Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading Not Blogging: Bunker, van Gulik, Harrington

I blew through a few memorable works of crime fiction without commenting here, so a quick round-up. I read Kent Harrington's new novel, The Good Physician, and posted a review (scroll down) on Amazon. Harrington has this arresting, feverish style--his driven, often blunt prose reflects his protagonists' obsessions. His first two published books, Dark Ride and Dia De Los Muertos, are probably his best (I've missed reading at least one), but Physician has its moments.

Next, I read Edward Bunker's No Beast So Fierce (my copy, Dustin Hoffman on the cover, is titled Straight Time as a movie tie-in). Ex-con Max Dembo tries to go straight, but he falls back into the life, pulling off an escalating series of heists. Very gritty, this novel draws on Bunker's wide experience with the penal system. The brooding Dembo is also philosophical at times. No Beast (1973) is Bunker's first published novel; he died in 2005.

The real find in my summer round-up was Robert van Gulik's The Given Day. This book had been sitting on a shelf for about four years, and I finally plucked it down. A diplomat, scholar, and polymath, Van Gulik (1910-67) is best known for his Judge Dee mystery novels (which I haven't read), set in first millennium China. Written in the early 1960s, The Given Day is set in post-war Amsterdam. The lone and lonely Dutchman Hendriks, still suffering from his wartime experiences in Java, becomes involved in a violent and mysterious criminal plot after playing the role of a good samaritan. Van Gulik beautifully weaves Zen into the book: Hendriks is trying to cope with the past and mulls over the teachings of his Japanese torturer. To my mind, The Given Day is an exceptional novel of post-war angst and perhaps recovery.

Monday, July 7, 2008

More Life Support from Richard Stark

I just read Dirty Money, the new Parker book by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). At some point when I was taking a greater interest in crime fiction -- and involuntarily drifting away from academia -- I happened upon my first Parker book (which was not the first in the series). At that time, Westlake had taken about a 20-year hiatus from writing about Parker. Then, over a couple years, I read all the Parker books, every last one (about 16). Some I ordered online (in early e-commerce days), and a few I got by interlibrary loan. Parker is a heister, and I just couldn't get enough of watching him plan and carry out heists, and clean up afterwards. It was a sad day when I read the last one (Butcher's Moon, I think). Then in 1997, Westlake brought Stark and Parker back with Comeback, and I've read them all as they've come out.

There have been eight books in phase 2, all of them good, and some of them really good. I thought Parker was disappearing again a couple books back (Nobody Runs Forever), but Parker got back on track (as Westlake has said, everything eventually goes right for Parker -- he finds a parking space when he needs it -- whereas everything always goes wrong for Dortmunder, Westlake's comic heister). Dirty Money is the third book of an impromptu trilogy. Parker is still mopping up and getting out of the mess created in Nobody Runs Forever. Without quite a fresh heist -- and no amateur characters (a misanthrope plays a great part in the second of this trilogy, Ask the Parrot) -- Dirty Money lacks just a little bit of freshness and grounding. That's a very small complaint. Read this book, but if you haven't read other Parker books, maybe start with another. Eventually, I'll write here again about Westlake.