R. Scott Bakker’s Disciple of the Dog is proof that a great plot isn’t needed as long as your main character is endlessly fascinating. Well, that shit proved true for the Nerd, anyhow. You see, I can’t really claim that everybody and their second cousin thrice fucking removed is gonna dig this off-beat take on the PI novel. I can’t even break down who is gonna dig Disciple in terms of middle-boiled or basement crazy or cozy or whatever other half-assed reader categories for the thriller genre I can pull out my ass. Really, this shit for adventurous readers with some patience and an interest in how far the genre can be stretched. That said, don’t let the Nerd make you feel like this shit doesn’t pay off fucking huge either because, you know, it does.
Disciple of the Dog starts with PI Disciple Manning being hired by a couple to find, you fucking guessed it: their smoking hot daughter who has disappeared (what would the mystery genre be without beautiful missing women?). She was last living with a cult called the Framers outside a po-dunk western Pennsylvania town. While looking into the case he takes up with a sexy wannabe reporter chasing the same story and they learn that, in addition to the cult, there’s also a nasty neo-Nazi church whose influence seems to extend all over the area. Could either of these bizarre religions and their members be responsible for Amanda Bonjour’s disappearance?
That’s the makings of a pretty decent story as it is, but what really makes this book work is Disciple himself. You see, Disciple has a condition where he can’t dump his memories. He remembers everything he sees, hears, reads – whatever, in agonizingly vivid detail. This condition (he’d call it a curse) makes him irritable, cynical, obnoxious, cocky, and has even driven him to a few suicide attempts over the years. It also makes him a damn good detective.
You read Disciple of the Dog to learn more about Disciple Manning first and the mystery plot a distant second – and the book is surely fucking written that way. Hardly anything happens for the first two-thirds of the novel plot-wise, and I’ve got a feeling that that shit might not sit well with a lot of readers. We’re kind of just hanging around with Disciple, getting to know him and the feel of this shithole town he’s looking into, for two hundred pages and then the thriller shit kicks in and the book starts to resemble more of a typical PI novel. The last third has some great revelations and some action and blood and all that good shit you want, but you have to get through the first two-thirds of character development and lazy, loose investigation to get there.
Personally, that shit worked for the Nerd just fine. I think Bakker’s first-person prose is smart, harsh and often hilarious. He’s created a character that is fresh, exciting and singular and approaches him in ways that are truly daring, often willing to make the reader hate Disciple at times like I’ve never encountered before (the Nerd can get behind practically any villain or antihero but to make him as cocky and full of himself as Diss is but not in a satirical way? That’s fucking ballsy). The way Bakker uses Disciple’s condition to aide the investigation is not made to feel like a lame superhero power (“Memory Man to the rescuuuueee!”) so much as it is a useful burden.
I’m looking forward to more novels about Diss Manning in the future. Bakker’s got a helluva character with lots of skeletons in his closet to work with and his approach to mystery plotting is low-key but surprising all the same. There’s a sadness and weight to the resolution of Disciple of the Dog that you don’t find in any but the best of the PI genre. I hope you’ll sack the fuck up and remember to pick up this novel on your next bookstore run. And yes, the Nerd does want to kill himself for that last terrible fucking joke, but somebody’s gotta replace Gene Shalit, after all…