The Hero’s Folly: a Review of Shadow Dance by Martin Ott

Reviewed by Juliana Converse

Shadow Dance
by Martin Ott
Regal House Publishing
ISBN-13: 9781646033799, Paperback, 206 pages, Dec 2023

A POW who loves detective novels and might be a terrorist. A devil-may-care strip club DJ who’s sleeping with his boss’s brother’s wife. A nineteen-year-old daughter of a crime boss. A thirty-something exotic dancer who is casually portraying a monster in a D-horror movie. They all need the help of a young AWOL soldier with a martyr complex and trauma hallucinations.

Martin Ott’s new novel, Shadow Dance, takes place after the 2008 recession and the war in Afghanistan, a setting that evokes the noir genre that emerged between the Great Depression and WWII. Faithful to this inspiration, Ott depicts scenes in high-contrast grayscale, occasionally interrupted by the strobing neon of 21st-century Los Angeles. The story’s narrator is hooked on detective novels and protecting the vulnerable, with a voice like a cross between Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and an older, more worldly Holden Caulfield. Will he perform enough selfless deeds to successfully banish the ghosts of his past and break a family curse? Or will he falter and once again become a pawn in someone else’s war?

The lone wolf gumshoe of the era that produced The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade embodied the cynicism and gritty desperation of the times, even as he privately held onto a shred of faith in humanity’s goodness. In a contemporary twist, Private Buddy Rivet, military police, is known for treating prisoners of war humanely, pitting him at odds with his fellow MPs and especially his commanding sergeant. Pushed too far one day, Buddy finally lashes out, earning a formal reprimand and orders to report for disciplinary action. But a troubling letter from his ne’er-do-well childhood best friend, Solomon, tells him he has a more important mission in Los Angeles.

As he enters the land of pretense and performance, Buddy adopts the moniker “West” to evade discovery by the military and disassociate from his past. Solomon is the house DJ at Club Paradise, a hybrid movie set/strip club/family residence, a deceased horror film producer’s unfinished ode to his genre. The castle is a “realm of lost props and movie star extras, and those drawn to the messy spectacle,” serving as headquarters for backroom dealings, social outcasts, and those running from their pasts. This club is where Buddy encounters Big Z Pourali, the violent kingpin of the demimonde, and becomes entangled with the boss’s family. 

To keep an eye on his friend, Buddy-now-West accepts the roles of club security and bodyguard for Big Z’s seductive young daughter, Nikki. Everyone is role-playing, from the dancers with their stage names and costumes to the crew filming a horror movie in the basement. The Caulfieldian descriptor “phony” doesn’t even scratch it. 

At first, Buddy believes what he tells himself, that he’s in search of the noble purpose that initially made the military an attractive option. But soon, Buddy’s alter-ego, West, begins to live out a persona that seems destined for trouble. As he perceives his lack of control, he acknowledges that he would probably do well to protect himself instead of others who are possibly beyond salvation. Yet Buddy’s fatalism conflicts with his moral center, and he becomes dogged in his quest to do good to make up for the bad. Is he acting out the role of the hero, antihero, or pawn?

 The author (and former U.S. Army interrogator) establishes Buddy’s ambiguous morality and flawed martyr complex through wry, interior monologue and progressively nightmarish obstacles. The narrative voice is strong and distinct, though the prose sometimes leans on cliché, possibly chosen to indicate the character’s tender age (early twenties). Other times, the writing is visceral and brutally insightful, especially when tuned to the soldier’s transition to civilian life: “Boredom, booze, and bad decisions pulled soldiers into the drain of America, where they clogged the streets like discarded pubic hair and soap scum.” 

I was immediately drawn into Buddy’s world, if fatigued by the on-the-nose references to light and dark. The oft-mentioned shadows are less a motif than a thick overlay; they are attached to every chapter title and peppered liberally throughout the prose. Their frequent appearance constitutes not so much a choreographed “dance” than a densely-packed rave where the music is a single chorus on a thumping loop. Buddy’s character, narrative style, and especially the scenes at Club Paradise already establish tension, mystery, and moral ambiguity without these frequent reminders. But then we’re given transcendent lines that encapsulate the tension between Buddy’s external reality and internal struggle: “The shadows of the handrails tattooed the wood in a jagged line towards Alice’s front door. It was beautiful and it would not last.”

Ott has crafted a surreal, multi-layered page-turner replete with ominous light play, antiheroes, femme fatales, and an objectively evil underworld villain. Sleaze mixes with camp to delightful effect. Yet the author is at his best when his narrator grapples with relative morality, female agency, and his delusions of heroism. I gladly re–re–read it cover to cover, addicted to the gritty world of this hapless soldier and the tortured yet calculating women he wants to protect. 

About the reviewer: Juliana Converse’s reviews and nonfiction have been, or will be published in Heavy Feather Review, The Compulsive Reader, Tupelo Quarterly, and Witch Craft Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in What Weekly and BlazeVOX, and she was the 1st place winner of the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Short Story Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.