Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Pro-wrestlers, scuzzy bikers, a yellow pet python, and a private detective—how does Devlin hold it all together in this gritty page-turning debut novel? With a whole lot of style and a splattering of tongue-in-cheek humour. The characters are highly stylized; their dialogue dazzling. From the first scene, when pro-wrestler Johnny Mamba appeals to his ex-tag-team partner “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead to find the man who kidnapped his python, right through to the Rocky Balboa ending, Devlin takes us on a rollicking ride through the crazy XCCW world. A parody of ECCW, the acronym stands for X-Treme Canadian Championship Wrestling. You will read this book with your eyes wide open and your lips turned up.
Jed Ounstead (pronounced OW-n-STED) has left wrestling to work as a bar bouncer at Tonix nightclub and run errands for his father’s detective agency and pub, The Emerald Shillelagh. Jed’s Irish cousin and sidekick, Declan St. James, with his campy, no-holds-barred backtalk will steal your heart. “Jaysus, what is it with you Canucks and your need to share your feelings all the time? Back home, if you want to say thanks to a bloke, you just buy his arse a pint.” A feisty ex-IRA gunman, Declan is barman at the Shillelagh and “renowned for his ability to pour the perfect pint of Guinness.”
Jed doesn’t take Johnny Mamba’s predicament too seriously until the snake man receives a $10,000 ransom request via email for his python, Ginger. Then at the drop (near the Vancouver Flea Market), Ginger turns up dead and Jed finds his old pal Johnny in an outhouse with his throat slit. After that, there’s no time to breathe.
We spend a fair amount of time touring Vancouver with Jed in his Ford F-150, ducking into Dairy Queens for a banana milkshake. (Warning: I had to go and buy bananas while reading this book. I’m dairy-free. But you may find yourself cueing at the DQ.) Vancouver landmarks abound. As Jed cruises Hastings Street and passes Playland Amusement Park, the “archaic wooden roller coaster” catches his eye. “The out of commission rickety green and yellow cars were still slick from the last rainfall, shimmering in the sunlight as they sat perched on an incline of the track, patiently waiting to start their slow mechanized climb to the top.”
Written in the first person and peppered with contemporary references, Devlin’s exacting prose is tight and colourful. With an MFA in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute, we naturally expect cinematic brilliance from him, but it’s his cleverly original similes that could become his trademark. “Melvin grinned so wide he looked like a sabre-toothed squirrel” for example. Still, it’s not all belly laughs. In the beginning, a “cobra clutch” is defined as a professional wrestling move, but in the end, the title has a much more sentimental meaning—one that gave me pause. There is no laughter without tears, and Jed Ounstead almost loses it all, as any real hero should.
Cobra Clutch is A.J. Devlin’s debut detective novel but he promises us that he has “many more Jed stories” so rest assured, this is only the beginning.
Cobra Clutch is published by NeWest Press, 2018
Wendy Hawkin writes urban fantasy with a twist of murder. To Charm a Killer and To Sleep with Stones are the first two books in her Hollystone Mysteries series with Blue Haven Press.