Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: James W. Fuerst's Huge

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is continuing on its journey. Thanks to our intrepid leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, everyone’s safe – thus far ;-). This week’s rest stop is the letter “H,” and my contribution is James W. Fuerst’s 2009 debut, Huge.

Huge is set in a 1980’s Central New Jersey suburban town, where twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls lives with his mother and his sister Eunice “Neecey.” Huge is extremely intelligent; in fact, his IQ score is surprisingly high. Yet, he’s always had difficulty getting along socially. He has problems controlling his anger and has gotten in trouble more than once because of it. He doesn’t have a lot of friends and he’s small for his age, so he’s often been the target of bullies. One of Huge’s real interests is the classic crime stories of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Arthur Conan Doyle that his grandmother gave him to read. He’s intrigued with the idea of being a detective and in fact, he wants to have his own detective agency.

Huge gets his chance to take a real case one hot August day when he visits his grandmother in the retirement home where she lives. She tells him that the sign identifying the home has been vandalized, and offers him ten dollars to find out who’s responsible. Huge is eager to take on the case, not only because of his attachment to his grandmother, but also because he wants the chance to prove himself. So he agrees and begins his investigation.

The most appealing suspect is Neecey’s friend Darren, whom Huge has never really trusted. Darren and his friends have a habit of tagging – using spray paint to mark signs, walls, and other places – and Huge is certain that Darren’s group struck again at the retirement home. Fairly soon, though, Darren makes it clear that he wasn’t responsible. Huge doesn’t entirely believe him, but he does begin to look for other suspects. He follows clues and slowly puts the pieces together and, although he makes several “wrong turns,” he does find out in the end who defaced the sign. In the process of his investigation, Huge also makes several discoveries about himself.

One of the most important elements in this novel is the character of Huge himself. The story is told from his point of view, so we see the world through his eyes. In some ways, he’s not particularly appealing. He’s immature, as most twelve-year-old are, and he’s got a habit of blaming others for his problems and of thinking the worst of them. He’s also not good at listening to or taking advice from people and he tends to jump to conclusions – sometimes the wrong ones. He speaks his mind in what’s sometimes a very tactless way, too. On the other hand, he’s extremely intelligent and has a gift for getting right to the point. He’s also gutsy and determined. He has all sorts of mishaps along the way, but he doesn’t give up as he tries to catch the culprit. He takes on teenagers bigger and stronger than he is, too. And if you’ve ever imagined yourself as a detective, finding clues and “on the hunt” for the culprit, it’s easy to cheer for Huge as he gets closer to the truth.

Many of the characters in the novel are teenagers, so there are also doses of teen angst, first crushes, experimenting with drugs and drinking, gossip and 1980’s “teenspeak:” For instance, here’s what Neecey says to her friend Cynthia about an upcoming party:

‘Did I get the stuff? C’mon, Cyn, you know I got the stuff. Darren would have a total seizure if I didn’t. He’d be all ‘Dude’ – Neecey made her voice gravelly and slow – ‘this is so not a righteous party without the stuff.’ Omigod,” Neecey laughed, ‘I’d be so cut off.”

Another distinctive feature in Huge is the setting. The action takes place mostly in the working-class section of a suburban town in a time before mobile ‘phones, wireless Internet access or DVRs, and Fuerst evokes that era in subtle ways. For instance, at one point, Neecy is on the ‘phone with a friend:

“She [Neecey] had a habit of walking in a out of the kitchen while she was on the phone, twisting herself in circles so that the cord wrapped around her waist, which was probably what she was doing.”

Fuerst also places the reader in the suburban town:

“All of this was crammed together on one measly avenue that ran east to west and was only remarkable for its ability to look rundown and barren in both directions… On it were the appliece store, the hardware store, the gas station, a sued-car dealership, a supermarket, a Carvel ice cream shop, a roller skating rink, the grimiest diner on the planet, a packaged-goods store, which meant they sold liquor after hours, and a juice bar…”

As Huge travels around town on his bicycle the Cruiser, we go along to the local mall, the school, the swim club and the “only decent pizza parlor in town.”

Against this setting, the mystery of what happened to the sign plays out. The solution is credible, and in fact, makes sense under the circumstances. But it’s not obvious and Huge makes more than one mistake as he goes on the trail of the culprit. Although it’s by no means as high-stakes a mystery as finding a killer, Huge takes his charge very seriously, and because of that, we do, too.

Huge doesn’t have good social skills, and he gets into arguments with his sister like most siblings do. And like most young people, he’s not too happy about chores, house rules and so on. And yet, throughout the novel it’s very clear that the Smalls family is a close one. Huge and Neecey look out for each other and “cover” for each other. They might not exactly obey their mother, but they do love and respect her. Their mother loves them both very much and takes care of them the best she can, considering she has to hold down two jobs to make ends meet. Huge’s grandmother is an important part of this family unit, too. In fact, it’s her concern for Huge and her interest in him that motivates her to “hire” him in the first place, and whenever Huge visits her, it’s easy to see that he’s devoted to her in his own twelve-year-old way.

Huge is a unique kind of mystery story set against a rad ;-) nostalgic look at 1980’s East Coast suburbia. It’s also a look at teenage life and shows us the world through teen eyes. But what’s your view? Have you read Huge? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


  1. I haven't read this one yet. Sounds like a good read - thanks for the tip :)

  2. Jemi - I really thought it was a good read. Not gripping or thrilling like some excellent crime fiction is, but unique. And once you get to know him, it's easy to care about the protagonist.

  3. I haven't read it but it kinda reminds me of Encyclopedia Brown with more teenage angst. Great review.

  4. Clarissa - Thank you :-) That's interesting, too that you mention Encyclopedia Brownm In fact, fact Huge mentions him and Nancy Drew...

  5. Looks interesting! I was 12 during the early 80s in East Coast (SC) suburbia...although I wouldn't relate to Huge, considering how smart he is (and small. :)) I'll check it out--thanks!

  6. Elizabeth - It actually does bring back some '80's memories :-). And what I like about Huge is that even though he's a pretty smart guy, he's also a normal twelve-year-old in a lot of ways. And he's got his share of "blind spots." And I'll bet you were smart in school, too :-).

  7. Sounds like a good read, with non-standard characters with unexpected quirks. Excellent review. Is this aimed at teens or adults?

  8. Kathy - You put that very well, actually. It is non-standard,, and there are some interesting quirks and twists. The book seems aimed at adults, I think. Some of the language is not language that one would want even teens to use (although of course, that wonderful classic Catcher in the Rye has that sort of language), and there is some sexuality (although not at all really graphic description). I would say it's for adults or for older teens with liberal parents ;-).

  9. I have not read HUGE. Sorry, I'm not much help today. But thanks for the review. At least now I've heard of it.

  10. Stephen - Oh, no need to be sorry. There's so much good stuff out there I couldn't imagine even coming close to reading it all...

  11. Hi!
    I haven't read this one but I will be putting it on my TBR list. Have you read Elvis & Olive by Stephanie Watson? It's something like this book only it's two girls and they get into mischief spying on their neighbors. Thanks for stopping by my place. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  12. Sounds like a really lovely book. Wonder what your review woudl hvae been like had you written it two decades back, before nostalgia set in!

  13. Sherrie - Thanks for the suggestion of Elvis and Olive. It sounds like a fun read; I'm definitely going to have to check it out.

    And folks, do check out Sherrie's fine review of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It's good stuff and she's got a fine blog.

    Rayna - Oh, very good question! It would be interesting to see what I would have thought if the book had been written in the '80s and I'd read it then. I think I would probably still have liked it, but no doubt,part of its appeal for me is the nostalgia. And it does have a lot of charm.

  14. Thanks for this one Margot. Do you think it is a YA novel?

  15. Kerrie - You know, I might possibly have said it is. However, the language is stronger than I think parents might want their young teens to read, and there is some sexuality (although it's not at all graphic). So if it is YA, it'd have to be for older teens with rather liberal parents.