For such a key figure in crime fiction, the snitch, or stool pigeon, is rarely given much prominence. He is forever shoved to the sidelines, his motives tied up in a simple bundle of malevolence, condemned to look on as his shabby interventions set off or disrupt plots bigger than his own. Once he has stepped forward and said his piece, he is, if not eliminated, then kicked brusquely back down to that ninth circle of hell reserved for traitors.
Occasionally you'll get a character of note turning state's witness to save their own skin (Henry Hill, for example, in Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi's book that became the film Goodfellas), but for an insight into the life of the small-time informant, peddling tips piecemeal to the cops for modest payback, we have had to wait for Christopher Goffard's novel.
Benny Bunt is his man. A waster among wasters, he is a regular at the Greasy Tuesday bar in LA, whose other luckless patrons he occasionally sells out to a local detective, Alberto Munoz. He may look and live like a deadbeat, but in his own head Benny is a hero: "a spy, a man on a mission, an agent of higher authorities merely posing as a lower life form. A soldier behind enemy lines."
The friends he's betraying, he insists to himself, he's betraying for their own good. Benny's tragedy is that he wants to be a cop, but he's stuck in the wracked body and mindset of a no-good crystal meth junkie. Munoz knows just how to play him, with image-boosting pep talks, pipe-dreams of joint training sessions, perhaps a nod to the police recruiter. "We're equal partners here, alright?"
What does for Benny - who is narrating the novel in retrospect to his public defender, in an attempt to explain his connection to three corpses: one shot, one burned to a crisp, and one frozen solid in a chest freezer - is the arrival in the Greasy Tuesday of Gus "Mad Dog" Miller. This grizzled, bearded and bellied Nam veteran instantly sets himself up as alternative candidate to Detective Munoz for the role of Benny's best friend. They're a perfect match. Gus likes to talk: how he massacred a bunch of Viet Cong with just a chopstick, his work for "Black Ops" during and after the war and so on. Benny, we know already, is a good listener.
The twin character studies of Benny and Gus, losers and self-deceivers both, that wind through the book are consistently amusing and affecting. That they are written into a crime caper of twisting loyalties, veiled intentions and fudged violence is a given, the crux in this instance being Gus's offer to bring Benny in on an upcoming contract killing. It's a bigger prize for Munoz than Benny has ever landed before, but to cash it in, he must betray his buddy. Munoz and Gus are the angel and devil on poor Benny's shoulders, but which is which?
This is all very much in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen; in fact, a little too much in the vein. Goffard is a staff writer on the Los Angeles Times, and has experience covering the courts and streets of California, but his novel feels second-hand, trapped behind glass. It's funny and fast-moving, with regular dips into a better class of writing than Leonard, for one, would allow into his work. But, for all its charm and dexterity, Snitch Jacket has something inert about it. At no point does it so much as glance up over its shoulder at the real world.