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Candy by Lavie Tidhar

Candy by Lavie Tidhar
Book Name: Candy
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher(s): Scholastic
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Middle Grade Fantasy Noir
Release Date: June 7, 2018

“A long buffet table on the other side was laden with sweet pastries, chocolate and cream, in flagrant violation of Prohibition. They must have been brought in from out of town. I was shocked to see them there, but only for a moment. I’d already known not all grown-ups played by the rules – even if they made them.”

Candy is Lavie Tidhar’s first book for children. It is a perfectly pitched noir take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). Its delightful premise following a twelve-year-old private detective in a city where chocolate, candy and sweets are banned. As such the book is both fun and amusing. However, as with Tidhar’s earlier work, his playful approach to genre is in service to the story’s hidden depths. He uses the trappings of noir detective tales to tell a subversive children’s story about corruption, the exploitation of vulnerable communities, and the limits of justice. The end result is a novel that for all its joyous sense of fun still packs a surprising emotional and philosophical punch.

Candy tells the story of Nelle Faulkner, who, in the best pulp detective novel tradition, is down on her luck and her finances when an unusual client knocks on her door with a job she can’t refuse. Twelve-year-old Eddie de Menthe, infamous leader of a gang of candy smugglers, has had his teddy bear stolen, and believes Nelle is the only one who can help him out. What at first appears to be a straightforward enough case of a missing teddy soon turns out to be much bigger. Nelle finds herself crossing paths with rival candy gang leaders and police officials as she edges closer to the rotten heart of the candy smuggling trade.

Noir and detective fiction tropes crop up throughout Tidhar’s work, to a variety of unexpected ends. In Osama (2011) they are used to talk about our cultural inability to process 9/11 and the complicity of British and American foreign policy in the creation of a terrorist state in the Middle East. The melancholy and sense of displacement of the film Casablanca (1942) infuses The Violent Century (2013), in which superheroes fail to prevent the atrocities of World War II. Most strikingly, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) takes place in the mind of a Jewish pulp fiction writer dying in Auschwitz, who processes the horrors around him by imagining an alternate 1930s in which Hitler is a down and out private eye in London. Candy, as a book aimed at children, does not reach the heights of gallows humour and grim irony that Tidhar uses to drive his complex and discomforting points home in his novels for adults, but it does sit in dialogue with them and a similar game with genre and the reader’s expectations is being played.

All these books share a tongue in cheek high concept shtick which makes them sound as if they are going to be darkly humorous but glib, whereas Tidhar expertly uses these curious ideas as the hook to get his readers to confront uncomfortable truths about the world. Candy is a less troubling book than Tidhar’s masterful A Man Lies Dreaming. If Wolf from A Man Lies Dreaming is the apotheosis of the noir protagonist as an utterly broken human being, Nelle is closer to Raymond Chandler’s idea of the detective as a white knight, of whom Chandler said,

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Nelle has a keen sense of justice and fairness, a strong need to do the right thing and to see the good rewarded and the bad punished. Her affected private eye cynicism is used to wryly comment on her naiveté about the adult world. Over the course of her adventures she learns that adults in positions of authority sometimes abuse that power, that the people who make the rules don’t always play by them, and that sometimes the bad guys get away without having to pay for what they’ve done.

From here Candy’s whimsical premise allows Tidhar to make some pertinent points about institutional corruption and exploitation. The parallels between the chocolate prohibition and Prohibition of alcohol in 1930’s USA is intentionally played on. Tidhar’s candy gangsters and smugglers are all kids who got sucked into playing a game that’s stopped being fun and they no longer have the power to leave. The strings are ultimately being pulled by abusive cops Tidbeck and Webber, who are happy to terrify kids and put their lives in danger for a profit, all so that Mayor Thornton can sell the land from the abandoned Farnsworth chocolate factory to land developers.

The whole thing is tied together by Tidhar’s wonderful character work and his excellent prose, which carry over from his adult novels. Candy may not quite reach the exquisite poetic heights of Central Station (2016), but Tidhar still engages in some beautiful, chocolate and candy themed descriptions which perfectly capture the playground noir aesthetic. Tidhar’s characters are drawn with surprising depth and sympathy, with only a few key scenes and interactions he is able to penetrate to the core of loneliness and desperation for belonging that inspires so many of his candy thugs and bullies, giving them believable humanising moments. Most importantly, we never lose sight of the characters as children, which is necessary for the novel to carry off its conceit.


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