With a lurid magenta cover and a private detective who is larger-than-life, AJ Devlin’s Rolling Thunder is the right kind of contemporary pulp crime novel to read if you want to get your mind off COVID-19, Donald Trump, Brexit and all the other nonsense going on in today’s world. It’s the second ‘Hammerhead’ Jed book this young Canadian author has written, and it’s easy to see why the first, Cobra Clutch, won the 2019 Arthur Ellis Award for best debut.
Here’s the setup. ‘Hammerhead’ Jed Ounsted is a former professional wrestler who’s now a private detective working with his father, an ex-cop, in Vancouver. He gets a call from Stormy Daze, a roller derby star. She and her team, the Split-Lip Sallies, want him to track down their coach, Lawrence Kunstlinger. The novel opens with Jed having his bottom unceremoniously spanked by a member of Stormy’s team who is almost as big as he is, causing him to spill his banana milkshake. Well, what did you expect from a novel set in the world of ‘sports entertainment’?
What Devlin does so well throughout the novel is balance its light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek humour with a pretty complex mystery that involves a whole range of unusual characters and interesting twists. It turns out that Lawrence was a gambling man, and some debts in that quarter might be why he’s lying low. However, when Jed visits the bookie – who has a sideline in Dachshund racing – he finds out that Lawrence’s problems probably extend a bit further.
In order to get Lawrence’s location from the bookie, Jed agrees to collect some debts built up by other gamblers and ends up going to a bondage club in disguise with his Irish cousin Declan in tow. Later he’ll fight off some low level gangsters who are trying to shake down a movie producer, and go into battle against an irate gym owner who was one of Lawrence’s biggest rivals in roller derby.
As he digs deeper, Jed learns more about the world of roller derby and potential plans to corporatise the sport via a North America-wide league. What starts off as a hunt for a cagey roller derby coach turns into a full-scale murder mystery, complete with a suspect who wears a bowler hat and looks like Chauncey Gardner from Peter Sellers’ Being There. How weird all this is may pass you by at times because Jed is always on the move, chasing down leads and cornering involved parties.
Vancouver’s vibe is brought to life in vivid detail. It’s an easy-going place, and Jed is affable in a Jim Rockford kind of way. He juggles between a couple of love interests and has one or two other things on his conscience as well, so there’s plenty more to ‘Hammerhead’ Jed than breaking wooden stakes over his head and body slamming people. The supporting cast are engaging, from the roller derby stars to cops, bookies to shady business people. The only one that grates, really, is cousin Declan, the barman at the Emerald Sheleighly. With his dialogue written to accentuate his Irishness, he comes across like a leprechaun being played by Dick van Dyke.
Funny and charming, with plenty of well-written action and a mystery that will engage you, Rolling Thunder is wonderful escapist crime fiction. It snakes along like a roller derby skater, and you never quite know who Jed is going to run into next – or whether he’ll slip through to the next stage of his adventure or end up bouncing on his backside.