#878 The return of Hammerhead Jed

Rolling Thunder
by A.J. Devlin

Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2020
$18.95 / 9781988732862

Reviewed by Caileigh Broatch

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In 2018 A.J. Devlin’s first novel, Cobra Clutch, won the Best First Canadian Crime Novel at the 2019 Arthur Ellis Awards in Toronto. The mystery novel was jam-packed with pro wrestlers and scuzzy bikers. “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead, night club bouncer and ex-wrestler, is hired to locate a kidnapped python. The novel by the Port Moody writer marks the beginning of Hammerhead’s career as a private investigator.

Jumping into his second novel, Rolling Thunder, Devlin spares no punches. Readers are quickly introduced to the colourful fridge sport of women’s fast track roller derby. Much like that of the pro wrestling world, the characters that take to the rink are adorned in bright costumes and strange names. As an official PI (private investigator) — personalized office door and everything — Jed is hired by Amazombie and the Split-Lip Sallies to locate their missing coach, Lawrence Kunstlinger.

Tracking down Coach Larry, who turns out to be a gambling man owing debts, is no easy feat. The trail leads Jed to the racetracks in search of the bookie. Thinking Larry might be laying low, Jed discovers the surprisingly lucrative world of Dachshund racing. The bookie agrees to give Jed the location of the missing man, on one condition: that he collects some outstanding debts owned by other gamblers.

No private eye would be complete without their trusty sidekick and Hammerhead is no different. His fast-talking and crass Irish cousin joins the mix and is always down for pouring the perfect pint of Guinness or getting his hands dirty. Their first outing together has them disguising themselves in chaps to gain entry to a fetish club. From there, the trail leads into a rabbit hole of illegal activities and down some of Vancouver’s grimmer dark alleys.

A socially-isolated and germ-free book event: A.J. Devlin receives first copies of Rolling Thunder during Covid lockdown in Port Moody, April 21, 2020. Photo courtesy Instagram
A Devlin fan and women’s fast track roller derby athlete with Devlin’s first book, Cobra Clutch (NeWest Press, 2018). Photo courtesy Facebook

But Jed is not alone. A man flirts on the edge of his investigation. The man is everywhere. He wears a bowler hat and carries an umbrella — hard to miss, but even harder to grab. But is his connection to the Split-Lip Sallies, or is there something larger else going on?

Both wrestling and roller derby are theatrical and performative, so it seems like a natural transition from Cobra Clutch to Rolling Thunder, but it also offers a great opportunity to contrast the comedic energy of a match with the tragedies on the streets.

The two books reveal Devlin’s flavour for tongue-in-cheek humour and campy characters. Part of the mystery in Cobra Clutch was Hammerhead’s departure from wrestling and his invisible return to the ring. Having a wrestling background helping him take out baddies, but even as an official, PI Hammerhead is lured back into the rink. He’s a rough-and-tumble sort of guy with a soft side: he donates his match winnings to charity, and he has an odd quirk: he downs banana milkshakes at every opportunity.

Devlin signing books signing at a roller derby convention, July 2018. Courtesy Facebook
Devlin at the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala, Toronto, May 2019. Courtesy Facebook

Devlin utilizes a gut-punch at the end of each chapter. He does this deliciously, so that every chapter starts with a pit in your stomach followed by a smile on your face for the flavour of what’s to come. Devlin’s work is reminiscent of pulp-fiction — fast-paced thrilling stories with bright covers that are as easy to consume as a DQ banana milkshake, but with a spoonful of modern-day grit.

The world of fast-track roller derby has also seen a resurgence led, for the most part, by women and characterized by its feminist empowerment. The contact sport is everything but ladylike and feminine. It’s tough and loud and taps into the hardcore and underground arenas that Devlin explores. As the coach for the rival team, The Eves of Destruction, explains: “Roller derby isn’t like other sports. It’s renegade. It’s radical. It’s punk rock. At its core, it’s about empowering women, rebelling against the status quo.…”

The sport borrows elements of showmanship found in boxing and wrestling events.Women who take to the track have pierced, tattooed bodies of all shapes and sizes. Hammerhead’s very first interaction with the Split-Lip Sallies is a forceful spanking from Jabba the Slut, a “300 pound woman” who could very easily teach Hammerhead Jed, at six-foot-three, a thing or two. The woman who hires Jed on the team’s behalf, and a future love interest, Stormy (dubbed Amazombie in the rink) explains it well: “This is roller derby, Jed. Our names are what empower us as warrior women and make us who we are.” The derby in Rolling Thunder reflects the real life derby: a demonstration of how a diverse group of people can share the thrill and the risk of the chase. While Jed is busy chasing down their missing manager, the Split-Lip Sallies are rolling circles around their opponents.

Women’s fast track roller derby team member and Devlin fan. Courtesy Facebook

For all Jed’s reverence for contact and underground sport, we never actually see the women’s roller team battle it out in a match. Talk of practices and playoffs makes its way into conversation, but just five minutes into the game Jed is called away with work. The ladies, dressed up to the nines in colourful roller derby gear and costume make-up, complete the match without the readers as an audience.

As a consolation prize for teasing the high-intensity, brilliantly aggressive, counter-culture right in front of the readers, Devlin does allow us one treat: a Dachshund race. While the very picture of the care that goes into racing the wiener dogs — from muscle massages to training — is a great example of the humour in Devlin’s books, it’s a bit disheartening to get a courtside seat to Hammerhead in the ring but not Amazombie on the rink.

Jed’s career as a PI is ever-evolving. The next book in the Hammerhead Jed series promises to tickle Vancouver’s underbelly as much as its predecessors have. Although there’s no guessing at what shenanigans Jed will get himself into, one thing is for certain: there will be a banana milkshake in the mix.

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Caileigh Broatch

Caileigh Broatch is a writer from Vancouver Island, with a BA in creative writing and journalism from Vancouver Island University. Her work has been published in Portal Magazine and The Nav (VIU’s student magazine, where she was the features editor from 2018-2020). Her studies have taken her to investigate Canadian literature, gold panning, ghosts, and killer whales, among more academic topics. For The Ormsby Review she has reviewed books by PJ Reece and Susan Scott (editor).

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A.J. Devlin. Photo by Bernadette Calonego
Book signing at Moody Ales, Port Moody, April 2018. Facebook
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