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The books that grab me the most are those that are organic, which is how I describe a book where everthing fits together, where the writing, the desriptions, and the plot all weave together with the themes to become an organic whole. Take one element out and the book is simply ordinary instead of being outstanding.
Any Other Name, the new and 10th Longmire novel from Craig Johnson, is outstanding, a step above even his high level of work.
Though he’s expected in Philadelphia for the birth of his first grandchild, Walt is dragooned by Lucian into investigating the suicide of a retired cop from another county, an old friend who was so straight-arrow that suicide is inexplicable. Lucian is doing this for the widow who wants answers even though he tells her: “’I want to warn you that if you put Walter on this you’re going to find out what it’s all about, one way of the other’. Another pause, and I could imagine the face that was peering down at her, a visage to which I was accustomed. ‘You Sure you want that? Because he’s like a gun; once you point him and pull the trigger, it’s too late to change your mind.’” And off we go, even as the countdown to the birth of Cady’s child is running.
And things running, things speeding toward you, change and danger on a collision course are everywhere in this book in the personification of trains – long, fast, massive trains, unstoppable and as implacable as time. It’s like a riff in an old blues song. And when he’s away from the iron rails, he’s confronted by buffalos in a blizzard, creatures potentially as deadly as iron horses.
“Still holding her next to me, I watched silently as the thing passed by, car after car. She began crying and clutched me, finally converting the sobs into a low and steady moan that unintentionally mimicked the train’s whistle in a sad and wrenching lament.”
Walt – that poor man – is once again up to his knees in snow, as well as crime. But he’s supported by all of the people you expect and hope to find in one of his stories. Will they all make it to Philadelphia for the birth? Can Walt wrap up the case and make his flight in time? Will Lucian shoot another coffee pot? (you’ll understand.)
If you haven’t read any of the Longmires, you’re missing out on a spectacular treat. If you’ve watched the show “Longmire” you’re getting only half the fun, as good as the show is.
Book of the Year.
“No more than fifty hardy souls showed up for the funeral in a baking summer heat that undulated off the bright green grass.” It’s a beautiful sentence but that the funeral is being held to bury an arm – yes, an arm, bearing the tan lines of the owner’s treasured, expensive square wrist watch – will tell you that you are once again giggling in the maniac world of Carl Hiaasen.
Bad Monkey is a lurid and complex tale of Medicaid and insurance fraud, murder, arson, rapacious developers, voodoo, and love, and the noisy, pipe-smoking, ex-movie star and overweight Driggs, who, by all evidence, is a very disagreeable monkey. Bad? – certainly unpleasant. “He’d won the animal in a game of dominoes with a sponger from Fresh Creek. The sponger told him he was the same monkey from the Johnny Depp pirate movies, which were filmed nearby in the Exumas. Neville named his new pet Driggs and he fed him too much deep-fried food. Before long the monkey got wringled and tufts of fur began falling out. He defiantly refused housebreaking so Nevil makde him wear disposable baby diapers with holes cut out for his tail. No the nearly hairless creature was hugging Neville’s left leg and chittering in dread of the voodoo woman.” The Dragon Lady is positive the largely hairless Driggs is actually a human child.
The hero of the story is Yancy, bounced first from the Miami homicide unit for defending his lover from her abusive husband by, well, assaulting him with a car vacumm, and then demoted from the Key West cops to being a restaurant inspector (the job is so ghoulish that he immediately loses a fifth of his body weight ‘cause he’s too disturbed to eat). Yancy begins following the trail of fraud and murder and hopes by solving the case he can get back on the police force and leave the roach patrol behind. That’s about all I can tell you without ruining the fun of reading it for yourself or violating the PG rating we try to maintain for the newzine.
Bad Monkey is Hiaasen in fine form, poking the usual suspects with a very sharp stick. Social satire is his point but a crime novel is his vehicle and he drives it at full speed, as fast as the winds of Hurricain Françoise (the Miami weathermen come in for special scorn) that rake the Bahamas where half the story takes place. “Here on Lizard Cay the grip of deep summer was unbreakable; the conch shack’s ceiling fan had only one blade. In the absence of casino income the puny island’s infrastructure doddered; two-thirds of the power poles knocked down by the funnicaine still lay where they’d fallen. Even when the electricity worked, the trailer on the construction site was a toaster oven, the prehistoric wall unit blowing warm dog-fart air.”
Carl will be here to sign this new book on Tuesday June 25th at 1pm (a little later than usual due to his flight schedule). Bad Monkey has all of the touches of mordant wit, bruising commentary, and finely-honed phrases. The only thing it lacks is a certain ex-governor but, hell, you can’t have everything! If you’ve never read Hiaasen this is a great place to start. Like all of his books it is unconnected to any of the earlier ones and his savage and demented humor has not diminished since 2010’s Star Island, his last book for grown-ups. [Here’s an exerpt posted on-line by the Miami Herald. It’s the beginning of the book – the arm’s appearance.]
Besides, he’s a nice guy. Come in and meet him and get yourself a book and one for your Dad as a late Father’s Day present. He’ll thank you!
Sorry to do this but the Best Book of the Year won’t be out for another four months.
The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) comes out in March of 2014 and is a spot-on Philip Marlowe novel. Black/Banville has captured it all – the beauty as well as the brutality of the Mean Streets of LA.
Some time has passed since Raymond Chandler’s last major Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye. He’s still smarting from the rough departure of Terry Lenox and has mixed feelings about Linda Loring. Sitting in his office one day, watching the secretary across the street type away, he notices a tall blonde crossing the street who, of course, is heading his way like a lovely landslide. It may be a bit of a private eye cliché but blondes do open the outer door.
This one is the daughter of a very rich woman who owns a respected perfume company. The book’s rich with smells as befits this elegant woman, Clare Cavendish. She wants him to find a missing man whom she saw through the window of a taxi in San Francisco. The catch is, of course, that this man was killed in a hit-and-run some time before.
And Marlowe is off on the case.
Is it that simple? No, of course not – never is.
There are thugs and goons and nattily-dressed gangsters as well as subtle references to all things Chandler – Latimer Road (mystery writer Jonathan Latimer was a friend and neighbor of Chandler’s at one point), and Rusty Regan to name two, and most of the action takes place in Bay City. Bernie Ohls is back grousing and drinking gimlets with Marlowe.
But it is Marlowe’s voice that clinches it, the world-weariness that underpins his view and descriptions.
“This must be a private beach,” I said.
“Yes, it is. How did you know?”
I knew because if it had been public, a shelter like this would have been so fouled and littered we wouldnh’t have dreamed of sitting in it. Clare Cavendish, I told myself, was one of those people the world shields from its own awfulness.’”
It might be worth reading (or re-reading) The Long Goodbye before you have a crack at The Black-Eyed Blonde. You have plenty of time, after all. Hell, in four months you can re-read all of Chandler. That’s a Winter well-spent.
"I sat down again, though it felt more like a collapse. On the table stood her untouched drink, with a solitary olive submerged in it. Her crushed cigarette in the ashtray had a smear of lipstick. I looked at my own glass, half empty, at a crumpled paper napkin, at a flake or two of ash on the table that a breath would have blown away. These are the things that get left behind; these are the things we remember.”
I, for one, hope the Universe is wise enough to keep Benjamin Black / John Banville writing Philip Marlowe novels. We need more.
Bravo is one of Greg Rucka’s best books to date. It is whip-smart, tense, and sets a world-record action pace. It is full of strong women and difficult decisions, questions of duty and love and is it possible to do your job and protect those close to you. And trust – trusting others, trusting yourself, trusting your ideals.
At the center of the story is Jonathan “Jad” Bell, Master Sergeant, team leader, operational agent and father. He’s pulled in many directions at once and these distractions can be dangerous to all involved. He’s chasing bad guys – really bad guys. But no one knows exactly who they are. That’s the thrill of the hunt, the sense that you’re getting close but how do you know?
The plot of Bravo continues from Alpha as the Americans work to find those responsible for the attack on the theme park and stop whatever they have planned next. It is almost a two-part story, or one split into consecutive books. So you might as well start with Alpha.
If I could sight one small flaw it is that, two books in, I really don’t know much about Bell as a human. I understand Reacher and Swagger and Bosch and Patrick and Angie. I understand Marlowe and Archer and even Mallory. I don’t understand Bell. He’s a blank in his own stories and I hope that as the series goes on I get to know him.
Still and all, Bravo is a crackerjack story. I was so intent on reading last night going home that I missed my bus stop and had a longer walk home. That meant, too, more time to get home so that I could finish the damn book! (Can’t read and walk at the same time – neither gets the attention they deserve…)
Often we hear for years about this author or that author, we’re told that we MUST read this author or that author and, when we do read someone and recommend them highly, the rest of us will sometimes avoid reading them so that we’re not all reading the same thing. Very complex and byzantine, that’s us.
Craig Johnson had fallen into this gap. Others have read him and I’ve heard so much about his books that I almost didn’t feel as if I needed to read them to talk about them. And I’ve enjoyed the show “Longmire” adapted from them so I thought was time to try the first one. Have to admit I was hesitant, though. I hove to the mean streets of the urban setting and haven’t had much luck with country settings – other than Woodrell.
But I’ve finished The Cold Dish and I am a convert. He’s a fine writer (here’s a sample of one passage that I posted on our website) with great characters but I have to say what sells the stories is the voice of Walt Longmire. Like all of the great narrators – Archie Goodwin, Dave Robicheaux or Patrick Kenzie – Walt’s voice is unique and indivisible from the setting and story. I can’t imagine the books working without his voice. There’s far more humor to the books than there is to the TV show, and far more poetry. ‘Course it is nearly impossible to capture a narrator’s voice in a visual translation unless you do use a voice-over, and that doesn’t always work well at that.
Let me just say that if you’ve not read Craig Johnson, do so.
I may be late to the parade but look at it this way – I’ve got seven more to read without waiting on a new one!
It’s always great to find a new author. “Good friends are the cones who can remain close without losing their ability to surprise.” Good friends and good writers, too.
Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis is a timely book for several reasons. Firstly, we’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas on Nov 22, 1963. Secondly, it is instructive on the lunatic, far-right political fringe that has the country by the throat these days, that what is going on is not new, just, perhaps, a bit less outwardly violent. It is peopled by those you may know about – H.L. Hunt, the richest man in the world at the time who preached a militant, Chritian conservatism that he, himself, did not practice (what a shock), Gen. Edwin Edwards who was sacked by JFK for his fascistic proselytizing to the troops and who was shot at in Dallas in the weeks before JFK was shot and who did not practice the Christian conservatism that he preached (what a shock), and Ted Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, who used his place and power to ridicule and smack anyone who didn’t share his view of the world. They did introduce me to a few new figures – Congressman Bruce Alger, who would feel right at home in today’s Congress, and Baptist Rev. W. A. Criswell, someone who it is easy to envision screaming vitriol from the cable airwaves, Frank McGhee self-styled conservative wavemaker and leader of the National Indignation Convention (sounds like something out of Monty Python) and, probably the most sympathetic figure in the book, Stanley Marcus (of Neiman-Marcus fame), who worked so hard to bring civility to his city and whose efforts were hopeless. Too bad the White House didn’t listen to him when he told them to cancel the trip to Texas.
The authors provide a stunning and shaming portrait of the South’s largest city, of the racism and bigotry and mindless meaness of the South’s power structure. They give what one assumes to be a clear and nauseating view of the hypocricy of the leaders (Dealey decrying personal attacks on his allies even while he championed his reporters’ efforts to dig up dirt on the Left) who trumpeted the fundamental ideals of America yet did all they could to keep all men from being treated equally, and, while they feared the monster of communism and the totalitarian threat to freedom, they were willing to do whatever they could to undermine the duly elected president. It is a broad and deep damnation of those people and their actions and practices and has many parallels for us here, in these days, too.
This is not a history of mainline conservatives – this is a history of fanatics, of fascists. You know the type – the sort who claim they need to save the country from itself, who scream that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is evil, and who are willing to destroy the country to save it.
Where they go off the beam is sticking to the Warren Commission solution to the assassination. Here’s one tiny bit that had me ready to put the books down:
On April 13, 1963, someone took a shot at Gen. Edwards. It has never been proven who fired the shot though some say Oswald took credit. The author’s detail that Edwards was sitting in profile at a table, unmoving, and in clear view at a distance of 120 feet. The shooter’s bullet hit one of the dividers in the window, splintered, spraying Edwards with bullet fragments and then smashed into a wall. This strikes me as an assassination attempt by shakey shooter and one with very soft ammo.
Yet, on Nov 22, months later, Oswald is credited with getting off three shots at a moving target through leafy trees at a much greater distance, and one of the bullets makes multiple wounds in two men and is then found nearly intact on a hospital gurney? Their own narration doesn’t hang together. Anyone capable of doing that could not have missed Walker. They also note that Oswald’s rifle was “a reliable, accurate weapon”. I have read extensively on the assassination and have never heard this Mannlicher-Carcano refered to as anything but a dreadful weapon – ‘junk’ is how it has usually been discribed.
In their Authors’ Note, they write “Dallas 1963 is not meant to address the many conspiracy theories surrounding the murder of President Kennedy. Our aim is to introduce and then connect the outsize characters and the singular climate in a city that many blamed for killing a president.”
For their portait of Dallas and its place in its time, Dallas 1963 is very much worthwhile. It sets the stage for the assassination very clearly, heartbreakingly so, and but the book would have been stronger, overall, if they had simply left Oswald and Ruby out of their story altogether.
I had heard about Belinda Bauer, but I hadn't read anything by her until I picked up Rubbernecker and now I suspect I'm going to have to track down her earlier work because she's great!
Rubbernecker is told from multiple points of view which should be annoying but with Bauer's deft touch, it works smoothly. Mostly we're following Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger's syndrome, who is studying anatomy at college in Wales, searching for an answer to death. He doesn't understand a lot of everyday metaphors, being a very literal sort, but he's obsessed with finding out what happens after a body dies. We also see things through his mother's eyes; she's overwhelmed by the death of her husband and how difficult it is living with Patrick. We see how Tracy, a nurse in a coma ward, views people and her place among them, and we hear the internal thoughts of one of those coma patients who is emerging from his coma into awareness around him.
An anomaly in the dissection of a donated body disrupts Patrick's sense of order and he begins to think that the body he and his classmates have been working on was actually murdered rather than having died of natural causes. He is aware that he doesn't relate to or think like other people, but he's adamant about his belief and will chase down an answer no matter what.
Belinda Bauer has, I believe, delved deeply into the mind-set of someone with Asperger's syndrome, and into the lives of those who live and work with someone who has it. Her writing is fascinating, the story moves along like silk, and I know I certainly learned something about anatomy. But, as usual, I was drawn to the characters. Patrick himself is fascinating, but all the surrounding characters - his mother, his roommates, his lab partners, the nurses, and the man in the coma - are all complex and vulnerable and surprisingly resilient. Rubbernecker is a masterclass in storytelling and in weaving threads together to create a satisfying whole.
Tim Weiner is a prize-winning investigative journalist who can write a history that reads like a fictional thriller. His Legacy of Ashes was a tour de force look at the monstrous stupidity of the Agency and how the personal political and social views of those in charge have caused the country no end of trouble. He proves the same to be the case with the Bureau.
His Enemies: A History of the FBI (Random House, now in trade paperback, $20) is perhaps misleading as a title. This is not a complete history of FBI over the decades, nor is it meant to be. It is a history of the FBI as a domestic intelligence agency. If you’re looking for a detailed history of how Hoover did or didn’t take on the Mob, this won’t tell you much.
What this will tell you is now the FBI was created without a written charter passed by the federal legislature, how it was focused from the start on political/economic enemies as perceived by those in power (what were once called anarchists, then communists, then Leftists, and now terrorists). It tells the story of one man’s maniacal focus on those he viewed as detrimental to the US, how that maniacal focus detoured the agency from being an effective crime-fighting force, how his focus on protecting the image he cultivated stopped the agency from dealing with it’s own faults and shortcomings, and how that one man, Hoover, of course, amassed so much power that there was no possible way to correct anything that was wrong with what the FBI was doing or trying to do.
Weiner takes you from the founding of the Bureau of Investigation up to the advent of drone-strike warfare. He writes about how, from the start, though those who created it were very afraid of any sort of ‘state police’, they recognized that the nation needed one agency to oversee the crimes of national scale. He also shows how, from the start, what we got was a rogue secret police.
But Weiner does not lay all of this off on Hoover’s shoulders. Though one has to wonder how the first five decades of the FBI’s work would have gone had someone other than Hoover been in power, he makes it clear that Hoover worked hand–in-glove with Senators and Presidents and Attorneys General and that there’s plenty of blame to go around.
What’s most disturbing about this book is the chronicle of wasted time and money – the pointless spy hunts, the traitors who sold secrets, the millions (if not billions) burned up in national computer systems that never worked (that the FBI has been unable to employ a usable computer system is one of the most horrifying aspects of the book), and the long-standing feuding between the various federal outfits that feeds the egos of those in charge but does nothing to make the taxpayers safer.
And though the book ends with the beginnings of the Obama administration, it couldn’t be more timely. Hoover’s long use of illegal wiretaps and ‘black bag’ jobs to gather intelligence and information, and the Bureau’s long-standing inability to use all of that info or to make sense of it, resonates with each day’s headlines; the NSA is snorting up vast quanties of information, legally or not, morally or not, but can it all be used in any way to benefit the ordinary taxpaying system? In anything, just the opposite is true – in the last 50 years, Weiner details time and again that the FBI was incapable of dealing effectively with all of the information it got. As the NSA readies a new server farm of massive proportions, how can twe believe they’ll find any crucial needle in all that hay?
If the past is prologue, not a chance. The more things change, the higher the technology gets, the more the problems stay the same – and the taxpayer is stuck with the bill and the empty assurances of security.
"Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free."
There are a blue million books on the Kennedy assassination but the best ones these days take into the account the latest declassified files and what is known now that wasn’t know to the Warren Commission or the various committees working in the 70s. Many of the best of the earlier books about the assassination now have afterwards or have been updated, but some of the best are those by Lamar Waldron. His newest, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination is built on his previous books and provides a clear story of the assassination, who was behind it and how it was done – and how it was covered up.
First, he lays out the early plots against Castro, Nixon’s involvement as the Eisenhower administration’s point man and his hopes to get Castro dislodged as a tool to win the 1960 election, the Mob’s involvement, the training of Cubans and the involvement of far right figures in the CIA. Then he describes the maneuvering of the Kennedy brothers, their plans to both seek accomodation with Castro and their work to stage a coup – all the while elements within the CIA were working on their own assassination plots while denying to the White House that they were. Waldron also sketches out the war on the Mob that the Kennedys were continuing. He then draws a clear picture of how those who planned and carried out the assassination did it. There are a number of parts of the story that are only recently known: that Dallas was just the last of three plots to kill JFK, all within November of ’63 (Chicago, then Tampa); that the Kennedys were developing a secret plan to deal with potential assassination of high ranking officials within the US government and how this plan was then utilized to help in the cover up; that the Mob and their cohorts within the CIA (in some cases they were both) fed enough disinformation, laced with the bits about actual plans, to the press that the CIA covered up aspects of the crime to ensure secrets stayed secret; that nearly every major intellegence branch of the government was using Oswald for some purpose and how his being set up as the patsy forced each to be part of the cover-up; and how most of the major players did make some sort of confession (some bragged) about their participation in the plot. What Waldron does not do is to detail who was looking through what rifle scope that ugly day in Dallas. He does not dig into the minutia of the forensics. He doesn’t attempt to explain all of the conflicting eye witness testimony or plot out Oswalds movements minute by minute. He leaves all of that for others.
What he does is provide a clear and logical picture of who and how and why, the means, motive and opportunity that is critical in any investigation. It wasn’t just “The Mob”, or “The CIA”, or “The Government” that killed Kennedy, but it was hard-bitten, violent elements of each, men who thought they knew best, men who had a particular political view, men who had their livelihoods and fortunes at stake and who were accustomed to changing the world to match their view of it.
I would also highly recommend his earlier books: Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination, Watergate: The Hidden History – Nixon, The Mafia, and the CIA & Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK. Any will give you a look at, as James Ellroy called it, “the underbelly of the 1960s”.
David Rosenfelt’s series with defense attorney Andy Carpenter continues to be a reliable laugh-riot. Hounded is the 12th in this funny series, with Andy once again trying to avoid any work, do little else but watch sports, walk his dog Tara, dance with Laurie and meet his buddies for dinner.
This story starts out a little more seriously, or perhaps personally is the way to say it. His old friend, Pete Stanton, a police investigator with a sterling reputation, has been arrested for murder. While it is unthinkable, Andy still has to prove it in court and the circumstantial evidence is strong. Still, Andy and his team – Marcus is indispensable, of course – get moving to free Pete.
The ingenuity of the book is where the solution comes and when the center of evil is exposed. It’s a jaw-dropper!
There are major changes afoot in the series, all for the better. It’s a book filled with love and laughs. If you haven’t started reading this series, you’re missing a gem. Great for fans of Rex Stout, as Andy and Archie are cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Mike Lawson's House Odds was a perfect vacation book - fast, fun and a delight from start to finish. DeMarco works to clear Mahoney's daughter of charges of insider trading but finds that's just the tip of the lunacy: mobsters, homicidal ex-football players, political blackmail. dedicated investigators, and, for DeMarco, a possible girlfriend. Emma does her thing, Mahoney schemes, and DeMarco works the angles with a cracked tooth. Poor Joe. Funny, scary and smoothly plotted. Great for the beach, the hammock or while trying to stay cool in a dinky little fan in the Colorado heat. As always, nicely done, Mike!
Rosarito Beach (a few signed 1sts still available) follows DEA agent Kay Hamilton in her quest to take down the head of a Mexican cartel. Kay is not a likeable person. She’s brusque and short tempered and absolutely single minded. But she’s very good at what she does. The fun in the book is that odd events keep thwarting her plans and she’s forced to continually improvise. She’s very good at that, too.
Like the DeMarco novels, there’s a good deal of cynical humor to the book. I think it stands right up there with the work of Don Winslow and it’ll be interesting to see if he continues with Hamilton as a lead character. Hope he does.
House Reckoning won’t be out until mid-Summer and is his usual outstanding DeMarco tale. We know from past books that Joe’s father was a mob enforcer who was killed a couple of decades ago, before Joe began working for Mahoney. Now DeMarco’s been told who pulled the trigger. And Joe resolves to achieve vengeance.
The problem is that the guy who pulled the trigger is now a big shot and Mahoney doesn’t want Joe to do anything. Politics! Joe doesn’t listen, of course – lots of twists and turns, and Emma, thank god. Lawson writes great women.
But that doesn’t really say much…every facet of the books and every character is terrific.
Both are destined to be high on my Best of 2014 list.
Scott Turow is, without a doubt, a masterful writer. Not only is his wordsmithing outstanding, his plots are astonishing. If you’ve never read Presumed Innocent, you should. They really screwed up the subtle ending in the Harrison Ford movie which was, otherwise, a great movie. If you have – or once you do read it – go on to Innocent. It’s a sequel, featuring the hapless Rusty Sabitch accused, once again, of murder. It gives nothing away to say why that book was superb: the killer’s motivations hinge on the outcome of the first book but Turow never once gives away that surprise ending of Presumed Innocent, and knowing that ending makes Innocent that much more tense.
Identical takes place between those two books, in 2008. Though Sabitch is not among the cast, Raymond Horgan and Sandy Stern are. And Kindle County (Turow’s fictionalized name for Chicago’s Cook County predates Amazon’s e-lunacy by a long-shot and Bezos should probably pay Turow for naming rights…) is still a political swamp of maneuvering sharpies.
25 years ago, Cass Gianis’ girlfriend was murdered. He confessed and is now being released from prison. As this is taking place, his identical twin Paul – a respected prosecutor turned state senator – is running for mayor of the Tri-Cities. The victim’s older brother has always felt that Paul was involved and he uses his great wealth to begin running attack ads during the campaign. Paul sues for defamation.
And the ugliness erupts.
The two families used to be close but split apart decades ago. Resentments and suspicions have seethed and festered. Once Hal – the dead girl’s brother – runs the first ad there is no going back and everyone involved is at the mercy of events.
The characters are strongly drawn and fully formed. What you think happened back at the time of Dita’s death will alter as the story unfolds as what you think of the various characters changes as well. You will find them all, to one extent or another, equally sympathetic – which is no small thing. Once you know what really happened – not until the end – you’ll see it for the inevitable and horrible tragedy it was.
Along the way are the high drama of legal fencing, cutting edge forensics trying to work with decades-old evidence, and old-world traditions clashing with modern American realities.
As the book doesn’t come out until mid-Fall, we don’t know yet if Scott will be touring out our way, or if his publisher will make signed copies available. If either is a possibility, we’ll let you know.
Identical by Scott Turow – the finest in legal thrillers, suspense, and American literature.
Stephen Hunter has stepped away from his contemporary thriller to pen a surprising book. A writer of great range, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed it so much. It is rare to not enjoy a Hunter novel. But I, Ripper is very different for him, but still a joy to read. The book unfolds in two distinct and, I thought, authentic voices: one chapter will be from the Jack’s diary; the alternate chapter will be from the view of a young reporter tasked with covering the Whitechapel murders. You get the “inside-the-head-of-maniac” view in a voice that does not at all sound crazy (except for the distance between the voice and the horrors) and the outsider/participant view who is both ghoulishly fascinated by what he’s seeing as well as being a cog in the machinery of hysteria and commerce. After all, gore sells papers! And if the story is lagging and sales fall, well, do something to gin up the mob. Along the way, Hunter provides a very detailed look at everyday London in 1888, the scents and sounds, the funk and the fog. He does a great job of hiding things in plain sight, mixing in fiction with the fact (the reporter and a professor play Watson and Holmes to try to solve the crimes), springs a couple of surprises to this well-trod and bloody story, and, in the end, presents an ingenious solution to not only whodunnit but why no one was ever put forward, at the time, as being Saucy Jack.
It Happens in the Dark, the latest Mallory from Carol O’Connell is, like all of her books, more of the same (which is wonderful) and something different (which is terrific). All of the usual suspects are present – Riker, Dr. Slope, Rabbi Kaplin and the hapless, lovelorn Charles Butler, as well as the other Special Crimes detectives who are playing a larger role in each novel.
What sets this one apart from other others is the structure of a ‘locked-room’ case. The crimes take place within a small Broadway theatre – who slashed the throat of the playwright the second night the play was staged? Was his death somehow connected to the woman who died of a heart attack on opening night? Is the play ever going to be staged all the way through?
The book is filled with the odd characters of the theatre – the stagehands – twins - who are simply weird, the once-famous Hollywood actor with a massive ego making a comeback, the ingenue hoping to make it in NYC, the squirrely gofer who seems to know and understand far more than he should, the overly-theatrical critic in love with his own theatricality. Then there’s the theatre itself, the rickety stairs, catwalks, wonky lighting – and the blackboard that seems to be used by a ghostwriter. Literally.
As with any Mallory, there’s laughs and cringes. We may be seeing a bit further into Mallory as the series goes on, too. While she’s still “Mallory the machine” with the scary green eyes, her past appears to be humanizing her (please don’t tell her I said that!):
“Mallory washed off the blood of a reporter’s split lip, and then she washed her hands again. And again. She would never get clean.
What a hell of a backfire day.
While splashing water on her face, she caught the movement in the glass above the row of sinks. There was no instant recognition of her reflection when she came upon it unawares, an effect of distortion from her early years on the city streets, the residue of every bad thing she had seen or smelled or touched before the age of ten – and what had reached out to touch her. All the mirrors in the world had been cracked in childhood.”
Unhappy note: once upon a time, the publisher promised us signed copies but we’ve finally learned that those were cancelled and there won’t be any. Apologies for promising what we cannot now provide.
Don’t hold that against Carol O’Connell and Mallory! It’s a magnificent series and they’re two of my favorite women.
I’m still reading my way through Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. Can’t say enough about this well-crafted and insightful – and funny – series. [as I type this, Fran is staring daggers in my back because I have about 20 pages left in Hell is Empty, the next one SHE needs…]. Here are a couple of great passages from Junkyard Dogs:
“I waited but there was no response, so I opened the front door and followed the wolves inside. There was a set of stairs in the entry hall with a stained oriental runner complete with tarnished brass rails on each rise. The carpet had been tracked black, and the worn spots at the center of each tread showed the oak board underneath, the distressed wool threads drifting in the air of the open door as if the stairwell had been disemboweled.”
“He continued to study me, and I thought about the damage we all did in life by being ourselves and getting up in the morning.” Amen…
Light of the World is the 20th in the Dave Robicheaux series from James Lee Burke. Recently, they’ve been ending as if it could be the last in the series and I am relieved and elated to find out each year that is not so. These books will go down in time as major American literature and, like Chandler or Hammett, will be read and enjoyed and discussed for decades to come.
He’s one of the few writers in the world of crime and mystery (Ellroy, Lehane and Connolly being three others) who deal with personal and societal evil as a central theme of his novels, and Dave and his life-long friend Clete are incapable of walking away from the evil they encounter. Which is how we’d all like to be. Both are haunted by their past actions but know that someone has to do what needs to be done. “At some point in your life, you have to give up anger or it will destroy your spirit the way cancer destroys living tissue. At least that is what I told myself, even though I was not very good at taking my own advice.”
This time out, the noble men are vacationing in Montana, staying with a respected author who sounds much like Burke himself. As Dave and his host tangle at times it is fun to read, as if listening in on Burke’s own inner-monologue. But while it is always a delight to spend time with this cast of characters – added to with Clete’s newfound daughter Gretchen – it is Burke’s writing that holds you fast and his descriptions of Montana are expecially sharp – “The sky was clear and blue, and fresh snow had fallen on the tops of the Missions during the night: in the sunlight, you could see the ice on the waterfalls melting. The mountains were so massive, the rock chain they formed against the sky so vast, that you lost perspective and the forests growing up the sides resembled green velvet rather than trees. It was one of those places that seemed to reduce discussions about theology to the level of folly.”
Still and all, with a man so evil as Asa Surette that he gives off the vile smug of death and decay, Dave and Clete (aided by Alafair and Gretchen) do not shy from taking it to the bad guys. “I have never laid strong claim on rationality, in fact have often felt that its value is overrated. Let’s face it, life is easier if we maintain a semblance of reasonable behavior and hide some of our eccentricities and not say more than is necessary in our dealing with others. The same applies to our actions. Why attract attention? No one takes an accordian band to a deer hunt.” These folks do. They can do nothing else.
Burke seems to be calling us all to action, to be players in the games of our own lives.
“If you’re wired a certain way, you’ll always be in motion, clicking to your own rhythm, all of it in four-four time, avoiding convention and predictability and control as you would a sickness, the whole world waiting for you like an enormous dance pavillion lit by colored lights and surrounded with palm trees. I’m not talking about the dirty boogie. The music of the spheres is right outside your bedroom window. It just comes packaged on a strange CD sometimes.”
Light of the World is yet another masterful work, full of courage and heroes as well as horrors and mendacity. It’s affirming and lively, even amongst the bullets and blood. Your summer won’t be complete until you read it.
There were no advanced reading copies of the new Lee Child, Never Go Back so none of us had had a chance to review it until a couple of reader copies finally arrived on Tuesday. We knew the basics of the plot – more how it begins. For the last couple of books, Reacher has been trying to get to Virginia to meet the woman he talked to on the phone in 61 Hours. If you recall, her position was the one he had occupied when he left the Army – head of the elite 110st MPs – and she’d helped him out during that blizzard in the Dakotas. He liked her voice and he’s been moving in her direction ever since. (He details his travels and it’s quite amusing.)
So now Jack’s back in his old building but she’s not there, he’s been reactivated as a major in the Army and is being threated with two legal actions to events that supposedly happened 16 years ago. Everything about the charges are fishy, as are the reasons for Major Susan Turner to no longer be in charge of the 110th, but Reacher’s up to his pecs in lawyers, thugs, and accusations. He seems pretty comfortable throwing around his rank and authority, as well as his elbows – as usual.
Where’s the story going? I have my suspicions and guesses and I’m pretty confident that Lee will confound and hoodwink me, and I’m fine with that. That’s the fun of reading along with Reacher.
James Ellroy promises that Perfidia is the start of another LA Quartet. It begins on Dec 6, 1941 and covers the events of the next three weeks. The logical assumption is that the next three books will cover the years up to The Black Dahlia. OH BOY! Perfidia is jammed with characters from past books. It gives nothing away to say that the one of the central characters is Sgt. Dudley Smith with all his roguish and broguish charm. To an extent, having so many of his own fictional creations, as well as actual historical figures, as his actors removes a great deal of suspense. You know nothing bad happens to them as they’re in later books or really were people in LA in the 50s or 60s. But that’s not a bad thing.
What you read Ellroy for is the breathtaking scope of mendacity he weaves through his novels. There’s more crime, betrayal, violence, schemes and scams, love and lust in an Ellroy novel than most writers can pack into a lifetime of books. Bennies, poisoned tea, opium pipes and barrels of alcohol, eugenics and racism, shotguns and machine guns and nitroglycerin – and satchels of cash. “Land grabs, plastic surgery, blood libel. Rogue cops, sub attacks, a lunch-mob massacre. Pay phones. A white man in a purple sweater. Secret radios and feigned seppuku. The haughty Left and the bellicose Right. A grand alliance of war profiteers.” And nothing has changed. Get ready for a cast of characters you think you know: Bucky, Lee and Kay, Pierce Padgett and Preston Exley, Buzz Meeks and Sid Hudgens, Bugsey Siegel and Beth Short mix it up with Bette Davis, William Parker, J Edgar Hoover and JFK. My advance reader’s copy came to 688 pages, with an additional four and a half pages of the cast, telling you what novels they appeared in or who was what in wartime LA. It’s a masterful work, fast and hard as a sap and as dark as the Sunset Strip during a wartime blackout. I just hope it isn’t another five years before we get the next volume.
The only problem is now I think I need to re-read the original quartet. I can see Dudley wink and say “That’s grand, lad.”
I’ve always thought that an inherent problem with the Jack Reacher series is that, as it goes on, Reacher becomes more known to ‘The Authorities’. The Army already knows all about him. But over course of the books, he’s worked with the Secret Service, CIA, and other outfits and it becomes unbelievable that they wouldn’t call on him for help in situations suited to his talents because his talents have been proven time and again. By this time in the history of the books, everyone’s files on Reacher should scream “IF HE’S INVOLVED – GOOD”
In Personal, Lee Child takes the story right out of the middle of that paradox. Picking up a copy of “The Stars and Stripes” abandoned on a bus, he sees an ad aimed directly at him, from someone he can’t say no to.
And we’re off – East Coast, Paris, London, English and Serbian crime gangs, snipers (the American is from Arkansas, a nod to Bob Lee Swagger?), US, British and Russian operatives and a young CIA agent detailed to the State Department named Casey Nice (a bit of Ian Fleming in that) who has Reacher as a guide into his world of acting fast and thinking faster.
As many have said to us, the Reacher series has felt stale of late, with many fans feeling that 61 Hours hit a logic wall from which the series couldn’t recover. I’m happy to report that Child seems to be taking Reacher out of his rut and back out into the world where he should operate – with the professionals, the Big Boys and Girls, and into an international arena where he can loose his sense of justice on who could not possibly have experienced anything like him.
But, having said all of that, the book falls apart at the very end. The ‘solution’ (the who and why) felt rushed and half-assed, as if he got to the end, didn’t know how to end it and didn’t really give a damn, and, in a book and a series that is based on reason, cobbled together one that was unreasonable and unbelievable.
A huge disappointment.
Scott Phillips’ new book is a lurid little thing, sexy and salacious, noirish and nasty. Rake is aptly titled, narrated by an unnamed American soap opera star who has become a huge star in France. The show is no longer running but delayed broadcasts have made him immediately recognizable and the French – especially the women, married or not – can’t get enough of him. He is sleeping his way through Paris, just as he did LA. He’s a man of great ego, charming and handsome and utterly without a conscience.
While soaking up the love and adulation, he’s hoping to find an acting project, perhaps a movie. He’s able to create the project out of thin air while dodging the bullet of a jealous husband, fighting off a gang of thugs and sending one drunk to the hospital. You see, this fellow has anger issues that were once tamed by training as a Green Beret. He’s a cocksman of many talents, a true rake.
This is an explicit book, the actor sparing few details of his conquests and endeavors. While bed-hopping around the City of Lights, our narrator gathers around him a strange assortment of folks and, well let’s leave it there. The fun is seeing him sink into trouble and then to watch him work to get back out of the hole he’s dug for himself.
Phillips’s books are always gleefully blunt. If you’ve ever read his debut, The Ice Harvest, you know what I mean. If you haven’t read it and are a fan of contemporary noir, you should. He’s a fine writer, infusing his books with sly humor and telling comments on people, culture and life. It’s a fun, fast read.
Charlie Huston is the kind of author who writes a great variety of stories but all are reliably and engrossingly fresh and fabulous. His latest book, Skinner is a riot of invention that kept me delightedly off-balance. That’s no small feat for someone who has been devouring this stuff for a number of decades, but Charlie ALWAYS does it. He never does what has been done before.
Skinner is in the ‘asset protection’ business. Calling him a bodyguard is like calling Dillinger a thief. Skinner has long been the top of the pyramid because his rule was to visit such horror on anyone who attempts to harm his asset that no one would even consider it. But seven years ago, someone tried to mess with Skinner and the world in which he operates has been holding its breath, waiting for his retaliation.
This is a world that exists in a different dimension from the rest of us. They’re former Black Ops people, former spooks or refugees from military or other governmental outfits. They’re private security people, secret and clandestine. Their world is so far outside ours that Skinner’s monstrous abilities make sense to them.
The storyline moves quickly, skipping around the world, looking for the trail of cyber-terrorists who attacked a US nuclear plant. It tangles with political demonstrations in Sweden, teams of rival operatives with their own agendas, to a crypt in Paris where the story started years earlier, and finally to the revelations of what it was all about. Skinner is a character unlike any I’ve experienced, as is his asset, Jae, who has been searching for the explanation of the world since her mother died of a bee sting decades before. Jae builds micro-robots for fun and is able to scan great amounts of information from print, the internet, TV, and see the links that are hidden to others. They’re a credible pair of broken people, unlikely allies in the war to stop what has been initiated. Broken as they are, they’re real and human and I was sure I could see their faces and hear their voices even though Charlie really never fully describes either of them. Any more explanation of the story would dampen the intrigue. Trust me here – it made my transcontinental flight home from Boston zip by unnoticed.
Espionoirthrillspense…whatever you want to call it. It’s a top notch thrill ride, an E-ticket ride if you’re old enough to remember those.
Huston. Skinner. Read.
Stephen Hunter’s Sniper’s Honor is another Bob Lee Swagger blast. In this story, the decorated and honored Viet Nam war sniper is off to Russia to try to get a line on Ludmilla Petrova, the Soviet Union’s most feared sniper from WWII. She has seemingly been wiped from the historical record and that’s just not right with a man like ‘Bob the Nailer’.
The story is told in split time, as Petrova is sent into Ukraine in 1944 to kill a Nazi official, the uncious Dr. Groedl. The trick is that there’s a Nazi spy high up in the Kremlin and the Germans have dispatched a unit of Muslim soldiers to track her down before she can complete her mission.
In the present, Bob and his friend, reporter Kathy Reilly, run into roadblocks in their mission as well. It appears someone doesn’t want them to find Petrova’s trail or for Reilly to write about her. What could be so sensative about people and events from seven decades in the past? Politics, it always comes down to politics and power.
My one complaint about the book is not about the characters or the story but the author himself. Twice he has Swagger buying stacks of books from Ama – SPECTRE - and then writes in his acknowledgements at the back of the book how “The Amazone bill was mind-boggling.” Well, wonderful, Mr. Hunter. If you’re such a fan of SPECTRE and want to promote them in your fiction, you tempt me to not promote your fiction.
Still and all, Sniper’s Honor is a terrfic read. Just, please, buy it from a real bookseller…
William Boyd’s Solo is vintage James Bond. The story begins with 007’s birthday in 1969, his 45th and doesn’t slow up until the end. Between, there are great meals, fine clothes, fast new sports cars, strong interesting women, gunfire and creeps, and familiar names – M, Moneypenny and Leiter. The case takes us and Bond from London to Western Africa and to DC. Bond’s assignment? Stop a civil war in an African country where oil has been discovered. Money, politics and mercenaries, the usual mix. After that official task is completed at great cost, goes ‘solo’ – he’s not officially on a case – to settle some unfinished business.
Toss in betrayal and you have the kind of story that Fleming himself wrote. Boyd’s done a better job of capturing the essential Fleming than many have over the years, keeping the writing spare and action fast. The only gadget that Bond uses is a thin knife hidden in the sole of one shoe. No lasers in wristwatches, no machine guns hidden in the parking lights, no master villians bent on world domination (though the main bad guy has a damaged cheek that leaves his left eye tearing continually). There are a few mentions of Viet Nam but the Cold War doesn’t enter into the story. This is Bond working on a small stage, just as he did when Fleming was at the typewriter.
All in all, a wonderful read and a delightful break from the numbness of everyday life.
“’Sometimes what you hope is at the end of the rainbow isn’t what you thought it was going to be at all,’ Morgan said”. Sometimes The Wolf is Urban Waite’s sequel to his debut novel The Terror of Living, a nice and nasty piece of Cascade Noir from 2011. Deputy Bobby Drake, wounded twice in the confrontation that ended the book, is still trying to find his peace in the North Cascade town of Silver Lake. He and his wife have been through a rough patch and now his father, the former sheriff of the town, is about to be released after 12 years in the state pen. Some of Patrick’s illegal reputation has stained Bobby, both in the view of others as well as in his view of himself. His overarching question is can you still love someone who has betrayed everything they stood for and caused you and themselves great harm? Not an easy question, nor one that can be settled quickly. But now Patrick Drake is out, and Agent Driscoll, of the Seattle FBI office is still on the case, trying to find the $200,000 that he’s sure Patrick stole. There’s the matter of the two murdered men up in Bellingham. Was Patrick guilty of more than just smuggling drugs down from Canada through the Cascades? Was he into something bigger, something worse? Driscoll is sure. Bobby,as much as he distrusts his father, can’t quite believe him of those larger crimes. Then there are the two lunatics who have escaped from a prison transfer and are after Patrick and the money he’s said to have hidden a dozen years ago. John Wesley is the big one, dangerous and dullwitted. Bean – the skinny one with the blonde hair – is the real danger. These two will kill anyone just to get the info they want, or to have some shelter for the night. Finally, we’re introduced to Bobby’s grandfather, Morgan, a loner who lives in isolation on the east side of the state. He’s the philosopher of the family but all three Drake men are prepared to do what must be done to protect themselves and their own. Pity it won’t be enough.
His first of the three books, The Terror of Living, is out now. Read it first, but read them all.
There’s something particularly attractive to me about the murky world of the background/underground of political maneuverings and espionage and intelligence work in the 20th C. From the 1930s through WWII, and into the Cold War, was perhaps the only period in American history to come close to what we think the Wild West was like. Trenchcoats and fedoras replaced dusters and 10-gallon hats, and the type of handguns differed, but that sensibility of an unruly frontier is very similar. At least it is to me.
I’ve read a number of Ben MacIntyre’s earlier books on WWII spies and enjoyed them immensely and I can unreservedly recommend his next book, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.
While Philby and the other Cambridge Spies have been buried under thousands of pages of histories, analysis, and psychological autopsy, MacIntyre takes a different aim. He rightly notes that the world doesn’t need yet another biography of the creep. Rather, he comes at this period of time through the lens of the friendships of the people involved, the relationships, and what was hidden from whom and what that meant, and how those friendships affected how it all played out. It is a fascinating book.
And what is most fascinating of all is that we may never really know who was doing what. Here we are, six or seven decades away from the betrayals at the center of the story, and the facts are obscured through governmental policies of secrecy and personal embarrassments. And we just have to live with that. In the meantime, we have MacIntyre’s brilliantly drawn image of the people and the places involved without any numbing recitation of political philosophies. The game is afoot and those playing are masters of their craft. What is most astonishing is not that few suspected Philby of treachery, or that so many could not conceive of it due to his being ‘one of them’, it is that none of them died of alcohol poisoning before they were 30!
All of the Usual Suspects are present: James Jesus Angleton, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Ian Fleming, J. Edgar Hoover, and Anthony Blunt, as well as some you may not know about - Klop Ustinov (father of Peter), and Miles Copeland, Jr., a jazz trumpeter from the Deep South who played in the Glen Miller Orchestra, was a war-time spy, ex-CIA agent and ‘espionage fixer’, and whose son Stewart would become a rock drummer (with The Police).
The thread that weaves throughout the book is how everyone liked Philby, how everyone - men and women of all nationalities - loved being in his company and thought of him as a great friend, and MacIntyre, without ever saying it, leaves us to wonder if we, too, could be taken in by this traitor, or if we believe we’d never be fooled like these poor people were. And I think MacIntyre makes it clear that we would have been, without a doubt.
Great book. Vastly entertaining. And very, very sad for all concerned and all touched by this man.
First time I read something by Sterling Watson was his debut, Deadly Sweet, in ‘94. (Watson was a fellow writing student in Florida with Dennis Lehane, Barbara Parker and Vicki Henricks, all fine, strong stylists.) It was a great read, as I recall it had a strange, dark humor to it – remember, this is a Florida writer. As too often happens, the authors continue to publisher but we sometimes – too often – don’t continue reading them for whatever reason.
Watson’s latest, Suitcase City, arrived just when I’d finished one thing and needed something else, something different, and this felt like the time to try him again. Glad I did.
Suitcase City is set in Tampa and follows James Teach, a widowed single father who is well-off, drinks too much, and is haunted by things he did when he was younger. You can’t say he’s happy. Maybe he’s content. Certainly he’s his own worst enemy. No – that’s not right, there’s someone from his past who is his worst enemy and that person has set out to ruin Teach’s life.
The book is tense with racial and class differences, lost love and the ripples of the unintended consquences of choices we make. It is also tense with assumptions brought to interactions, assumptions that are unfair and in error and that then shade the conclusions the assumptions lead one to. In Suitcase City, nearly everyone is guilty of some sin, but not everyone is a criminal.
There’s swift violence, missed signals, lost chances, gunfire, smuggling, and a single slip of fabric, a scarf, that are woven through the story.
But it’s more than a revenge story, it is more than a Hitchcockian innocent man under suspicion, and it is more than a story of crime and cops. Hopes, dreams, dread, and disappointment are big parts of the novel, and that raises it above the pop-thriller of the supermarket racks. It is a book of our time. Watson’s writing puts you right into the soul of each character: “In the men’s room, Teach bent over the sink drinking tap water, cooling his muddy throat, filling a huge and fragile hollowness. Then he vomited for a long time, a wracking chain of heaves, his only pride that they were silent.”
Looking for a new author to try, someone who tells a timeless story in a unique way? Try Steling Watson.
Those who have been around this shop for awhile know that I am a huge James Lee Burke fan. I think he’s one of the country’s best writers period. Swan Peak with Dave Robicheaux is the first to take place outside of the New Orleans/New Iberia locale since 1989’s Edgar-winner Black Cherry Blues. [In that, the third book in the series, Dave heads up to Montana to look into some problems that one of his college roommates ran into. He’s no longer a cop in the Big Sleazy and hasn’t yet joined the New Iberia Sheriff’s department. And it is in Montana that he reunites with Clete Purcell.]
In Swan Peak, Dave and Clete are vacationing with a friend and trouble finds them right away. Some of the goons they dealt with in 1989 are still around and working for some very rich and unpleasant people. There’s a side story about a Texas prison guard that eventually merges into Dave’s story and the whole thing is one big tasty gumbo of crime and guilt and lost souls and evil, and redemption.
“But if there is a greater lesson in what occurred inside that clearing, it’s probably the simple fact that the real gladiators of the world are so humble in their origins and unremarkable in appearance that when we stand next to them in a grocery-store line, we never guess how brightly their souls can burn in the dark.”
Always tasty, always smooth, always satisfying, and always stunning.
At the time of the release of A Walk Among the Tombstones in the theatres, I thought I should re-read it before I saw it. After all, it’d been a couple of decades since I had.
When I began working with Bill back in 1990, he was forever horrified by the authors I’d not yet read – Loren Estleman, Richard Stark, Jon Jackson, the list was long – but the one that shocked him the most was that I’d never read Lawrence Block. Hard to say he forced me to read a Scudder - let’s say he avidly encouraged me to. He handed me When the Sacred Ginmill Closes and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Ginmill is actually the 6th in his timeless Matt Scudder series. Tombstones is #10. The Scudder series is solidly in the Hammett school of writing – true noir with a smooth narrative drive, without ‘happy endings’ though with justice served. Scudder was a NYC cop for a dozen years but left the force a couple of years before the series begins. He’s left his wife and sons, too, and moved into a cheap hotel near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Mostly what he does is read the papers and drink bourbon-laced coffee. And he occasionally does favors for people and they pay him for his time. Favors = investigations. He’s not a licensed private eye and he doesn’t do anything normal like writing reports or keep track of expenses. He’s dogged and smart and always figures out what happened and always, somehow, effects justice.
The books are inventive, witty, with a dark, dim view of humanity and life. It isn’t that Scudder has quit living, but he’s scaled back to the very basics. One of his basics is that murder cannot be tolerated. The plots are inventive, quirky, the characters lively and, like Hammet’s, true to life – Elaine, Mick Ballou, Danny Boy.
The first three books were released within the same year. The 4th came out a year or so later. They can be read in any order. But read them before you read the 5th, Eight Million Ways to Die. At the end of that book, Block had gotten Scudder to a point where he thought he had finished the series. Luckily for us, he was wrong. Ginmill is the 6th – that’s the one Bill had me read first and you can, as it is told as a flashback to the days of the earlier books. Past that, though, there are things in Scudder’s life that progress and it would be better to read them in order.
These are thoughtful books, meditative upon the choices and questions of life and justice, fair in that you have all of the clues Scudder has but the way they come together is both logical and surprising. You never know what it is that is going to trip the facts into the right line-up and give Scudder the picture. They’re not particularly bloody but they are, at times, violent. Scudder is a man of his time, as are the stories. He’s cynical and sedate until moved to action. Hardboiled, sure – but all of the women Scudder meets find him to be a ‘sweet man’.
It was over 20 years ago that I first read the Scudders. Bill was right, of course, they’re some of the finest myteries every written. Yesterday morning on the bus to work I finished re-reading the 10th straight Scudder book. I can’t say I remembered much of the plots from the first time, so it was like reading them for the first time – a great treat!
By the way, I never did get to see “A Walk Among the Tombstones”. But I will someday.
As astonishing as it is to say so after his illustrious career writing award-winning books, James Lee Burke’s Wayfaring Stranger is his masterpiece. I’ve adored the Robicheaux books for a couple of decades now. I haven’t had much luck with his books featuring the Holland family, though. I put off reading this new one. It features yet another Holland and I kick myself now. I missed getting a signed copy of what surely is the finest book of the year. Oh well – live and learn. Wayfaring Stranger starts out with teen-aged Weldon Holland having a run-in with Bonnie & Clyde who have taken to camping on his Grandfather’s land in East Texas. Grandfather is a retired Texas Ranger and brooks no guff from anyone. Weldon’s encounter with the outlaws, and especially “Miss Bonnie” is a formative event. From there, we’re off to his time as an Army lieutenant in WWII and his narrow escape during the Battle of the Bulge with his seargent, Herschel Pine. The pair is destined for a life of trial and adventure and it begins with them rescuing a woman from a concentration camp, Rosita Lowenstein. She’s the only survivor of a family of Spanish Bolsheviks and becomes Weldon’s love. After the war, the three make their way back to Texas, into the oil ‘bidness’ and into a battle with those who covet what they don’t have even as they have more than most. Their experiences with the Nazis have made them accutely aware of the danger of powerful and ugly people and they see little difference between the SS and the wealthy, the racist, the socially stunted, the selfish and self-centered, and the politically cruel.They’ve danced with the devils and will have no more of it. And that, then, makes them even more dangerous to those who wish them harm. “There are times in your life when you know, without any demonstrable evidence, that you are in the presense of genuine evil. It is not generated by demons, nor does it have its origins in the Abyss. It lives in the breast of our fellow man and takes on many disguises, but its intention is always the same: to rob the innocent of their faith in humanity and to destroy the light and happiness that all of us seek.” Wayfaring Stranger is not a true mystery, nor is it a true crime novel. It is more tragic noir, where the flaws of heroes cause them problems. The flaws that cause Weldon and Herschel and Rosita such pain are those of courage, a refusal to give in to those who want what they don’t themselves already possess, and the inability to allow the mean and shallow to live comfortably within their facades.
The writing is stunning, the characters human and humane, the story compelling and wholley American. “Rosita and I stayed over an extra night and ate in an outdoor Mexican restaurant on the River Walk, by an arched stone bridge and a cypress tree whose leaves resembled green lace. I paid the mariachi band twenty dollars to play ‘San Antonio Rose’ so we could dance under a full moon to Bob Wills’s signature song in front of the Alamo.
I didn’t think those who died within the mission walls would find us disrespectful; in fact, their voices whispered to us to celebrate the lives that had been given us and the love we shared. They also told us to treat the world as a grand cathedral and to give no sway to either death of evil men who sought to spread their net over the globe.”
For the last few books in his Charlie Parker series, John Connolly has been slowly opening up a much larger view of a world of evil that underlies the world as we know it. Killers, demons, dangerous and revolting people – at first you had to wonder how much of this was in Parker’s head or imagination but it is now clear that Parker (and by extension, the rest of us) live in a world permeated by these entities. They’re very old, very powerful and they are, to one extent or another, frightened of Parker even if he himself isn’t aware of his role in this ‘other world’.
The Wolf in Winter is ostensibly about Parker’s search for a missing young woman who is thought to have gone to a strange and disturbing town called Prosperous. This community traces its origin to England and social battles over religion. Those who founded the town brought over their church and reconstructed it and have kept to themselves ever since. Clearly, there is something wrong with this town and the folks who run it, and they react with fear and horror when Parker turns up to ask questions. Their reactions cause a violent upheaval in this ‘other world’, or at least those creatures, human or not, who dance at its edge. This seems to be a bridge book, a story that is going to take us and Parker to a new and staggering level of awareness. Most interestingly, Parker is the center of the book but not in most of the book, and about that I can say no more.
It is a story populated by many familiar characters and some dandy new ones. It’d be nice if there was a ‘family tree’ of John’s actors, something that reminded us where and when they first appeared, with whom they were affiliated, and who was responsible for what nightmares. The only bad thing about the book is that, as a bridge to the next chapter in Parker’s life, we have to wait so long to find out what he discovers on the other side. Can’t wait!
I am admittedly a sucker for books about Wyatt Earp because he’s such a strange and complicated figure, because he’s such an American myth, and because he’s a central icon in a mythic time of American history. There is so much that is unclear about him and much of what we think we know of him is the result of what we now call “spin”. It almost comes down to your own political views as to how you view Earp. But, be that as it may, you do know about Wyatt Earp.
Was he a virtuous paragon of justice? Not even close. Was he a vicious killer? Nope. Cold blooded? Seems so, though he did have a few passionate relationships – married young but his wife died, a strong friendship with Doc Holliday, a man few others could stand, and a decades-long ‘marriage’ to Josephine Marcus. Obviously, there were some who did not find him cold-blooded. History also records that he was the one participant in the Gunfight at the OK Corral who was not touched by a bullet – he never was shot – and was known to be fearless in a fight.
I’ve read many books on Earp and all approach him from a different direction. Some will write more evenly about the sides that clashed that October day in 1881, some will clearly state who was in the wrong and who was in the right. Some will stick to the participants.
Isenberg comes at Earp from a variety of sides. He spends a puzzling number of pages on things not really germain to Earp’s biography – how to play faro, the contemporary mores about male friendship, the wanderings and legal troubles of Earp’s father and what it meant to be a squatter. He circles back to certain stories repeatedly, providing either different details or facets with each retelling (during a fire, Wyatt escapes out back with the gambling cash while his brothers worry out front/ then Wyatt takes the time to go to the bank to deposit the money/ then Wyatt heroically goes into the fire to rescue two women, one of whom may’ve been Josephine). Well – which was it? Isenberg also never comes to clear conclusions about other aspect – was Josephine a hooker? Don’t care.
Isenberg does fill in more of Wyatt’s latter life, post-1882, and his efforts to stay out of the public eye and, when possible, to try to reinvent himself, something he was forever trying to do. He makes the interesting point that it was possible to do that, to move to a new town, and to tell your own story as you wanted it to be known in the 1880s but, as the country was more connected with the railroad and telegraph, it was more difficult to escape your own notority. Isenberg details Wyatt’s attempts to get the ‘definitive’ story of his life written before he died and to control what was written and that laid the foundation of the Wyatt Earp Myth. We may never know much of the actual life of the man, his life and actions, because he didn’t want anyone to know. In that way, Wyatt Earp is an American celebrity story. Which is partly why, to me, he’s such an interesting figure. No one knows exactly who fired the first shot at the OK Corral (the fight actually as just north of the corral, which is ignored in the myth) but most of us know the names of those who were there that day.
For me, the biggest problem I had with the book was Isenberg’s use of the iconography of the “action-detective” to explain the mythology of Wyatt Earp. Being in this world of crime and mystery fiction, I know a bit about that figure and I think Isenberg appropriates it incorrectly. The timing is off. Wyatt Earp died in 1926. Granted there were pulps out by then with private eyes and other sorts of hardboiled characters (the penny dreadfuls and so forth) but the action-detective didn’t really get started until after Wyatt Earp died. John Carroll Daly is credited with beginning what Isenberg is talking about with the publication of “The False Burton Combs” in 1922. The classic hardboiled American crime story is pegged to Captain Joseph Shaw taking the reigns of Black Mask Magazine in 1926. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t published until 1929. While it was possible that Earp may’ve read some of these works, I cannot agree that Wyatt Earp himself was trying to reshape his legacy in that image. Isenberg does put Earp in contact with Wister’s The Virginian and I have no argument with the idea that Earp wanted to use that specific myth as his own, or that others after Earp’s death began folding Wyatt into the ‘action-detective’ role (the myth of the American man of action is pretty much the same whether the guy is packing a Peacemaker Colt or a snub-nosed .38 and drives a Ford instead of a pinto.)
Still and all, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life was a fun read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the time period and the myth of Wyatt Earp and the American West.