The Main, a Montreal slum, swarms with petty criminals, riffraff, immigrant Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Germans, French, Chinese, gimpy vags and back-alley whores, men in drag, flabby go-go girls, damaged daughters, the old, the soiled, the failed—"the crawling, faceless Wad." Weeks of "pig weather, with its layers of zinc cloud, moist and icy, pressing down on the city," have held back the cleansing winter snow. Through this garble of garbage humanity and thick blanket of blues slouches Police Lieut. Claude LaPointe, 30 years on the force (and the street), fists deep in a shapeless, rumpled overcoat, checking alleys, padlocks on shops, hangers about and crafty cripples—a mirthless, leathery Jean Gabin padding through the lowest depths of Zola….
[A tale as grim and overcast as "The Main"] gives a view of life as relentlessly lopsided as "Pollyanna," and just as sentimental in favoring despair over rainbows. Trevanian … tells us that 90 percent of the people in the Main are just folks, live within the law, and even are granted a grand illusion of hopeless hope. It is LaPointe's job that chokes his spirit. How else draw an honest portrait of him but in dinge, coffee dregs, skidmarks in vomit? True, Trevanian avoids the free shocks, gunfire, guttings and bloody knifework common in our homegrown police procedurals. All is slow-paced, humdrum, a chewing over of possible motives, suspects to be traced, the daily task, paperwork.
There is LaPointe's weekly pinochle game with a priest and a pair of old Jews. His young college-trained assistant, on loan from another detective, offers psychological asides quite over LaPointe's head. Hundreds of routine details are shaded in: dealing with the rich looney who believes in "the Cream of Wheat conspiracy"; giving the finger to the Commissioner who asks for his resignation; keeping his grapevine healthy….
Not even vaguely religious, this is a philosophical novel, no melodrama. A murder is investigated step by step, with dead ends threatening left and right, and at last is solved by slogging and plodding. It's mostly rather real, with a few forced notes about life's heavy weather. This novel was 10 years in the writing, which shows: the rasp and burr of hoarded details spill everywhere. Nevertheless, I was hooked by LaPointe, his heart-shocks, pain-dazzled arms, uncauterized grief.
Donald Newlove, "The Lowest Depths," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1976, p. 51.