspenseful payoff. An unerring tradition of ‘50s Ontario, rich in local colour and with the kind of crackling dialogue that drives an Elmore Leonard novel, One-Eyed Jacks is a great read that opens up the underbelly of Toronto the Good.
Tommy was standing there without a drink along that last bit of bar. End of the line, Lee thought, where else would she find him? She stopped in front of him, almost as tall as him in her pumps, knowing full well that everybody in the joint was watching her and not giving one thin damn.
She could only stand there a moment though, and then she had to touch him; she put her arms around his neck and her cheek next to his, just to feel him after all this time, to smell him after all these years. And then he put those hams of his around her and they stayed like that, not saying anything, for maybe a minute.
Finally she put her lips against his neck and then on his mouth and she stepped back to look at him again.
“Oh, you goddamn mick,” she said. “Where you been?”
At first glimpse, the central storyline of Brad Smith’s One-Eyed Jacks—an aging boxer looks for one last score—seems a mite trite, but One-Eyed Jacks is a masterful work, crammed with vividly colourful characters, all lovingly portrayed in tough yet poetic prose. Despite suffering from a potentially fatal aneurysm, prizefighter Tommy Cochrane decides on one more fight to raise cash to save the family farm. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, street-smart torch singer Lee Charles, has her own fundraising scheme in mind. When the pair has to deal with a number of small-time hoods with their own agendas, Tommy’s loyal sidekick, T-Bone Pike, may just prove their trump card. The shadow of the impending fight looms ominously over the proceedings, but One-Eyed Jacks is more about double-crosses than right crosses.
Toronto has only rarely been used as a backdrop in noir fiction, but Smith does it real justice. Set at a time (1959) when the city was known as “Toronto the Good,” Smith’s story probes the city’s placid surface, uncovering a hotbed of vice. At a time when every second crime writer is compared to Elmore Leonard, Smith actually deserves the compliment, and it comes as no surprise that the book was shortlisted for both the Hammett Prize and the Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction. As Tommy, T-Bone, and Lee head off into their respective sunsets, the reader is guaranteed to feel a desire for their return. That’s always a sign of a job well done.—Kerry Doole