He said, she said

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 Miss Lamp
The City Man beats and clicks while Miss Lamp yearns for peaches

BOTH Chris Ewartâe(TM)s whimsical Miss Lamp and Howard Aklerâe(TM)s noirish The City Man make for great summer reading as they revel in an almost lewd love of juicy images and language's rich possibilities to tell their short, sharp shocks of stories.

As morsels of Coach House Books' recent work âe" Miss Lamp is new this season and The City Man was one of last seasonâe(TM)s successes âe" they are tasty samples indeed. The City Man was a nominee for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the Canadian/Caribbean region and was shortlisted for the 2005 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel award.

These slender novels are both laden with a poetry rare for first-time novelist. Not the Anne Michaels or a Michael Ondaatje brand of unceasingly gorgeous imagery, but poetry nonetheless âe" The City Man and Miss Lamp stride briskly on tight rhythms and delicious alliteration and, in the case of Aklerâe(TM)s work, fabulously fun onomatopoeia (FWAP, bam and blow, clack-clack, Psst-psst).

Strong stories and memorable characters ensure that neither novel is overturned by writing that draws too much attention to itself.

Still, terribly striking, original imagery and what initially seems an unjustifiable insistence on charactersâe(TM) idiosyncrasies are distracting as you enter the world of Miss Lamp. Why are these folks so weird? Once in, though, I wanted to stay and was rewarded with indelible, sharply drawn characters and Ewart's wonderful sense of humour.

An elegant, exacting lawyer who wears Mountie-print flannel pyjamas, finds peaches very sexy, calls milk âeoemoomooâe and demands that her grilled-cheese sandwich be cut diagonally into quarters and served with a pickle and a side of Campbell's tomato soup, Miss Lamp is a definite character. She only just holds her own, though, next to creations like her sadistic witch of a grandmother, her sweet, saintly mother, Abby, and the hapless Paper Boy.

Not to mention the Dudley Do-right-ish Room Service Boy (Mounties again!) and Delano, the brilliantly nightmarish dentist, who gets the funniest bits: âeoeDelano stood up, choked his crimson tie to his neck and spoke down to his feet. âe~I want a bike, feet. Iâe(TM)m tired of you two.âe(TM)âe

The City Man is a wonderful novel that beams and ticks with its authorâe(TM)s love of pickpocket lingo, Yiddish slang, hardboiled conventions and the sketchy, low-life 1930s Toronto milieu he perfectly recreates. What a pleasure to walk through this city and imagine the characters evoked, the old Jewish neighbourhood and whiff of anti-Semitism, the mix of wide-eyed innocence and cynicism among the different characters, the smells and especially the sounds of Old Toronto.

Akler takes the genre conventions of hardboiled crime novels and pays graceful homage to them with a consistent stream of noirish analogies: âeoeBut now, when the depressed man returns to the depressed city, his smile is thinner than a vein.âe

The depressed man is Eli Morenz, the titular reporter just back on the city beat after a nervous breakdown. He needs a story to redeem himself, and he finds one in Mona Kantor, a Jewish pickpocket who moves comfortably through Toronto's underworld.

This is no satire. Instead, Akler joyfully exploits the best aspects of the genre. His characters resemble the stereotypes, but they are completely formed, hearts beating, nerves clicking. We get molls and dour reporters, heavy drinking and steamy sex, card games and betting at the racetrack.

The City Man tells a very simple story but the exactitude with which Akler nails his descriptions, using fragmentary dialogue, scenes and sentences, hints at a wealth of other, untapped tales waiting to be told.

Occasionally difficult to follow thanks to the density of its clever use of pickpocket lingo, you learn as you go:

Mona plants her prat, then hears Chesler office that the touch has come off. With a sideways glance, she watches the couple nudge their way down the departure ramp, so eager to catch their train they wonâe(TM)t savvy the lost poke until they are far out of town.

By the time Akler actually explains his whiz mob (pickpocket) jargon, you realize with a pleasant start that you already understand. Beyond the jargon is an elegant, original use of descriptive language:

Coins come out of his pocket and he aims for the loose yellow circle of lamplight. Flat clank of a penny on glass. He flings copper harder and harder until he hears a crash like laughter. More laughter at the words in his head. Small-timer. Public drunkenness. Van-CRASH-dal-CRASH-ism!

The story, like the language, builds to great effect. By the last scene, at Union Station, the tension is extreme. As in Miss Lamp, the relationships between characters in The City Man are established through short vignettes, artful phrases, shimmering bits of description. And yet the love story it relates as Eli and Mona inevitably fall for each other is, unexpectedly, quite moving.âe"Carlyn Zwarenstein

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