The Plot: Dalton Rev, 17, looks like just another transfer student to Salt River High. Except, he’s not. He’s working a job; he’s there to find out who killed Wesley Payne. Dalton, who has adopted the Lexington Cole pulp noir mystery series as his bible for life and for work, talks and acts like someone out of the novels he loves. Lucky for him, he’s living in a world that is also out of a pulp novel, a world of teenage cliques that run scams and battle (literally) for power in high school halls as adults look the other way — provided they’ve been paid off.
The Good: From the beginning, You Killed Wesley Payne is full of tough talk that is slightly over the top: “Dalton Rev thundered into the parking lot of Salt River High, a squat brick building at the top of a grassless hill that looked more like the last stop of the hopeless than a springboard to the college of your choice. His black scooter wove through groups of students waiting for the first bell, muffler growling like a defective chain saw. In Dalton’s line of work it was vital to make a good first impression, especially if by good you mean utterly intimidating.” Note, also, the hint of humor — a scooter? Really? That’s intimidating?
Salt River High has two dominant cliques: the Balls (the football team) and the Pinker Caskets (a band). There are other cliques (the Yearbook Committee, the Euclidians) as well as sub-cliques (the Sis Boom Bahs.) Cliques fight for power, have rackets (selling football tickets, knockoff iPods, yearbooks, term papers) and offer members some level of protection. It’s complex enough that the book includes a schematic as well as longer definitions of each clique. The presentation of these various high school groups is over the top and heightened.
Dalton himself is a mix of over the top (working as a private investigator for a couple years now) and grounded. The reason he began working? His older brother joined the army and his father is out of work; Dalton is helping pay the family bills. He is also saving to buy his brother body armour. Dalton is hustling, playing games as much as any clique — heck, you could say he is his own clique (the Maltese Falcons?) — but he does so not out of a desire for power but to help his family.
There is, of course, a girl; two, actually. Wesley’s sister, Macey Payne as well as Cassiopeia Jones, one of the Foxxes who seems to have some sort of connection to Dalton. What hardboiled detective story doesn’t have a love interest to distract the detective?
The writing is full of allusions and references: Dalton is named for the bouncer from his father’s favorite movie, the school snipers are the Lee Harvies, two cops are Estrada and Hutch. A glossary at the end explains some, but not all, and I’m sure I missed some. I enjoyed the writing and the style tremendously; Bookshelves of Doom observed, “In small doses, I enjoyed this book hugely.” Chasing Ray said “this is a true teen mystery, and once you give yourself up to its strange, strange world, you won’t look back.”