Another extraordinary writer to whom lyricism is no mystery, Russell Hill—a three-time Edgar nominee—has left behind the literary artistry of his The Lord God Bird and the baseball humor of The Dog Sox. Instead, he gives us a straight-ahead mystery novel about Michael McSwain, a California photographer whose purchase of an old Leica leads him down a pathway of betrayal and murder. Hidden inside the camera are negatives showing horrible war crimes being committed during the Vietnam conflict. Since Michael has more curiosity than common sense, he sets out to identify the criminal. No surprise, then, when someone tries to kill him. On the run from certain death, he encounters a beautiful woman; a hilariously foul-mouthed Texan who hates all things California; and a very nasty dog.
Terrifying and funny by turns, Deadly Negative still has its own bursts of lyricism (Hill, who has the soul of a poet, just can’t help himself). At one point, Michael and his new love are trapped in a wilderness cabin, imagining “coyotes far above us, their long legs ranging along the ridge, their dog-like faces intent on the night.” Because Hill is the kind of deep-thinking writer he is, what at first appears to be a standard story of old sins casting long shadows morphs into a soliloquy about the layers of individual responsibility amidst wartime chaos. To whom do we owe the most—our friends or the innocent?