Pavel & I by Dan Vyleta Bloomsbury, HK$214 Fifty pages into Dan Vyleta's debut and the dramatis personae are already gathering around a single residential block in post-war Berlin: an American GI, a German prostitute, a British army colonel, a 12-year-old thief and a monkey. What brings this strange assembly together? The mystery of who killed the Russian midget in a suitcase, naturally. Its cover announces it is a 'neo'-noir novel but it feels more like an old American movie: high contrast black and white, cigarettes and a city divided into zones of conquest in the winter of 1946. The 'city under siege' has served as the bleak setting for several films from the classic era of film noir - Casablanca, The Third Man - and Vyleta tips his hat in their direction with a story that combines classic iconography with a sustained irony of style. His story begins when the former GI, Pavel Richter, takes receipt of a Russian corpse and attracts the attention of officials from all of Berlin's occupying powers. None are less terrifying than the corrupt British Colonel Fosko and his German mistress Sonia. Richter, whose past and motivations for remaining in Berlin after the war are unclear, is soon implicated in an epic conspiracy unfolding in sync with emerging cold-war tensions. The book is about personal histories and is divided between an omniscient narrator and the subjective accounts of a peripheral character, the colonel's assistant. This is an unfortunate example of form betraying substance: Vyleta expends much energy creating a mood of alienation while never allowing the reader to see its impact on his characters. The power of noir lies in the effect of alienation on a character who feels most hopeless, his alienation making a statement about a society where trust has disintegrated. Instead, here, identities are the primary focus of a story that questions the notion of objective history. Capturing a period of intense social dislocation through a highly stylised lens and meaningfully meditating on subjectivity ultimately proves too much for Vyleta. The problem may be that so many of noir's intrinsic properties can sabotage a book when engineered less than perfectly. A distant narrator, a disregard for standard chronology and a reliance on an idiosyncratic form of narrative are the hallmarks of noir, but have also often been objects of parody and scorn; they are the reason it is so commonly associated with B-grade productions. Creating a convincingly dramatic, merciless and detached alternate reality founded on the ineffable idea of 'noir' has always been a hazardous undertaking, especially when the genre has never been better defined than 'the poetry of wet cobblestones and bleak dawns'. This is a sense, it seems, more easily evoked by directors than writers. The sources of post-war pessimism and despair were grounded in a peculiarly brutal milieu, after all. Recreating them from too far a remove can place considerable strain on an ambitious book and leave it looking crowded.