The Blue Rat by Michael Hartnett
Michael Hartnett has many talents as a writer, but the one most on display in The Blue Rat is his ability to relentlessly stick to the driving metaphor structuring his novel. We’re used to seeing New York from above – its towering buildings, its monumental museums, its lovely Central Park – but that’s all just so much sentimental hooey for our author. Instead, he insists on giving us a lower, even subterranean, view of Gotham. Underground, underfoot, underworld, and underbelly are just a few words coming to mind for Hartnett’s preferred vantage. Much of the novel takes place beneath the sidewalks, in that dark and tangled labyrinth of abandoned subway tunnels, hidden cellars, basement bars, and even pillaged graves. This dim and lowly point of view colors the story’s tone and lends it an originality that is refreshingly different from our usual clichéd perspective of the metropolis above. Hartnett’s city is seen from the world of rats, the city’s most ubiquitous, secretive, and resilient residents. And these rats, too, become metaphors; they are symbols scurrying about beneath the big structural metaphor upon which Hartnett builds his novel.
Chief among these rodentesque characters is the Tour Guide, aka El Buscador, or The Seeker. One senses a bit of the author’s alter ego in this enigmatic figure haunting the shadows. He knows an awful lot about the city. Not the typical stuff a tourist might read about in a glossy brochure, but the gritty infrastructural history twisting through the city’s soil and bedrock like a forgotten genetic code. One of the more pleasing byproducts of reading The Blue Rat is the extraordinary history lesson we are given along the way. Like El Buscador, Hartnett is quite obviously enamored of New York. It is this love that motivates El Buscador and his fellow rats to try to bring down the egotistic and corrupted developer – one Timothy Terrance Toland – who is seemingly trying to, if not destroy the city, so mark it with his garish stamp that it becomes unrecognizable. (I think it’s no mistake that our minds jump to Donald Trump and his narcissistic towers every time Toland enters the narrative.) With his band of journalists, mobsters, and molls, El Buscador embarks on an elaborate scheme to undermine Toland, expose his corruption, and bring him down. The drama arises with Toland’s counter efforts to either exterminate this band of misfits, or turn them into his minions.
All of this is done with an artful flare and sure hand. We feel ourselves gently guided through the novel by a learned master. The metaphors are strong but subtle in The Blue Rat, delivered to just the perfect degree for a satisfying reading experience. The plot squirms and worms along nicely, taking unexpected turns. With echoes of Dashiell Hammett, Michael Hartnett has given us an updated and entertaining version of classic American Noir.