Clever goes a long way with me. If an author gives me clever, I’ll be honest, they’re about halfway home right out of the gate. And that’s precisely what Sean Beaudoin’s third young adult novel is: clever. How much readers will enjoy it, I suspect, will have everything to do with how many of the jokes they get.
What the author has done is taken many well-worn pulp crime noir tropes and dumped them in a YA world. Instead of a crime-riddled city? Yep, a high school. Instead of corrupt politicians? Corrupt school faculty. Instead of gangs fighting over a piece of various illegal rackets? Cliques, of course! And instead of a world-weary gumshoe, you have our hero, a teenage kid who has read one too many crime novels.
Dalton Rev has just transferred to Salt River High to take on a new case. Find out who murdered “The Body.” The police are calling Wesley Payne’s death a suicide, but that doesn’t explain why he’s found duct-taped, upside down, to one of the football goal posts. Hired by a fresh-faced girl next door, Dalton soon finds himself knee-deep in the complexities of life at Salt River. Where the two main players are The Balls (the jocks, naturally) and Pinker Casket (the rockers). Can Dalton find the killer before all the cliques start eating each other alive?
What this book has is a pretty decent mystery, enough slang to choke a Valley Girl, and so many shenanigans that in real life these kids would be locked up in Juvenile Detention, the key not just thrown away but dissolved in battery acid. It’s not a story one takes seriously, at face value. I’m not sure we’re that morally bankrupt as a society (just yet anyway). But as a slick send-up of pulp novels, the absurdity of high school cliques, and snappy dialogue to boot? That’s hard for me not to like.
However, it’s not perfect. There is a boat-load of slang here, a lot of it very funny and really smart, but readers with a low tolerance for this sort of thing won’t make it past the first chapter. Also, the author bites off a bit more than he probably should have. There are a ton of cliques in this book, with more than a few of them just getting a cursory mention. There’s a very smart “clique index” included (along with a slang glossary), but for things of this ilk, the author loses points when I have to refer back to it to decipher who is who – which I did a few times with the outer edge cliques. The flow of the story would have been better served by cutting out some of these “lesser” cliques and tightening up the focus on the secondary players.
I also think that while this book can be enjoyed on its own, I do think it helps tremendously to have a crime-fiction reading background. Frankly, you just “get” more of the jokes. And that leaves me wondering if what we really have here is a YA book written for adults. Could non-crime reading teens enjoy this book? Oh sure. But not nearly as much as the teens who have pilfered grandpa’s Mickey Spillane novels. Or adult readers who spend an exorbitant amount of time in mystery sections of bookstores and libraries.
Which probably goes a long way in explaining why I enjoyed it so much. It is smart. It is clever. It puts a glossy shine on pulp crime noir while remaining true to the many elements that make the genre so much fun. Does it help to already be in the club? Sure. But I won’t be surprised if You Killed Wesley Payne initiates more than a few new members.
He’s come to do a job.
A job that involves a body.
A body wrapped in duct tape found hanging from the goal posts at the end of the football field.
You Killed Wesley Payne is a truly original and darkly hilarious update of classic pulp-noir, in which hard-boiled seventeen year-old Dalton Rev transfers to the mean hallways of Salt River High to take on the toughest case of his life. The question isn’t whether Dalton’s going to get paid. He always gets paid. Or whether he’s gonna get the girl. He always (sometimes) gets the girl. The real question is whether Dalton Rev can outwit crooked cops and killer cliques in time to solve the mystery of “The Body” before it solves him.