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After a couple of books with what I thought had major problems, Lee Child is back in form for The Affair (signed copies available). Perhaps it is due to this being a prequel, that is, in a way, a smaller story, a narrower focus, more of a whodunnit. Hard to say.
But this story takes us back to Reacher’s final case as a military investigator, back in the Spring of ‘97. There’s been a murder outside a ‘secret’ military base and he’s sent to get into this small Mississippi town to look for information – a back-up investigator to the one sent into the base itself. From the start, things don’t add up and Reacher forms an alliance with the police chief, herself a former Marine, to search for answers.
As with the best of the Reacher books, about every other chapter there‘s a major plot twist. I would continually think I knew what was coming but I was invariably wrong. It was wonderful, the best kind of entertainment. Is the murder related to someone on the base or a local? Reacher is warned going in that there are heavy politics involved so he needs to tread lightly but get answers. Can’t really give you more – that’d ruin the chain of surprises.
Delightful too were the links he laid in that point to the actual first book in the series, Killing Floor to the small town in Georgia mentioned by his brother Joe in a postcard. Haven’t read that since it came out 14 years ago (actually, I probably read an advanced copy a few months before it was published, so it’s been more like 15 years!) and I should sit down and re-read it.
Anyway – Lee Child’s The Affair – read it, read it now. It’s alottafun!
“He had one of those faces you couldn’t have picked out of a lineup if you were married to him – young and unlined without a single distinguishing feature.”
I credit Bill with turning me onto an author who I promote as the finest writer of Chandlerian private eye fiction in the last thirty years: Loren D. Estleman. You can have Spenser. I’ve read them both and I think Amos Walker is the best. Besides having written 19 Walker novels (#20 will be released in December), Loren has written a slew of Walker short stories and this September will give us Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection. It’ll contain 31 previously published stories plus one brand new one written for this collection.
I’ve read the advance copy. It is a shameless tease, giving me just 16 of the pieces that will be in the final hardcover, but what gems they are – bright and clean and colorful, ready to be read and enjoyed and drooled over. “What the Glasscocks called a cottage would have housed Detroit’s homeless with room left over for all the corks on the mayor’s staff.”
It takes a real master to craft an entire little world within the confines of a handful of pages and, like Chandler or Hammett or Block, Estleman does it with the lively and polished style of fine artist with an eye and ear for the memorable line. “She was a five-by-five chuck with marcelled orange hair and round black eyes imbedded in her face like nailheads in soft wax.”
Sometimes, I like a book of short stories as a break from the unending parade of novels. Sometimes, I’m not sure what to read next and a few short stories from a collection can be a handy break. Not this book. I devoured these miniature marvels. I think you would, too.
Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base is one of those books that comes out only after decades of secrecy. Like the raft of books on MI5, the Ultra Secret, or the CIA’s ‘family jewels’, it is full of fascinating stories of what really went on during the early decades of the Cold War. Such stories are finally revealed due to two reasons: the secrets are declassified after a proscribed period of time (say, 50 years) and/or the people who were involved are too old to give a damn about repercussions and want to get the story out before there’s no one left alive who can. Sometimes the curse to live in interesting times is made up of from the revelations of the past.
Let me get this out from the start: the story Jacobsen writes never once includes extraterrastrials but that only gigs up the weirdness. Stick with her story. It will keep you buckled into your seat just as the test pilots who flew out of Groom Lake were the new weaponry was tested. Here you get the birth of Stealth, the Hortons and their designs, Operation Paperclip and miles of irradiated landscapes.
This is a book of serious, hard Cold War, of science and technology, of destruction in the name of preservation and, in many cases, of people doing horrible things in the name of the highest calling. Jacobsen will detail the events not only of Area 51 but of many of the other areas, all helpfully laid out on a map.
She will tell you what crashed at Roswell. And what she reveals will be even more unsettling than the little green men you expect. You’ve been warned!
There are many books coming out these days on the assassinations of the 60s, as well as other events from that era, and actions of the US government. One of the reasons is that so much is beginning to have its secrecy lifted. Enough time has passed and enough of the actors have died that keeping it under covers makes little sense. What these books have in common is that they give us a much richer view of what was going on around us during those tumultuous days.
The Awful Grace of God by Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock is one such book. The subtitle is “Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy, and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr”. Their aim is less to try to solve the crime as much as it is to place it within the context of the racial violence that took place four decades ago – and then to tie it to religious and racial violence that still takes place.
First, concerning the assassination of King, the authors do a fine job laying out the questions that linger over the shooting of Dr. King. They do a good job laying out the case for Ray being part of a conspiracy, perhaps as a patsy, perhaps as a lower level flunky caught up in fast-moving events and abandoned as the convenient ‘gunman’. Ultimately, they make no concrete claim but write about how the government needs to reopen this case and give it the investigation it deserves.
One aspect that needs clarification is James Earl Ray’s finances. Time and again, the authors write about how he was a known cheapskate, how he guarded his money carefully, yet he traveled widely in the months before the assassination and seems to have spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on various deals, enterprises and trips. Where’d it come from? They don’t adequately address the issue of his finances before, or after, Memphis.
What they do provide is a vivid and complex story of how advanced and continental in scope the white supremecists were, and how unsuspecting the authorities were about its tactics and abilities. The authors bring up notorious cases – the Birmingham Church bombing and the “Mississippi Burning” murders - not as isolated cases but as battles in a much larger war. They trace other attempts on King and successful attacks on others, like Evers, and show the breadth of the fight that the far right/lilly white/christian extremists were waging. And what is most strange and frightening about all of this is that these yahoos were convinced that they could start a religious/racial holy war in which they would be proven to be the superior people, God’s chosen.
Sound like anyone else who has been in the news in the last decade? (I kept waiting for them to invoke Helter Skelter, but Charlie Manson didn’t get mentioned.)
While the authors do make trenchant analogies to the battles being fought against Islamic extremists, they do let slide the continuing ‘war’ between the government and violent Christian extremists: the Olympic bomber, those who shoot doctors or bomb clinics, and advocate the overthrow of the government by violent means. Then, too, they don’t point to the progression of this hate-filled ideology past the King assassination.
Out of this same vicious wing of zealots came Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations of Idaho. Recall that they supported themselves with armed robbery, at least one of which took place at a bank in Seattle’s Northgate shopping center. Into the 1980s, factions were still thinking that they could provoke a race war.
It is a fight that never ends.
But it brings to mind the Bob Marley song: “How long will they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?”
The Awful Grace of God by Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock is an interesting book if you’re looking for the dark history of our nation and how we got to where we are today.
Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys is an insanely entertaining book – hallucinogenic, outrageous, satirical, creative and fabulous.
It deals with a young woman who, while under arrest for murder, tells the examining psychiatrist that she belongs to a secret organization that eliminates evil people or what the organization refers to as ‘bad monkeys’. As she tells her story, the question becomes is she insane or is she telling the truth. It’s a savagely pointed story and you find yourself saying “I hope she’s not crazy…” Ruff has constructed a complete little alternate world, where ‘the organization is broken into divisions (‘The Department for Optimal Utilization of Resources and Personnel’ is just referred to as ‘Cost -Benefits’ – they decide if someone’s costs outweigh their benefits and, if so, they’re deemed to be a ‘bad monkey’) and each makes perfect sense within the storyline.
It’s a neat trick and will keep you amused by his ingenuity and laughing at the events in the book.
If any book can come close to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as the Best Book of the Year, it’ll be Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. It matches hers for creativity, wit and a wicked view of humantiy.
an Italian coastline in 1962, a young innkeeper sees a vision of stunning beauty – a young, American starlet – and is heartbroken to learn she is dying. 50 years later, in Hollywood, an elderly Italian man appears on a studio backlot, searching for a woman he hasn’t seen since 1962.
The story moves between different time frames: when the innkeeper Pasquale first sees the starlet; ‘recently’, in Hollywood; during WWII; and a few years ago. As the story hops around, you begin to see more and more of the story as it unfolds and folds back upon itself, filling itself in, filling itself up.
All the while, Jess laces the story with touches of satire, humor and always stunning writing: “But then she turned directly to him, and the disparate features of her drastic face came together as a single, perfect thing, and Pasquale recalled from his studies how some buildings in Florence could disappoint from various angles and yet always presented well in relief, always photographed well; that the various vantages were made to be composed; and so, too, he thought, some people. Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life – not so muich with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment."
These passages weave through the narrative, alternating with ribald commentary on life and our altogether too-human foibles. Love, lust, hope and dreams – and our inane pursuits. “All of her gagged responses to three years of ludicrous ideas and moronic pitches gush out in teary, breathless laughter. An effects-driven peroid thriller about cowboy cannibals? Three hours of sorrow and degradation, all to find out the hero’s son is…dessert?”
It occurred to me as I read this terrific book that it – just like Gillian’s new book – shared something with one of my all-time favorites, The World According to Garp. What they share is a healthy disdain for phoniness and fakers and a reverence for the ‘normal’ people who are simply trying to make a go of their lives, even if they are just x-rated soap operas.
There is no crime in Beautiful Ruins, unless you count the crimes we commit against others and ourselves. This is a charming book. And hysterical. It may be fiction but it feels so true.
“And because he felt like he might burst open and because he lacked the dexterity in English to say all that he was thinking – how in his estimation, the more you lived the more regret and longing you suffered, that life as a glorious catastrophe…”
Local writer William Dietrich’s latest thriller is delivered in a split time-frame. Blood of the Reich (Harper hc,– signed copies available) spins off from fact: in 1938, Himmler sent a group of Nazis to Tibet. Why they were sent, what they looked for and whether they found what they were after is not know – and that provides Dietrich to play it out in fiction.
Part of the story tells of the 1938 race of the Nazi team to get there and the American who is sent to find out what they’re up to. The contemporary part of the story starts off here in Seattle and moves north before heading to Tibet as well.
This is crackling good adventure, globe-hopping in scope, filled with some purely evil characters, some good characters and some that you just can’t be sure about. It is a familiar story in a way due to all of us having grown up watching WWII movies and reading thrillers set during that war but Dietrich has managed to make it all seem new and fresh – not an easy thing to accomplish. There are twists and turns, surprises and shocks, a bi-plane and a super collider, ancient power and modern physics.
This is a great summer read to fill your hammock with fun.
I can recommend Michael Simon’s second book, Body Scissors. Again, Det. Dan Reles – a NYC Jew on the Austin, TX police department – is butting heads with bigots and fools, working on an attack on a rising political star in the black community. This one is set a few years after the first, as the first Gulf War is getting going in 1991. Set against the present war, the book vibrates with echoes of then and now.
A huge fan of his debut (Dirty Sally), I was struck too by how much he reminds me of another of my favorites, Laurence Gough. Like Gough, he alternates sections of the book between the cops and the criminals and injects both with humanity and grim humor. I hope toread his third book, just out, Little Faith.
Bye Bye, Baby is the 15th Heller novel, and the first in 9 years. It is 1962 and Heller is in California on business. Marilyn Monroe – a past client – asks him to bug her phones so she has a record of the contentious negotiations she’s in with her studio. At this same time – as we all know now – she’s intimate with John AND Bobby Kennedy who are also ‘in bed’ with the Mob over the plots against Castro. It is a time of murky relationships and secret rendevous, some of which are fully clothed.
But we all know how this will end, don’t we? After all, it is a murder mystery and rumors have always surrounded Monroe’s death. The fun in this book is Collins’ laying out the events surrounding her death and then presenting an explanation of what happened. And he’s clear on this: Marilyn Monroe was murdered. It was not suicide or accidental.
Before you get to his ingenious ‘solution’, Heller will deal with Hoffa and Giancana, Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and DiMaggio, and will pay a visit to the brand-new Playboy Mansion in Chicago. It’s a book full of early 60s fashion, gimlets and the new bikini craze (it is LA after all). And while it is a great way to spend some hours (as all of the Hellers are), it is ultimately a sad story. From our view, nearly 50 years later, we know that it is just the start of a decade of horrors, of deaths and disillusion. And Collins’ allows as how this is the first of a trilogy about the Kennedys (oh boy).
I can heartily recommend Brett Battles’ first book with Jonathan Quinn, The Cleaner. Quinn is freelance but works mostly with The Office, a nebulous shadowy USgovernment agency that does espionage of one kind or another. Quinn is called in when the projects go badly and turn messy. He ‘cleans’ up after the official agents, getting rid of bodies or evidence or signs of what really happened. In this debut, Quinn is sent to Colorado to clean a scene but all of his alarm bells go off due to the circumstances. It gets worse from there. The story will take him to Asia and then into the heart of Europe as he tries to find out what and who.
Quinn isn’t an assassin, though he isn’t above killing the bad guys when necessary, and he isn’t a spy, though he knows how they work and has contacts around the globe from working in that sphere. He’s an interesting nobody – known to many but belonging to no organization. He’s not anonymous, he’s known to many, but he’s not really understood by any. They have their assumptions and that can work for him and against him.
Many of his (James Lee Burke) fans feared that The Glass Rainbow was the end of the Robicheaux series. I admit that it was ambiguous but, had he chosen to end the books there, I thought it would’ve been a fitting ending.
You can quit stewing over the end of that book because, in Creole Belle, the Bobbsey Twins of Homicide are back in the saddle, takin’ it to the bad guys with a full-tilt boogie. Though they’re still recovering from their wounds suffered out on the edge of the bayou, and both still hear the paddle wheeler in the water nearby, they’ve not slowed down much in their war on evil. In this story they mix it up with forgers, Nazis, racists, femme fatales and the monied elite who seem to feel that the plantation system never died. In other words, it is business as usual along Bayou Teche. Then there is that massive oil spill coloring and despoiling their world.
James Lee Burke's talent hasn’t slowed either and Creole Belle keeps up his normal, furious pace. The action moves from New Iberia to New Orleans, back to St. Mary Parrish and out into the edges of the state as Dave searches for a missing Creole singer and the killer of her sister. Both he and Clete deal with ghosts from the past and present, Clete moreso than in the earlier books but nearly dying in a shootout with your best friend will do that to you. Both are doubting their past actions and even their sanity. “I tried to think and couldn’t. Everything happening around me seemed fragmented and incoherent but part of a larger pattern, like a sheet of stained glass thrown upon a flagstone.”
Besides the stunning writing, the joy in the book comes from the women in the story – Varina, the beautiful but dangerous woman calling Clete to the rocks; Tee Jolie, the singer who calls to Dave from the dark; Helen – Dave’s boss – who though at her wit’s ends with Dave and Clete cannot dismiss Dave’s instincts; Alafair, now a publihsed author whose insights help nudge Dave in the right direction and is not above fighting injustice with her fists; and the mysterious Gretchen… Can’t say anything more about her but she’s the heart of the book, even more than Dave himself. And wait ‘til you get to the scene of Alafair and Gretchen at the used car lot. Priceless!
Burke is a master and an American treasure, as Creole Belle once again demonstrates.
“Almost year-round, the air was warm and smelled of salt and rain and tropical flowers from all over the world. The winter was not really winter at all, and theirin may lie Key West’s greatest charm. If one does not have to brood upon the coming of winter and the shortening of the days and the fading of the light, then perhaps one does not have to brood upon the coming of death. When the season is gentle and unthreatening and seems to renew itself daily, we come to believe that spring and the long days of summer may be eternal after all. When we see the light trapped high in the sky on a summer evening, it is possible we are looking through an aperture at our future rather than at a sesonal phenomenon? Is it possible that the big party is just beginning?"
With Dave and Clete, the party is always roiling.
Can’t wait for it to come around again.
If you’ve not read George Pelecanos, you’re missing a writer who is great on many levels. First, there’s the writing, which is strong and understated in that Hammett/Macdonald/Block vein – nothing flashy or Chandlerian but solid and grounded in a way that propels the story along. Second, his books are set amongst the blue-collar denizens of DC. No politicians, no grand plots or conspiracies, just ordinary folks trying to get through life. And third, his people are often dealing with the terrible choices and mistakes they’ve made in their pasts.
The Cut introduces a new character, Spero Lucas. Lucas was adopted by set of loving Greek parents. He’s a recent veteran of the Afghan war and happenstances have landed him a job as an investigator. He’s discovered that he’s good at finding things and, when he does, he asks for a cut of the value of the returned ‘thing’. He does his own work in between jobs for a defense attorney. The job that makes up the story of The Cut stems from one of those gigs.
Spero is an interesting guy, very methodical, still numbed by the war but coping well now that he’s back in his neighborhood. We know, from the start for instance, that he’s adopted but we never do learn whether he’s black or white or any particular shade. And this abiguity is heightened by his ability to go wherever he needs to and to interact with whomever he needs to. He’s really an ‘anybody’, a guy you can foist your own thoughts and feelings on and that makes him immenently human. And as a Marine, he’s immenently confident and capable and can and will slide through his days making things work.
This is supposedly the start of a new series. Great! Lucas is a young guy busy making his life up as he goes. Hard to say he’s having fun but he certainly feels as if he’s heading that way, and that’s fun for us. And I’m sure that some of Pelecanos’ earlier characters will show up in Lucas’ stories. He’s out looking over a crime scene and it is mentioned that just around the corner is the office of a different PI, Derek Strange. Lucas eats meals in various Greek restaurants and they’re probably the same ones from earlier books. If DC didn’t already exist, Pelecanos would have created it from scratch and we could walk the streets with his people.
The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow is a book you have to read to believe. If you remember his previous book (The Winter of Frankie Machine), Frankie was a member of a group of surfers who began each day out on the water. This new book deals with another such group as individuals and as friends, as events threaten to splinter the group. Chapter 5 is a marvelous explanation of what a wave is, how it is a motion that moves through the water and how surfers, if they want to succeed and survive, have to use the wave's energy and movement to their advantage. The events of the story, then, become the wave that moves through the Dawn Patrol itself and the story is how they ride the wave that has caught them. This novel, like all of his books, is a creative crash of charm and crime, friends and foes, weather, women and waves.
William Landay has been a favorite of the shop’s for years. His debut Mission Flats was a memorable book for its twists and turns. It tells the story of a small town sheriff from Maine who gets drawn into a strange case of a dead Boston DA. The Strangler was the story of three brothers in Boston who are all on different sides but are drawn together when the city’s famous serial killer begins his reign of terror.
Landay’s latest Defending Jacob is another tricky story: a Boston prosecutor faces the worst possible case – his own son is suspected of murdering a fellow student. Andy Barber of course refuses to believe it but the case begins to cause cracks within the family – between him and his son, as well as him and his wife.
The story hinges on actual, cutting edge law: can such a thing as a ‘murder gene’ be introduced in a defense case? Barber’s father and grandfather were killers, something Barber has never told his wife. He himself has always struggled with violence but never came close to killing. Could there really be something genetic that predisposed his son to kill?
Landay is himself is a former prosecutor, and a father, and says that this defense is starting to be played with. It is too soon to know if it will be upheld or will last – or where actual biology will take the law – but Landay plays it out in fiction and the results will astonish you.
Ian Hamilton’s US debut, The Disciple of Las Vegas is a very neat side-step from either private eye or espionage fiction, though it fits nicely in that vein.
Ava Lee is a forensic accountant. She’s adept at tracing missing money that she returns for a fee. Based in Toronto, she works with “Uncle”, a shadowy Chinese personage who lives in Hong Kong. The jobs come through him and, usually, involve very large sums of money. She’s the ‘leg man’, jetting around the globe and dealing with those involved. Uncle stays in Asia to work his connection. Ava has her own connections throughout the Asian communities of Canada and around the world but Uncle is there to send in muscle if she thinks it’d be useful. And sometimes it is. Like The Blood Gospels, The Disciple of Las Vegas moves at a ferocious pace. After all, money is so fluid these days, being sent around the world in transfers, that Ava has to move fast to try to keep the trail from growing cold. In this story (according to Hamilton’s website, this is actually the 2nd of the Ava Lee books and he’s working on the 6th, so this is an established series), they’re hired to find millions missing from a Philippines’ company. One of the richest men in Asia is hopping mad and the trail will take Ava across oceans and North America and into the world of on-line poker playing. You can add Ava to the list of hardcore female heroines that already includes Mallory, Aud Torvingen, Bridgett Logan, Angie Gennaro, Ana Gray, Lisbeth Salander, Mrs. Peel, and Claire Parker. You don’t want to cross her, lie to her, or slow her down. DO NOT.
If I can end with one critcism it would be that Hamilton is far too in love with naming the brands of everything. Within two pages I was tired of it. I just don’t care about the brands of clothes Ava is wearing, that she doesn’t regret the opulence of her Cartier Tank Française wristwatch, or that she gets into a silver Audi A6 when she lands in San Francisco – I really don’t care what kind of rental car she gets… it is of no importance at all and the continual naming of brands just ends up being pretentious and visual clutter. Still, I look forward to spending more time with Ava. The second (3rd written) in the series will be out next Summer, so the wait won’t be long!
In my youth, long before there was cable TV (lordy, how did we survive!) we used to watch lots of old movies. While the prime time movies were 'current' and color, the afternoon or late night movies were often black and white. And a lot of them were war movies. Sink the Bismark, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Man Who Never Was, and countless others. You have to remember that this was just 20 years after the war ended, so the stories were not that ancient.
In the mid-70s, the Allies began to declassify many of their intelligence files, so we learned of the Ultra Machine and this altered the history that Hollywood had told us in those movies. In some way, they robbed the stories of their heroism - it wasn't just guts and smarts and heroics that let the Allies defeat the Nazis, we were reading the Axis secret messages all along. Sinking the Bismark was a great naval success but the British navy knew where to find it. It wasn’t just cunning.
Still, there are stories of guts and smarts and heroes within the intelligence systems, and stories of great risk and danger. I've always been attracted to these stories as they tell an important story of the world into which I was born. I see them as the story hidden beneath history and if you don't know them you can't really understand your own history.
Ben MacIntyre has written a number of books that illuminate the history of WWII, and thus the world we live in. Operation Mincemeat is the tale of the intelligence plot to mislead the Nazis concerning the Allied invasion of Sicily (that's the story filmed as The Man Who Never Was) and Agent ZigZag provides the story of Eddie Chapman, a pre-war criminal who offered himself to the Nazis as a spy and then, after being trained and dropped in England, promptly became a double-agent for MI5.
MacIntyre's new book, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spy returns to these double-agents who worked against the Nazis. They're a wild and varied bunch - drinkers and gamblers and 'people of loose morals' – both men and women. They were inventive and audacious, as were their handlers in the Twenty Committee, the secret outfit that managed the double agents - which appealed to their sense of gamesmanship and even playfulness: twenty, in Roman numerals - XX - double cross. Some of the agents stayed in England and fed the Nazis 'chickenfeed' - rumors, gossip, bits of news and just enough real info to make it all seem probable. Some traveled to and from the continent, putting themselves in far greater danger. Most survived the war. Some didn't. While the Double Cross program was at first set up to mislead and befuddle the Germans, soon those in charge began to see how it could be used to help keep the Nazis bottled up in other areas of the continent and away from the landing beaches of D.Day.
It is a fascinating history, populated by characters both stock and unique. There's the 3-bit vaudevillian actor who was a dead ringer for Montgomery. There's the Spanish man who appeared to be a boring translator for the BBC but whose fictional spy network was believed without question by the Abwer: 27 fictitious agents each feeding the Germans deceptions (this agent, code-named Garbo, was the role model for Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana). There was the bisexual Peruvian party girl. There was the Yugoslavian, codenamed Tricycle, who created his own fictional spy network and who bravely flew in an out of Lisbon and met with Nazi spies countless time and answered their interrogations without them ever doubting his work. There was the high-ranking Brit who ran the Committee and who had already published a string of whodunnits. There are names woven into the history that you know – besides Greene, there was a guy named Fleming. Then there are a couple of members of the Cambridge spy ring, Blunt and Philby. And it helped, too, that the Nazis were fielding a gullible group of spies and handlers, as well as some intelligence officers who very well may’ve been working against the Nazis – not spies themselves, more like saboteurs. It is a fascinating history.
Throughout MacIntyre's absorbing story there are the odd bits that add amusement to the tense tale: the feared pigeon gap, the embezzling Nazi spy handlers, the bed-hopping of those involved, the offense taken by some of the stiff-lipped Brits, the ingenuity of those playing the spy game and the sly word play they employed, and on and on. As they say - if it was fiction you'd think it was too outrageous to believe. But it is all true. And that makes it the best kind of thriller and intrigue to read.
As has been stated a few times over the years, we all work so closely together that we start to read the same things to the point where we lack the bredth of knowledge and experience and can only recommend a too-narrow slice of the books here from what we all read. Sometimes, I’ve stopped reading I liked because someone else was a big fan and I’ve thought I should go on to other authors someone else hasn’t read.
Back in 1999, I read and enjoyed John Connolly’s first book, Every Dead Thing, the beginning of his series with private eye Charlie Parker. I always meant to get back to the boopks and continue reading them but first Tammy was a big fan and then Fran joined the circus and has pushed them, so I thought I should read others. But now and then you hear your colleagues talk a certain way about a book and, that’s it, you have to return to the fold.
So I’ve spent the last eight weeks reading my way through all ten books and it was worth every millisecond.
I’d forgotten what a lush writer John is, how well he captures the seasons, the views and the people. Like the finest writers, he will sketch out the character of a character in a single line. “His face creased, wrinkling like a ball of paper that had just been squeezed hard, and even in repose, Earle’s face already resembled the last walnut in the bowl a week after Thanksgiving. “ He’ll slip in a sly social comment, too, like a thin blade between the ribs: “You could still order a Miller High Life at the Sailmaker, and PBR was drunk without a shot of irony on the side.” And like the finest writers, no one is two-dimensional, no one is 100% ‘good’, though many of the bad guys are 100% evil.
Before the series begins, Parker has lost his wife and young daughter to a sadistic killer. Part of the story of the first book is his search for the Traveling Man. There are things about Charlie and his past that are alluded to – his father’s death, his problematic relationship with his mother – that give Parker both mystery and pathos. And that’s just the beginning.
As the series goes on, it starts to become evident that there is something else going on. Charlie is not only emotionally haunted by the death of his family, he seems to be physically haunted as well. Is this real or is it just in Charlie’s head? There are intimations that the evil in one book is connected to the next, that killers from before have been in touch with new killers, even that there is a larger, wider form of evil that knows about Charlie. He refers to it as the ‘honeycomb’ underworld.
What is most fascinating, and what I’d love to talk to John about, is how he returns to bits of stories and themes from past books and developes them further, making them into broad undercurrents that alter and deepen the series. How far in advance has he been planning to develop this or that storyline? Did he know he’d return to this character or that event? Was it luck that he had left himself enough room and vagueness to be able to return to fragments left from earlier books, or is just that awe-inspiringly talented? For instance, in the 8th book in the series, he returns to the puzzling death of Parker’s father from the first book, and the series opens up to an all-new level, where Parker is but one little piece of what is going on. And it is creepy. There is no small bit of the supernatural in these books, but it is balanced by a fine black humor and questions of beliefs and sanity.
John is the creator of some of the vilest villains you’ll ever encounter. Rev. Faulkner, the Black Angel, those spirits that whisper from that odd little box, Mr.Pudd…yuck. But then there are his friends Angel and Louis - lovers, men of action, and masters of sarcasm, loyal to Charlie and behind him whenever he’s in a tight spot. He’s created not only a complete world with its own heartbeat, but the cosmology in which it exists is as real as any I’ve ever encountered. Frighteningly real.
Years ago, I used to talk about James Lee Burke as being the only author who dealt with personal and society evil in an honest and humane way. I realized that I had to broaden that statement to include Dennis Lehane a few years later. Now that must be a trio by the addition of John Connolly.
Start with the Shamus winner Every Dead Thing and don’t stop reading John Connolly until you’re done. Really.
The title refers to the color of the German uniform that Bernie is manuevered into wearing. As he says, you can get down in the dirt but the gray doesn’t necessarily show it. And in the dirt is where the story exists.
This is by far the most complex of the Gunther stories as it shifts forward and backward in time with portions happening in 1933, 1940, 1946 and 1954 – though not sequentially. Bernie’s a little ‘unstuck in time’, explaining events in the past to interrogators in his present and the story and the action moves around from Cuba to Paris, to New York, to Berlin, back to Paris – well, you get the idea. It is a time of great fluidity with shifting aliances and politics and subterfuges. I must admit that I sometimes had a difficult time keeping up with the settings or the time periods as the chapters flipped from Berlin in 1954 to Berlin in 1946 and back to 1954, to Paris in 1940 - - - - .
Bernie is still the cynic’s cynic’:”Sometimes the future seems a little dark and frightening, but the past is even worse. My past most of all.” Who wouldn’t feel like that if one’s survived the trenches of The Great War, the terrors and horrors of Nazism, war in Germany and Russia, a Russian POW camp and interrogation at the hands of the CIA and Army – let alone working for Meyer Lansky. At one point, Bernie mentions that he was born in 1896. Think of what someone born in Germany would have seen by 1954!
Still, requiring more work to stay up with the story or not, the writing is superb. “Sandberger grinned. Probably he meant well, but it felt like seeing something unpleasant and atavistic toward the end of a séance. Evil flickering on and off like a faulty lightbulb.” Surely, Kerr is one of the foremost practitioners of the Chandlerian style of hard-boiled writing and he never disappoints. Nor does Bernie.
Two books I’ve just finished are set in the early 60s and are inseparable from that period of US history.
Robin Moore’s book The French Connection was published in 1969 and told the story of the NYPD’s investigation of one low-level mobster and how it mushroomed into the largest drug bust of it’s time. Of course I’ve seen the movie a number of times but never really stopped to find out what was Hollywood and what was history. They’re quite different if essentially the same: no car chase, no shoot-out in an abandoned warehouse but 112 pounds of junk hidden in a Buick and three mysterious Frenchmen.
I had not realized how early in the decade the case began. On Oct 7, 1961, two NYPD narcotics detectives, Eddie “Popeye” Doyle and Sonny Grosso went into a club to relax and see a comic and witnessed something fishy. Their curiosity snagged, they began to follow and watch Pascale “Patsy” Fuco. At first, they hoped that he’d lead them to a high-level mobster who’d gone on the lam. But his activities soon became interesting to them on their own. Over the next months, with the help of the Feds, the investigation grew in size and scope, with teams of investigators and carloads of coppers trailing Buicks and Caddies around the boroughs.
Eventually there are three Frenchmen – yes, they really did call them “Frog One”, “Frog Two” and “Frog Three”, as the terms at first were name-holders for unknown actors and then, once names were known, as radio codenames – who to one degree of involvement or another, were the connection for the heroin.
The book is filled with butt-numbing surveillance, tense tailing, lost tail-lights and lucky breaks, in addition to tough police work, hunches honed from years on the beat, wrangling between the levels of the law enforcement, lousy coffee, little sleep and quickly-eaten hot dogs. But it all ends well – at least for the good guys. On Friday, Jan 19, 1962, the arrests were made. Only one got away – “Frog One” and it is assumed he took the $500,000 for the junk with him.
The 1971 movie kept the bones of the story, if paring down the boring stuff and amping up the action. And I was surprised that some things I assumed were Hollywood inventions really did happen – remember the scene in the subway with Frog One gliding away from the cops on the train while waving? Really happened. Remember when the car in which the drugs had been smuggled is laying in pieces and the cops are puzzled? Someone looks at the paperwork and notes the differences in the car’s weight on the shipping bills? That’s really is now they knew the drugs really had been in the car.
Truth and fiction, working together to entertain!
By now you’re heard quite a lot about Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts (Crown hc) and let me tell you that not only are they all right – they may not be saying enough about this book. It is a stunning work, both timely and timeless.
A brief recap: Roosevelt’s new ambassador to Germany in 1933 was an academic named William Dodd. He arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are consolidating power. Hitler isn’t in complete control but he will be by the time you finish it. As the country sinks further and further into his power, Dodd’s reports to the State Department and to the President are clear and alarming but he’s discounted by the professionals in the government.
From our perspective, you read his warning with growing alarm because you know what is coming and you can’t believe that no one’s paying the attention that is deserved. Larson’s genius is that though you know what is coming, he’s created a growing sense of panic and tension even though you know what is approaching. No simple thing.
There are a few things that I did find new and interesting:
One was as Germany slides into madness, the planet begins its descent into a drought period and as Berlin and DC swelter in the heat the conditions of the Dust Bowl take hold. I had not thought about that as not only a metaphor for the coming horrors but also as a mirror image of it all.
Larson questions just why it was that the United States didn’t speak out more against the violence of the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews. He posits that the Nazis were ready with the defence that the US was being hypocritical – treatment of blacks was just as bad. It is a persuasive argument.
It is heartbreaking to read the thoughts of Berliners and foreign diplomats who were stunned and astonished that the Nazis were even in power to begin with and their unwillingness to speak out – their fear was well justified as the 30s wore on but may have made a difference early on – and their assumption that a government of such lunatics would certainly not last. How wrong they all were!
And, of course, it has never been a secret about how much anti-Semitism there was in the US and other countries and how much that played a part in the world not stepping in to stop the Nazis. But the naked, virulent anti-Semitism exhibited by the State Department is really something to behold.
This is a smooth tour through evil with some entertaining guides. Even if you think you know all about this period, I’m certain you’ll be enlightened and enjoy your time spent with Dodd, his family and the people they knew in Berlin before the lights went out.
Early in 2013, you’ll have the chance to start with a new Northwest author who should be great fun to follow. Roger Hobbs’ Ghostman follows a guy who is, in the parlance of the novel, a “ghost” – no one really knows who he is, what his name is or, to some degree, if he really exists. He no longer even has fingerprints.
He’s a highly trained and very serious fixer: he’s been on various jobs (bank heists, highly-choreographed thefts, and different sorts of illegal activities are alluded to) but for the last few years he’s been used to clean up messes left by the work of others. In that, he’s not too different from Brett Battle’s Jonathan Quinn, except that the Ghost works strictly in the criminal world, not in the world of espionage… spooks and ghosts – well, anyway, it isn’t as confusing as I am making it. The publisher likens him to Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction, but that isn’t quite right either. This guy is far more active, always on the move, not necessarily looking for a fight but quick to take care of anyone who is. Like Reacher, and just as logical.
In Ghostman, “Jack” (the Ghost) is rousted from his nest in Seattle by Marcus, a high-powered ‘jugman’ who sets up jobs. A casino robbery in Atlantic City turned bloody, one of the thieves was left dead, the other is missing as is the money. Jack owes Marcus from a job that went bad years ago and Jack has no choice but to fly across the country to fix it: find the other thief and the money and erase any trace that could lead back to Marcus.
This debut is fast, bloody, ingenious, full of the clatter of gunfire and the solitary silence of scheming and sweating. Jack is working against a time limit, pinned between Marcus, a man he knowns he cannot cross, and another, shadowy and scary guy from Jersey who wants Jack to double-cross Marcus. Then there is that woman from the FBI and his own memories of the job in Malaysia that went bad. He must go through a couple of dozen pre-paid cell phones, a half-dozen cars and guns, not to mention suits.
He’s a young guy who lives in Portland, so we hope and expect to see him for every book and we hope and expect him to have a long a productive career writing thrillers. He’s certainly beginning it with a bang!
While I admit to not being objective about her books – her first two were also brilliant, audacious and astonishing – this one deserves those words in bold, italicized caps. The trick is that I cannot tell you much about it. Fran’s right – it is pretty much a ‘trust me’ book.
Nick and Amy had both lost their jobs in NYC and moved back to Nick’s hometown in Northwest Missouri to help care for his dying mother. They’ve been there a couple of years at the start of the story and their relationship has withered. On the morning of their 5th wedding anniversary, Amy vanishes. There are signs of a struggle in the house. As the cops investigate, they’re frustrated by Nick’s inability to explain much and how his answers don’t add up. These chapters are told by Nick.
They alternate with chapters from Amy’s diary, which tell you the history of the relationship, how happy they were at first but how things began to slide once they reached Missouri.
It becomes clear early that Nick isn’t telling all he knows to you, the reader, or to the cops. You want to pull for Nick but you begin to have your doubts. He’s just such a schlub: “Desi seemed the definition of a gentleman: a guy who could quote a great poet, order a rare scotch, and buy a woman the right piece of vintage jewelry. He seemed, in fact, a man who knew inherently what women wanted – across from him, I felt my suit wilt, my mannner go clumsey. I had a swelling urge to discuss football and fart.”
At the same time, you want to side with Amy but it starts to feel as if she was no peach, either. In one part, she watches from the motel pool: “I can see a blond head bobbing across the parking lot, and then the girl with the split lip comes through the chain-link gate with one of the bath towels from the cabins, no bigger than a tea towel, and a pack of Merits and a book and SPR 120. Lung cancer but not skin. She settles herself and applies the lotion carefully, which is different from the other beat-up women who come here – they slather themselves in baby oil, leave greasy shadows on the lawn chairs.”
And that is all I can tell you. There are turns you might see coming, but I sure as hell didn’t. Here is where other adjectives are needed: stunning, mind-blowing and funny come into play.
“I got nothing more than a fussy nap toward dawn, woke up an hour later with a hangover. Not a disabling hangover, but decent. I was tender and dull. Fuggy. Maybe a little drunk. I stutter-walked to Go’s Subaru, the movement feeling alien, like my legs were on backward.”
If you haven’t read Gillian, please do. These are engrossing books peopled with full-blooded characters who are both believable and familiar. Her three books are not connected, so you can start anywhere. Her first was Sharp Objects, the second was Dark Places. It is always hard to peg an author easily to give someone an idea of what their writing is like: off the top of my head, I’d say Gillian is a mix of Woodrell, Pelecanos and Lehane – edgy, honest and with the raucus dark humor of the cynic.
“He had beefed up over the years, as had his brother: they weren’t just barrel-chested but barrel-everythinged. Standing side by side, they were about five hundred pounds of dude.”
Book of the year, hands down.
Brilliant, audacious and astonishing.
What can you say about a novelist whose books are so reliably spectacular that the annual write-up seems like a repeat? How many times can you say ‘wonderful’, ‘terrific’, ‘entertaining’ and ‘amusing’ without being tuned out? I know, authors would say ‘don’t worry about it – keep it up!’. They never get tired of hearing it. So here goes - -
Mike Lawson’s House Blood is a flawless thriller, as they all have been. DeMarco is once again detailed to probe a matter for Rep. Mahoney (that’s right, Mahoney is no longer the Speaker of the House, which leaves everyone uncertain about his – and DeMarco’s – power). One of Mahoney’s constituent’s son was found guilty of murder. DeMarco is sent to go through the motions of an investigation to appease the woman but, as expected, he finds aspects of the story that don’t add up. And off we go, with DeMarco, Emma and a crew of villains, oddballs, dupes and one great and awful femme fatale. Wait ‘til you meet Fiona West. She’s the evil mirror image of Emma and the center around which this crazy universe spins.
We’re thrilled that all of Mike’s earlier books are back in print. You never have had to read them in order – though we’d try to convince you to – but now you can easily plow through them. If you haven’t read Lawson and would like to try him, maybe start with The Second Perimeter. It is set mostly around the Olympic Peninsula and is a good way for Northwesterners to start reading him. The first of what will soon be the seven books in the series is The Inside Ring and concerns an attempt on the President’s life. I guess the point is not which book you pick to start reading Mike Lawson. The point is to begin reading him – now, hurry, what’re you waiting for? He gets a full staff recommendation from the inmates at 117 Cherry.
Don’t wait to start reading his outstanding thrillers with Joe DeMarco. You’ve got enough time to read all of the preceeding books before House Blood is out. You won’t be sorry!
While not quite the same type of book or character, Stephen Hunter’s series with retired Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger is a good choice to read between Lee Child books. Swagger and Reacher are both ex-military, both logical, canny, bull-headed, durable and not-to-be-crossed. I,Sniper is the latest with Bob the Nailer. Now in his late 60s, Bob is due his quiet years but events just won’t let him be. As his exasperated wife understands, Bob is a hunter by nature and not one to sit on the porch and rock even if he thinks he should.
The gist of this story is that a series of sniper attacks on former 1960s radicals is blamed on a famed and retired military sniper, someone Bob reveres. The man supposedly killed himself as the cops moved in. The case is neat and tidy and tied with a bow and the FBI official in charge is suspicious. He asks Bob to look over the evidence and Bob sees flaws right away – things only another expert marksman would spot. And the hunt is on.
Lively characters, unexpected twists and more armaments info that you will or won’t care about (doesn’t mean much to me when it comes to grains of bullets or gunpowder and the math of scopes is lost on me) but I read the Hunter books for my time with Swagger, just as with Reacher.
Great fun ‘on target’.
Martin Limón writes a series that cannot be compared to any other on-going series. With his two 8th Army cops stationed in South Korea, his stories inevitably swirl with a lively mix of politics, culture, crime, military, civilian and how people are caught in between the seems of it all. Whereas all of his earlier books are stories of crime - or, as George and Ernie are cops, perhaps 'police procedurals' - his new book The Joy Brigade, is a step to the side. George is on his own, sent into North Korea, on a secret mission. What's the mission? I'm gonna tell you!
What it involves are rumors of ancient, hidden tunnels that run North to South, tunnels that may allow invasion in either direction. Of course, George's superiors are concerned with what the North is doing. Or is planning.
Martin set his series in the 1970s which allows him to take the books out of current politics and events and locks it more so into the Cold War, when the pressures around the globe, and not just along the DMZ, are higher as are the risks. That setting serves him well as the 70s were a time of transition in North Korea and Martin is able to use that to propel the story. What, really, are these mysterious people just to the North up to? George is sent in to find out.
Along the way, he'll re-unite with the lost love of his life, Doc Yong, and the beautiful, violent and insidious Rhee Mi-Sook of the North Korean secret police. Or is she??? And then, too, there are the members of The Joy Brigade itself.
Espionage, thriller, suspense, romance, hope and despair - all drive Limón's new book, The Joy Brigade. A slight departure for this great series, and a terrific step it is.
Guinn not only gives readers fine sketches of all of the participants - all of the Earps, not just the law men - on both sides of the fight and the people of the town, he gives you the social,economic, political and personal dramas that lead up to that violent 30 seconds. What I found most interesting were, for me, revelations of the political machinations of Wyatt, his ambitions for higher office that were continually thwarted by events, and that, implied by Guinn, Wyatt was not the best know Earp when the brothers arrived in Tombstone - that was Virgil, the eldest who had been a lawman in Prescott. Guinn gives the impression that while folks may've heard of Wyatt, no one was scared of him or in awe as popular culture has promoted. He also makes it clear how compressed the time frame was and how quickly it turned violent and how rare that violence really was. This is not the Gunfight of Hollywood. It is the gunfight that happened. And it is far more interesting than what we all think we know about it.
It is an old story, as old as the country: local control vs. federal control, the rambunctious denizens of the range vs. the quiet workers of the town, the Democrats (the cowboys, the ranchers, the rustlers and robbers who didn't want to be told what to do - the Rebels from the Civil War) vs. the Republicans (the shop keepers, miners and power-brokers who wanted the bad news to stop). Guinn also makes clear how much is not known of those days. Much of what he details is deduced from events and other records of events but his conclusions are clearly explained and backed up by the known facts. He also provides the story of The Story, how different people's writings began the canonization of Wyatt Earp, and the sanitation of the gunfight and the Earps, and how that canonization and sanitation have robbed the story of its depth and dimensions. And it is a story of great depth and dimension. And Guinn's story is an education and epic entertainment.
To call Live by Night a sequel is not quite accurate. It is a new addition to the unfolding story of America through fiction. Joe Coughlin was the youngest son of the Boston family of cops in Lehane's saga, The Given Day. As the family splintered around the Boston police strike of 1919, young Joe turned into a true black sheep, committing petty crimes with his childhood buddies. Lehane follows this fragment of the family into the story of America's great failed experiment of Prohibition. In the early part of the book, Joe winds up in prison and forms an unlikely alliance with the jailed head of the Boston mob. From there, he is sent to the tropical setting of the novel, into Tampa's heat, sunshine and Latin-fueled emotions. Rum is the mechanism and Joe's path to riches and power - though both exact a grave toll on Joe as he mirrors the nation.
Lehane's writing is both disarmingly poetic and serious, even as it makes you smile. As Chandler wrote, "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man." Lehane describes one thug this way: "Loomis, a former club boxer at Mechanics Hall and sparring partner for Mean Mo Mullins, was said to have a punch like a bag of cue balls." In one sentence, with a tight smile, he's told us this guy is tough (he spars with a guy nicknamed "Mean"), he's probably too dumb to be a contender and his fist is something you don't want to feel. But you've got the entire measure of the man - and he's just a face in the crowd. Later in the book, after Joe's in Tampa and a chancy theft goes well, he and a woman tumble into bed: "The first time they made love in her room above the caffe it was like a car crash. The mashed each other's bones and fell off the bed and toppled a chair and when he entered her, she sank her teeth into his shoulder so hard she drew blood. It was over in the time it took to dry a dish."
Where The Given Day was a large, David Lean-like saga, Live by Night is a big story writ small, shot in close-up, a national story told through nine years in one man's life like B-movie film noir that outlasts the blockbusters. It is a grand and timeless story of love and hate, revenge and fear and hope, as well as folly, greed and the age-old question of whether it is possible for anyone to outrun their fate or outrun a bullet.
If his predecessor in writing deserved a stylistic moniker, so should he. I would say we need to have the term "Lehanian". For if Chandler is one of the brightest stars in the literary universe, surely Dennis Lehane's will be seen to shine just as brightly and his works will be celebrated just as deservedly as they're read and re-read over the decades.
The PNW seems to be cultivating its own sub-specialty. I’m not sure what to call it, ‘Cascade Noir’ is a bit too expansive since that’d include Oregon (maybe they’ll get their own entrants) and not all of what is going on sticks to the mountain range, but there is something brewing. Okanagan Noir? First, there was Urban Waite’s outstanding debut, The Terror of Living. Now there’s Bruce Holbert’s Lonesome Animals.
The central figure is Russell Strawl, a retired lawman who is retained by a sheriff to hunt a serial killer in the early 1930s North Central Washington State. Strawl is one of the last of the old-time lawman, saddle-worn and sharp-eyed, his violent ways and his approach to life, like the world he’s inhabited, is surely vanishing, sped up by the influx of workers and techonology going into the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. But Strawl is the man for the job, a hunt that will require determination and brutality because the killer is obviously determined and brutal, too.
It’s the Depression and living is brutal and takes determination. “Rusting automobiles lined the road into the skeleton of the old town. Since the crash, few could afford gas or oil to move them. Most had resigned themselves to horses once more; they went slower, but on grass, which the bigwigs hadn’t devided a way to ration or commandeer.” Holbert has a clean, flowing style of writing. You can smell the wildflowers and dust and hear the birds and bees. “It took Stawl six days to close on the group enough to hear them and another two days for a sighting. They labored across a trail that led around Chesaw Mountain, bearing their belongings on backboards and a travois. Above and below, sheer granite cliffs sparkled like fresh water.” Strawl rides the trails, north to south, east to west, talking to folks in small towns and homesteads, whites and natives, the peaceful and the volital.
But whatever the case, whatever the scene, Holbert writes with a talent that is both by the poet and for the common man. “Jacob filled his own cup and drank. His sigh was deep and certain as a dog’s going down for the night.” Every page is decorated by such fine sentences. Strawl is an interesting character. He’s created a reputation for himself that is both a help and a hindrence. People, whether they know him or not, fear him. That could help him in his work but it has isolated him over the decades. “Strawl realized he had done his work too well and, in keeping alive, had managed to outlive any story that put him on the side of right, and he realized, too, that he had no inclination to change it.” He’s just too old, too set in his ways. He’s become the persona he cultivated, like it or not. There aren’t too many characters to love in his book.
The reason to read it is the masterful writing put to use to tell you the story. It is somewhere between the visualization of Raymond Chandler and John Ford. “Justice was just a coincidence within the bedlam, a moment that when separated from the whirlwind turns simple enough to take on fairness’ guise. Prosecutors argue the malice in a thunderbolt; defense attrorneys the inevitable forces of the jet streams and barometric pressure and condensation and topography. Given the proper atmosphere, a tornado resided in each of us; only our cirumstances differed.”
The real heart of the story is that Arthur Strawl is based a real man, Arthur Stahl - an Indian scout and one of the first white settlers in the Grand Coulee area – who was Bruce Holbert’s great-grandfather. Can’t wait to quiz him about that!
A biography, if you will, of an event – the Appalachin meeting in November of 1957, the event that showed the country the true scope of organized crime at that time. The author paints a clear picture of what was going on at the time, before and after, and answers the question of why the meeting was called in the first place.
It’s a good history of that period, what the mob was like, what was going on within it, and what the affects on the mob, and the country, once the meeting was exposed. Remember, Hoover and the FBI officially denied that there was any organized, country-wide crime network and Appalachin showed him to be either wrong or incompetent.
Power-plays are a big part of the book, between the top mobsters as well as the top crime busters. It shows you how much of a danc it was, for both sides, to see who would be top dog, who would emerge with the power that the figures on both sides both craved and required.
If I have one knock on the book it is that the casual and chatty tone of the book is sometimes self-defeating. It can become so chatty as to rob the topic of its seriousness and some of his lines are just dumb. At one point, Reavill refers to someone ‘busted his cherry once again.’ Cherries can be busted just once, as I see it, and this line disrupted my reading for pages and pages – still bugs me, obviously.
I hope that the finished hardcover has photos. That was something lacking in the advance that I read. A rogue’s gallery of the mobsters and the NY cops. Photos of the area of Appalachin would be nice, too.
Past that; a fun, interesting and important slice of Americana.
Charlie Huston’s The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, is the sort of modern-day noir that is both refreshing and familiar. His characters never end up where they start at the beginning of the book which is one reason I like his writing. Too often the people involved in crime stories have their lives interrupted but it all goes back to what it was. Not in Charlie’s universe.
Web is a guy whose life has been off its rails for a year now and he’s alienated everyone around him. His roommate and best friend gives him an ultimatum – get a job, get a life and get a job. He goes to work for a small outfit that cleans up after people die, whether that is by violence or not. Needless to say, this new gig will lead him into trouble.
Web is a true wise-ass, which is part of his problem but also part of his charm. Whatever situation he finds himself in – watching someone murdered with a telephone, for instance, in his apartment and then having to clean it up – he’s so wholeheartedly irreverent that you can’t help but like him. Soon he’s up to his eyebrows in stolen nuts, a possible femme fatale, a war between cleaning outfits and the desire to reattach himself to humanity even while he’s trying to puzzle out just what went wrong in his life. Actually, he knows, but it takes him awhile to grasp it.
If blood and maniacs don’t bother you, if you like cool, crisp writing and a pitch-dark sense of humor, read Charlie Huston.
The Outlaw Album is his latest volume. It’s an accumulation of twelve stories collected from various sources and published as a book for the first time. They’re full of the sorts of characters we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Woodrell: vets, lost souls, people puzzled by the lives they find themselves living, people who are both loyal to others as well as aiming for vengeance. In short, like the rest of humanity but with frayed clothes and different accents.
There’s much heartache in these stories. A father still yearns for his duaghter’s return even though eleven deer seasons have passed. He’s sure someone from the town took her, maybe more than one and wonders “How much of our world is in on this?” A cow is pushed over a cliff by a storm and is left stranded in a tree with no hope of rescue and the owners can only view it as a cruel waste: “Ma said, ‘That cow’s money lost now.’” A man becomes a pariah in his small town after defending himself in an odd confrontation one night: “Pelham came awake one night to find a naked man standing over his bed, growling.”
These stories are gems, vignettes of hope and desire and loss and despair, honed by a master craftsman. If you’ve only experienced Woodrell through the movie adaptation of Winter’s Bone, you’ve not really experienced him at all. But do, he’s wonderful. I’ve read all of his books and am really looking forward to shaking his hand and thanking him in person.
The Bayou Trilogy - an omnibus of his first three novels: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do, which deal with the three men in the Shade family – two sons and the father – in St. Bruno Parish, Louisiana.
Greg Rucka’s Patriot Acts is perhaps his best yet. Let’s see, how to explain this without giving anything away…
If you’ve read the Atticus Kodiak book, you know that Atticus had tangled with a couple of the world’s best assassins, a group known as The Ten. You know that he’d become, shall we say, uncomfortably close to them. In the new book, Atticus – for a number of reasons that I won’t go into (if you haven’t read the Kodiak books and you like Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Carol O’Connell, et al, get busy) – is thought to be one of The Ten and has been given the moniker “Patriot”. This becomes the exceedingly timely fulcrum of the book: what does it mean to be a patriot, to support your country but not your government, especially if people who work and hide in that government, who claim to be patriots themselves, are trying to kill you? If you’re like Atticus, like “Patriot”, you act.
While full of action, the book is meditative in many ways and melancholy as well. Atticus is in most ways alone, having lost so many friends in the course of his stories. More loss is in store in this novel, but there is also gain and, at the end – what felt to me like an end to the series – Atticus is in a good place, the logical place for him, the place where he will find the peace he’s needed. I hope that I’m wrong, that there will be more Atticus Kodiak books, because they’re some of the best in crime fiction. (and yes there is another book Walking Dead!).
Philip Kerr's superb series with Bernie Gunther continues with Prague Fatale, begins in the autumn of 1941. Europe is at war - though not the world, yet - and the Germans themselves are just beginning to get glimpses and rumors of the horrors their leaders are setting in motion. Gunther is back from Belorussia where he has witnessed the initial massacres. He's been returned to active service as a Berlin homicide detective and is trying to suss out how good a cop he's going to be allowed to be.
But just as the Nazis are everywhere, in everything and into everyone's lives, Gunther's own demon - Reichsprotector Reinhad Heydrich - summons him to an estate outside Prague. There's a manor house mystery afoot and Gunther is the only investigator Heydrich can trust. Heydrich knows Bernie is not a Nazi, but he trusts him as a cop and as a man to find the murderer amongst the other Nazi officials. The fun is listening to Gunther interrogate the high ranking officers who do not like it at all. Gunther is a captain, after all, a measly policeman to boot, but Heydrich has given him full reign to talk to anyone and ask them anything. Gunther doesn't just ruffle feathers - he yanks them out by the handful and sticks one of his continually burning cigarettes into the fresh wound. And we enjoy the hell out of it just like Bernie.
Nothing is as easy or clear as a murder investigation in the middle of the Third Reich. There's the free-floating loyalties of everyone (to Germany, to the Party, or just to themselves?), there are the jackbooted psychopaths and the old guard Germans officers, there are spies, traitors and Czech terrorists - and one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It is a dicey time to be unaligned. But that's where Gunther has always been.
"Good humor never lasts long in Berlin. The smell of the war wounded in that hospital was asphyxiating. Dying men lay in dusty wards like so much left luggage, while to walk through a hallway or public corridor was to negotiate an obstacle course of rickety old wheelchairs and dirty plaster casts. And if all of that wasn't bad enough, I came out of the hospital and encountered a little squad of Hitler Youth marching down Luisenstrasse - most likely from a trip to see the National Warriors' Monument in the Invaliden Park - their throats full of some stupid warlike song and quite oblivious to the German warrior's true fate that was to be found in the not so glorious charnel house nearby. For the moment I stood and watched these boys with a kind of horror. It was all too easy to think of them as carrying the infection of Nazism - the brownshirted bacilli of death and destruction and typhus of tomorrow." He's set the stage for Wansee but the gas chambers are yet to be built. We know the atrocities that await. Bernie can only fear them.
Never read Philip Kerr? Start with Berlin Noir, an omnibus of the first three Gunther novels. The first is set in 1936 at the time of the Berlin Olympics. The second is set in '39, right before the invasion of Poland. The third is post-war, 1947. Since then, Kerr has let the series float in time, sometimes 'in the past', sometimes in Bernie's present. He's brought him up to the Cold War and Cuba.
Prague Fatale returns to the early 40s with the some of the finest Chandlerian writing you can find - hard dames, thugs and clouds of smoke left by coffin nails, both the kind that are smoked and those that come out of the barrel of a .38 Walther.
The Professionals, by Owen Laukkanen is a thrill ride, a cinematic noir story of bad choices and dead ends. A page-turner, unputdownable and fun – allathatstuff.
Four friends in Seattle have graduated college and are going nowhere fast. No jobs, no prospects, no future. They decide that since they have no money and no prospects, and that there are so many people who have far more than they’ll ever need, the group can and should kidnap them for money. They’re not greedy; they figure that if they ask for a ‘reasonable’ amount (say $60,000 from people worth millions) that the vicitms’ families will pay quickly, the cops are not involved and no one is ‘harmed’. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it. And it is. Until they kidnap someone tied to the mob. Then, as they say, the wheels come off.
There are clear moral and legal issus, certainly. Having the main characters be villains is always a twist – can you really have a hit man as the ‘hero’? – and Owen deftly moves our support from the kidnappers to the two investigators who are after them. As the twenty-somethings begin to see that what they have done will be their end, the reader begins to feel it, too. But then it is too late for all of them and us. We’re behind them still even as the net begins to tighten. And I did I mention the mobsters after them for revenge? Yeah, they’re being chased by two sets of folks.
The Professionals is a great read – it moves quickly and smoothly. It is an assured first novel and it’ll be fun to watch him grow as a writer and see where he takes us as readers. I’m game!
In the aftermath of 9/11, a young security analyst is sent, as he writes, “from one stricken city to another” to interview Thomas Jefferson Danforth, an elderly man who claims that his experiences may help young Mr. Crane’s department keep the country safe in the face of new enemies. Crane is dubious but Danforth asked for him, so, on a snowy night in NYC, the men meet.
"But in the still-settling dust of the Towers' collapse, every corner was being searched, every source, no matter how remote and seemingly irrelevant, gleaned for information. The gyroscope at the center of our expertise had been struck by those planes - so the thinking went - and it had wobbled, and now all its movements had to be recalibrated."
The story swivels from their present to Danforth’s past as he relates his involvement with a group of ‘agents’ in the days before Europe is engulfed in WWII. One of these agents is Anna Klein who is being trained to be sent to Europe to help build the resistance to the Nazis. Danforth is a true novice to all of this, even with his extensive background of travel and an ease with languages. But he's impelled to be involved in the intrigue and to be closer to Anna, a mysterious, quiet and assured young woman. He is unprepared for his emotions: "It was a feeling he found curiously new and faintly alarming, like the first sensation of a narcotic one knew one must henceforth avoid." Ah, but he can't and won't avoid it and it will rule the rest of his life, his quest..”
As Danforth relates the events of six decades in the past, it becomes clear that Crane (and we) are in for a heady evening of philosophizing on love, death, duty, responsibility and, ultimately, revenge. How does an individual stand up to treachery – how does a country? In Danforth's case, by never giving up the search, never giving up his quest.
Tom Cook is a fluid and mesmerizing writer, as an Edgar-winner should be. He’s woven a dazzling narrative that moves through the decades toward events no one – not Danforth, not Crane and not us – can predict. As with the finest fiction, the story and the characters evolve during the course of the book, adapting and growing to fit the events and the story, even young Mr. Crane who is little more than a recorder of the story until…well, let me leave it at ‘until’.
"I had learned by then that Danforth strolled in and out of his story rather fluidly, as a man might drift from one room to another in a sprawling house. There was no fanfare attached to these transitions, nothing to signal a new chapter save a sudden play in his eyes, a tiny light going on or off. Anna seemed always a lingering presence in everything he said, a ghost that followed him no matter where he went. Or was he following the ghost, shifting here or there whenever she beckoned him with some gesture only he could see?”
We're all guided by our ghosts - as individuals, as a nation - all of us. Thomas Cook has given us a breathtakingly rewarding and cautionary story of the benefits, demands and costs of following our quests.
As anyone who has been around this shop a while knows, Bill and I are huge fans of Philip Kerr’s books with Bernie Gunther. They’re a terrific mix of a fictional hard-boiled detective inserted into actual historical events and real people. His latest is no exception.
A Quiet Flame is a story split in two: part of it takes place in 1950s Buenos Aires, where Bernie has landed (I am purposefully not explaining it much, otherwise the previous book in the series, The One from the Other, would lose some of its oomph) like many Germans after the war. There, a murder has taken place that reminds some people in authority of a murder Bernie worked while still a homicide bull in Berlin before the war. Since he’s recently arrived in the city, they ‘ask’ him to investigate. The other half of the book follows that original investigation. As usual, it’s a great story.
An aspect of this ‘past’ part of the book takes place in 1932 as Germany heads into elections. We know from our point in time that Hitler will consolidate power and the nation will be destroyed and take so many millions with it. But, for Bernie and other Germans, the thought that the citizens would actually accept the Nazis was a bit too much to believe.
“‘I’ve seen them already. Besides, maybe I see too much as it is. Soon it’s going to be unhealthy to be a cop with good eyesight in this country. That’s what people keep telling me, anyway.
‘You talk like the Nazis were going to win the election, Bernie.’
‘I keep hoping they won’t. And I keep worrying that they might. But I’ve got seven loaves and five fishes telling me the republic needs more than just a lucky break this time. If I wasn’t a cop, I might believe in miracles. But I am and I don’t. In this job you meet the lazy, the stupid, the cruel and the indifferent. Unfortunately, that’s what’s called an electorate.’”
One of the many things that set Kerr’s books apart is his ‘Author’s Notes’ at the end of each book. There he writes about the parts of the story that are true and where he got this part or that figure. While I am no historian, I know enough about post-WWII that most of it is familiar – that hundreds of Nazis – especially scientists and intelligence figures - were brought to the US to help us fight the new, Cold war. Not so with A Quiet Flame. There are aspects of this story, concerning allegations against the government of Argentina that I’ve never heard, allegations concerning how they treated their own Jewish citizens that will make your skin crawl.
As usual, I look forward to Bernie’s next adventure. Taking the suggestion that he leave Argentina at the end of Flame, Bernie moves on – ending up in Cuba at the time certain American mobsters are stirring the pot.
This book is in three parts, all of which move toward the beginning of The Maltese Falcon. The first part takes place in Washington State, in 1921 – some Seattle, mostly Spokane – while Spade works the Flitcraft case. (If that rings a faint bell, it has to do with a falling beam.) At this time, Spade is still an op for the Continental Detective Agency and knows Miles Archer. This section explains the back story with Iva Archer. The second section takes up when Spade has moved to San Francisco and opened his own agency in 1925. The Archers reappear again, as Miles is taken with the idea of moving to the Bay Area. The final section, 1928, takes them from signing the partnership papers to the beginning lines of Hammett’s masterpiece.
While each section has its own mini-plot, they’re all tied together by the people Spade meets and cultivates as sources and client. Its fun to read along as his practice grows. Though he seems to have always been the Sam Spade we know, you come away with a different sense of him as a private eye and as a man and how he got to his place in his world.
Once I finished it, I wasn’t quite ready to go to sleep, so I got my old copy of The Maltese Falcon and read the first couple of chapters. There was no sense of where Gores left off and Hammett began and I take that as a testament to how well Gores captured the cadences and punch of Hammett’s style. It’s been at least a couple of decades since I read the original work and I hadn’t realized how much the movie has overtaken the writing. Time to redress that.
I hope Joe Gores is prevailed upon to do more. I’d like to see what he comes up with for the time after Bridget O’Shaughnessy goes to prison.
This one was great good fun.
I was a big fan of Charlie Newton’s debut crime novel, Calumet City when it came out in the Spring of ’08 and was hoping that he’d put out something else someday. The wait is over and has been worth it. Start Shooting is also set in the mean streets of Chicago. It tells the story of the Vargas brothers, both Chicago cops, both caught up in forces larger than them. The older, Ruben, is a homicide cop who may or may not be dirty. Bobby, his younger brother, works narcotics. They find themselves in a morass of politics, paranoia and violence when a drug bust results in the death of a new cop, the wounding of a cop who is the son of a powerful bigshot, the ambitious state attorney general begins showing up and the screws are tightened to help win the city a bid for the Olympics. Not only do the characters not know who they can trust, we don’t know who to trust either.
Add to this mix a tabloid exposé that is targeting the brothers, allegations of corruption, an errupting gang war, IAD apointments, possible infiltration by the Feds, and a story of lost love that goes back thirty years – man, and that’s just within the first 150 pages!
Characters are drawn with fine and telling lines. “Jo Ann Mercia introduces herself as the US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and sits down uninvited. Seeing her here and in person at pushing midnight is so out of line I have to rub my eyes and remember to breathe…Mercia studies me like the motionless, ghetto pit bulls do when you’re about to step into their yard. She’s famous for putting cops and politicians in prison, and for ‘thirty-two-degree eyes that don’t blink when children die.’”
Every small section brings a new surprise, a new ratcheting up of tension and mistrust. At any moment you expect anything could happen because it does – hell, it did and it will. Call it noir, call it hard-boiled, call it impressive and call it great.
Target Lancer, by Max Allan Collins, works the same way. Collins’ fictional private eye, Nate Heller, is used to probe the Kennedy Assassination, something, he writes in the afterward, that he’d always intended to do. He writes that he couldn’t figure out how to get Heller into the case until revelations this century have provided the plot device.
It is now known that Dallas was the third of the locations for the assassination plan. The first was Chicago, then Miami, and finally Dallas. All were set for November 1963. Collins uses what is now known about the threat made against JFK for his Nov 2nd trip to Chicago, the alert for a pair of Cubans and a pair of white, ex-military-looking guys, and Thomas Vallee, an ex-Marine who was known to have made threatening statements toward JFK, who had been stationed at a U2 base in Japan and who worked in a downtown highrise right by the proposed motorcade route where the limousine carrying Kennedy would have to slow and make a sharp turn. Sound familiar?
Collins weaves in the familiar figures – Jake Rubenstein, a former gunrunner and low-level mobster who became a strip club owner in Dallas, a young ex-Marine of slight build who introduces himself to Heller as Lee Osborne, Johnny Roselli, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Cain – and what was then a top secret effort to get Castro, Operation Mongoose. If you know anything about the Chicago Plot, you’ll enjoy watching Heller piece it together and to do his part to stop the Chicago hit.
Unlike many of the recent novels to use the Kennedy Assassination, Target Lancer embraces the latest revelations of historical record, instead of ignoring it or whitewashing it. As Collins wrote, this is the first novel to address the Chicago plot. I would hope and assume it will not be the last, but those that follow will have a tough time matching it for fun, excitement and historical faithfulness.
The best book I will read this year is Peter Spiegelman's Thick as Thieves.
I've been a fan of his for years, having read his Shamus-winning series with private eye John March. Thick as Thieves is, a step up from those, as hard to believe as that is.
Thieves tells the story of a group of high-tech con artists. Think of them as being a combination of Parker's crew and the Mission Impossible team. They're lead by Carr who took over from his mentor Declan, lost months before in another job. They're funded and helped by the mysterious and intimidating Mr. Boyce, and their targets are bad guys with lots and lots of cash - villains who can complain to no one when they're taken down and cash that, though it can be bulky, is often electronic. The heists must be well-planned and expertly executed. But there are problems.
"On his apartment's balcony, Carr switches to rum. He puts his bare feet on the railing and tilts back in his chair, and his thoughts skid like bad tires."
For one, Carr can't quite accept the events that lead to Declan's death. And the crew is not quite ready to accept Carr as the boss. Then there is the problem that Carr, as the story proceeds, isn't sure he can trust those with whom he is working, let alone that the plan he's constructed will work - what Declan used to call 'paranoid calculus', a neat phrase that captures the doubts that expand as the tension tightens. Not only does Carr need to pay attention to the ominous Boyce but also his near-albino hit-woman Tina. There's the handsome and volatile Latin Mike who is continually challenging him, good-old-boy Bobby who seems too casual for what is going on, computer-hacker Dennis who is described as being the color and thinness of a stalk of wheat, and then there is Valerie, the delectable, erotic and unfathomable Valerie, his lover who seems to be running schemes within schemes. Or is he just paranoid? He has to work with this crew but he can't find the ability to trust them.
Spiegelman has a talent for describing an aspect of a character in few words, but words that tell all: "He's pink from heat and from drink, and there are damp circles under the arms of his blue button-down shirt. His blazer hangs over his shoulders like a drowned thing." Carr, in recalling his mother as she was dying, thinks of her knitting: "...the pieces she made that were neither scarves nor hats, but simply long, dark panels. He remembers too the streaks of gray that appeared, overnight, in her black hair, and how her collarbones became so pronounced - the bones of a ship, laid bare by a storm." But besides his subtle and tasty writing, the plot of Thieves will screw you ever deeper into your couch as the 'paranoid calculus' screws the worries and doubts into Carr's head. There are pivots and screeching halts that you will not see coming and there are times, I can promise you, that you are certain you know what is coming and you will be staggered by how wrong you were. Thick as Thieves (Knopf hc, $24.95 - signed copies available!) will be released in late July. It was originally set to come out in May (it was in our Spring newsletter) with the title Circus Time - a much better title, less ordinary and more fitting to the action in Thieves. That was another of Declan's phrases. I would bet that Circus was Spiegelman's title and some genius in marketing insisted it be changed to the more bland and trite Thieves.
Ah well, don't judge a book by its cover or its title. But you can judge this book by its incredible quality, inexorable pace and deadly serious intensity and you will thrilled to have finish it.
Damn - what a book!
I hope he brings back Carr. I hope he brings back March, too. But, more than anything, I hope he brings out another book, and quickly.
Hunter employs a couple of conceits in this book that serve the story well. First of all, Swagger is drawn into this investigation when a novelist in Baltimore who knows quite a lot about guns and who writes thrillers is killed after turning up some information tied to Dallas in 1963. (Hunter, a novelist who knows quite a lot about guns and writes thrillers, lives in Baltimore.) The writer was supposedly killed by a hit-and-run driver but the man’s wife doesn’t believe it. Swagger gets intrigued due to the ballistics of the JFK assassination and the story takes off. Can’t say too much about Hunter’s solution to the JFK assassination.
What I will say is that he’s come up with an ingenious alternative explanation that fits with the Warren Commission explanation. He does not vary from the bare-bones ‘truth’ set down by the Commission, other than to add a second gunman who shot The Third Bullet. In that narrow scope (pardon the pun), the book works very well. If you’re looking for a novel that incorporates all of the most recent revelations about Dealy Plaza, you’ll not find them here. The second conceit is to present the memoir of the man behind the assassination as a running history to Swagger’s investigation. It’s a good way to get the villain’s full story and explanation into the novel. In a way, it is an alternative to the two-track time frame often employed. As Bob get’s closer to the answers about Dallas, the memoir gets closer to the day of the assassination and afterward. Needless to say, Bob is up against a cunning enemy – but, of course, Bob’s the best there is. He’s not called The Nailer for nothin’.
Tom Hansen’s This is What We Do is a fine and timely book. The publisher promotes it as ‘retro noir’ but I think it’d be more accurate to call it ‘recession noir’ or ‘noir for the 99%’.
Netherly is a guy on the skids. He’s hanging out in Paris going nowhere fast. He’s fled America, the lies and greed of the last few years having deflated his soul. By chance, one night in a club, he meets Lily, a beautiful Ukranian blackballed by the fashion industry because she wouldn’t put up with its lies and greed and who is now reduced to dancing and hooking. She’s made so many compromises in her modeling career, giving so many people control over her body and life, that selling it for sex isn’t dropping lower by much. But her soul is likewise in danger.
They strike up an odd friendship and one sudden violent event bonds them together forever. They flee Paris and end up on the southern coast trying to figure out what to do next. Netherly feels himself come alive again, for the first time in years. He can’t quite believe that he’s been capable of the mayhem he’s committed but he’s also fascinated by how confident he feels in his actions.
At the same time, the world at large is beginning to disintegrate into violence. Isolated citizens are beginning to strike back at the 1% - bankers and government officials – who allowed, if not abetted, in the global recession. The media at first labels this phenomenon “The People’s Mafia” as at the scene of each act is left the message ‘This is What We Do’. Those in power cannot conceive that this isn’t directed, that so many individuals could be so fed up with the powerful that they’d resort to shooting, bombings and other acts labeled as terrorist.
Netherly’s crimes begin to be scene as part of this, even though what he’s done is mostly just protect Lily. Still, he becomes seen by those fighting back against the mindless greed, narcism, and destruction as a hero, to his own amusement. He just wants to get Lily away from the danger and lunacy.
But in true noir style, one’s actions lead to one’s downfall and Netherly understands this and, strangely, is ready – even though his relationship with Lily has evolved into a bright-hot love affair. There’s a vein of romance that runs through the center of the book, not only the romance of a man and a woman, but a romance of wanting the world to make sense, to work as it used to. This a sexy, violent and clear-headed crime novel, a novel of its time, of our time.
Romance and noir for the ninety-nine.
Martin Limón’s books are a marvel of complexity. With The Wandering Ghost again features the 8th Army Criminal Investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. These two Army cops are not MPs and, to a degree, are cops more that Army cops. They deal with all the crimes that normal cops would but in a far more Byzantine world.
First of all, they have the military bureaucracy to navigate, then the political maze of American/Korean choreography, the social interactions of the two cultures and then they have the criminal mind to deal with. The novels are like a chessboard with four dimensions and that is the fun of them: through George’s narration, you are taken through this world with them, as they attempt to untangle the unsolvable.
In this book, The Wandering Ghost, puts them in more foreign territory than usual, as they’re sent north to look into the disappearance of the only female US MP in the demilitarized zone, an area governed by an entirely different part of the Army, one that doesn’t want them around. Black-marketeers, sexual politics, cultural politics, and murder. Martin’s books are reliably entertaining, educational and exceptionally well crafted.
It's a great book, a fascinating read and an important addtion to our understanding of our own past. JB Recommends: Watergate: The Hidden History is not only important and educational, it's entertaining. That is not to say it isn't infuriating and nauseating, as well, but that goes without saying when you're talking about the High Crimes of the Nixon Whitehouse.
The sub-sub-title of Lamar Waldron's new tome is Nixon, The Mafia and the CIA. He covers the rise of Nixon, from his late ‘40s period in California to his classically tragic resignation in '74 and eventual rehabilitation (or attempts to) in the time afterward. Waldron neatly details how the patterns were set early and followed in the decades to come - the infusion of money from the Mob to his first congressional election, to his Presidential bids and as bribes to free the mob's friends; the dirty tricks used in elections and against enemies; the acceptance of bribes and shady financial deals done by him and for him by friends; and a willingness to resort to illegal activities to maintain power. One thing to keep in mind when considering Watergate - and reading this important book - is that so much of what we know now wasn't known at the time of the break-ins. We didn't know that our government had been in bed with the Mob, that our government had plotted with the Mob to assassinate foreign leaders and overthrow elected foreign governments, and that the CIA was a rogue entity, mostly working for itself and not for the citizens of the nation. Try to keep in mind as you read this that the Church Committee had not revealed the shocking dirty laundry of the intelligence community. One of the great unanswered questions about Watergate is just what it was that the burglars were after. Waldron convincingly answers that question.
But let's go back to where it all began: 1959 and the Eisenhower administration. Waldron details the beginnings of the US government's plots against Castro with Vice President Nixon as front man. His hopes were that their plans would result in the elimination of Castro and a return of that island to democratic rule (even though the democratic rule they'd had before was a cruel dictatorship in bed with the Mob and big corporations). It was Nixon who urged action and it was Nixon who got the CIA to team up with the Mob through connections he had developed during his first run for Congress. It was Nixon's belief that if Castro could be replaced it would be his ticket to the White House and beating JFK in the 1960 election. But the plans didn't work and JFK was left with what would become the Bay of Pigs fiasco. During the Kennedy administration, the plots and assassination attempts continued - the poisoned wet suit, the stuff to make his beard fall out, the deadly cigar (who could make this stuff up!), as well schemes for a coup that would leave a Cuban asset hanging out and in danger for over a decade, meaning into Nixon's own years. These plots and schemes usually included mobsters. Something that was news to me was that there was an assassination plot to kill Castro as late as '71 and after that the Cubans drew up a history of these plans, with dates, names, and photos or the people arrested and their equipment. This became known to those in the US government as "The Cuban Dossier" and it was that document that Nixon - and CIA director Richard Helms - desperately wanted to keep out of the public. The White House group that became known as 'The Plumbers' were originally meant to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence as well as to plug the leaks to the press that outraged Nixon - though he personally was a long-time leaker. The Plumbers would first break into the Chilean Embassy in hopes of finding the dossier and then they went into the Watergate complex (3 times) to get it from the DNC office. You have to remember, this was all done during a presidential election year and Nixon was certain the Democrats were going to use it against him. Waldron documents it all. There are a number of surprises, a number of revelations, a number of times that what he documents alters the historical record to help the events make more sense. Throughout it all, you have to keep in mind that what you know now - the CIA/Mob plots - was not general knowledge in 1972 and if that knowledge were to become public during a presidential election it could've changed everything.
So you have to read this book with an understanding of the desperation and paranoia hanging over the actors like a humid blanket - it permeated all of their thoughts and actions. You know the names: Nixon, Mitchell, Dean, Magruder, Liddy, Hunt, Barker, Haig, Califano, Ellsberg, Rosselli, Rebozo, Choitner, Hughes, Mahue, Hoffa, Marcello, Trafficante, Sturgis, Helms, Hoover, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Phillips, Fitzsimmons, McCord, Ervin, Sirica, Anderson and, of course, Woodward, Bernstein and Felt. This is an American saga of a grand scale, covering decades, that continues to color our world, whether we care or not. Might as well learn about it but it is your history, too.
And a brief bit about the new George Pelecanos. What it Was is a thin book for Pelecanos (I honestly don’t know if it is accurate to call it a novella or just a short novel at 246 pages – if it matters) and is set the past.
His series character, private eye Derek Strange, was a DC cop in his 20s and this book goes back to the early 70s, just after he’s left the force to go private. It’s the story of “Red Fury” Jones, a thug who blazed out in a haze of gunsmoke and violence in the days before Watergate and 8-tracks. Strange is hired to find a missing ring and gets caught up in the police search for the increasingly bloody Jones. The ring is a real McGuffin, traveling around from one bad guy to the next.
The book is full of hot tunes on the AM, flashy cars and the fashion of the day described in the street patois of the era. People don’t walk on heels, they’re on stacks, they’re trousers are belled and the ‘fros are tall. And, as usual, as masters such as Hammett or Block did before him, George sets the scene with an economy of words that let you see the people and the action. “Another one,” said Williams to the bartender, a man named Gerard who had wide shoulders and a mustasche so thin it was barely holding on to his face.” If you like your books fast and dark, full of black humor with writing and action that punch, pick up Pelecanos. This would be a good start to his work as it goes back in time to when his characters were younger.