Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peace, 1974

With this post, I hit a dozen for the year. I'm writing more of a monthly review than a blog, so I'll live with that.

To correspond with the holiday season, I read a grisly, feverish Yorkshire crime novel set in the same time of year, 35 years ago. 1974 is David Peace's first novel, published a decade ago. Eddie Dunford, crime reporter, investigates a gruesome child murder -- and links it back to other disappearances of children and ongoing civic and police corruption. The book is harrowing and includes a long, torturous scene where Dunford is tortured by the police.

The prose is elliptical and fast, a little reminiscent of some of James Ellroy's writing. Peace (pictured) maintains a frenetic momentum, strong voice, and dour tone. The book's shortcomings emerge in the plotting and a way over-the-top finale -- Heironymous Bosh does North England. Peace has an understandable cult following, though I would've liked the end to be reined in a bit. I might still pick up one of his subsequent books. For now, I'm back to reading Pelecanos.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dropping Larsson, Barreling through Pelecanos

I'm back... just in time to get one post in for November.

Over the holidays, I finished a draft of the heist novel that I've been working on for a while. It was very satisfying to write "[END]." This is the first time I have finished a whole novel -- and I've started a few. This one actually has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The whole process, if anything, makes me more forgiving of some writers -- or at least maybe gives me better understanding of how we end up with a certain kind of finished book (which is a different sort of understanding than one brings to bear as a critic -- literary, popular, cultural, or otherwise).

I've backed off being a critic over the last few years -- though I'm still a dues-paying member of the National Book Critics Circle. In part, I don't want to say unkind words about books that I don't like -- and even if I don't like them, I now know a little what goes into writing one.

I will, however, be mildly critical (but not cruel) about Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (A literal translation of the title from Swedish would be Men Who Hate Women -- apparently not so appealing for the U.S. publisher.) I probably wouldn't write about it, except that Mr. Larsson has passed on (and my comments won't make a dent in the formidable estate). Basically, I liked Girl okay -- it held my attention, had interesting characters, a complicated set-up, and so on, but I gave it up. The mass market edition is 644 pages, and I stopped at 252. If it were 400 pages, I would've finished, but not 644. It's not to say that it was too long per se, but it was too long relative to the action and general progress of the characters and story. I like brooding Swedish crime novels. More than a decade ago, I read all the Martin Beck novels, and I've read a few Henning Mankell. I like (not to stereotype) the dreary weather, the stark landscapes, the introspective characters, but in the end, I dropped Girl. Now the more interesting question, which I can't answer, is how did this book catch fire in the U.S. (and elsewhere)? My own tastes don't necessarily correspond with an "average" reader's (if there is such a person), but I have a high tolerance for slow pace, meandering, etc., and imagine that if a genre book gains wide popularity, it does so for its pace. Maybe it is Girl's family saga and back story of wealth that find favor with readers. I'm just not sure.

So, I dropped Girl and picked up George Pelecanos's Right as Rain and read it at breakneck speed. It's the first of the Derek Strange-Terry Quinn novels, and I'm going to the next one just as soon as I can. Though Pelecanos has a lot of action and plotting, he always maintains significant focus on character, and almost always has scenes where people are just sitting around, boozing it up, partying, spinning tunes, etc. These scenes are interesting because they are not essential to moving the plot forward, but they add to the pace -- a pause before the next action -- and define character and scene -- make everything more real. And maybe I'm more indulgent of Pelecanos's DC milieu that Larsson's faraway rural Sweden.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lee Child's First Two, More Woodrell

Okay, I'm back. Traveled a few thousand miles, survived a broken computer, and then some.

Per the previous post, I read another novel by Daniel Woodrell, Tomato Red, a great (or at least really good) book that firms up my earlier views. Woodrell writes well, writes about crime and criminals, but he isn't quite writing genre fiction. Tomato Red won a "literary" prize -- best novel from PEN in 1999. Tomato Red includes a murder and detection, but it does not end with a clean resolution (I hope that's not a spoiler). This novel is quite effective, sad and stirring, but if you picked it up with expectations invoked by genre, you will find those expectations thwarted.

Lee Child does not thwart expectations. I read two of his Jack Reacher novels, the first one, Killing Floor, and the first one chronologically, The Enemy. Child does fulfill expectations very well -- he tells fast-moving, intricately plotted stories with strong characters. Reacher is arguably a little too perfect: he's smart, strong and agile, principled, fair, and good-looking. He escapes from dangerous situations, solves conspiratorial crimes, and lands the leading lady. Killing Floor has some plotting elements that stretch too far -- or rely on too much luck -- but even so, it's a ripping yarn. The Enemy, which places the itinerant Reacher back in his former life as an MP investigator, tells the story of an ambitious criminal plot perpetrated within the army in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If you want a series with an appealing, super-capable hero, check out one of the Reacher books. (I liked The Enemy more, but Killing Floor is Child's first novel.) If you want to read about an impoverished Southern loser with a good heart who makes a lot of bad choices, read Tomato Red.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Woodrell, Johnson, and Crime Genre Considerations

I read two good books recently that were bent genre material: Denis Johnson's Nobody Move and Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do. What do I mean by "bent genre"? I'm not sure -- I like the phrase -- but something to the effect that neither writer approached genre on a straight or direct path. Both books have crime elements and were marketed as crime fiction, but I wouldn't hold them up as models of genre execution (though I might have liked both books more than such models).

First, Nobody Move: For Johnson, this book must've been a bit of a lark. He runs with the highbrow crowd -- and won the National Book Award for the Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke -- but he wrote this book on assignment, serialized in Playboy. Considering that venue, the book is not particularly salacious or consumerist (and is, in the end, pretty damn noir). Perhaps with a nod to his war novel, Nobody Move opens with the protagonist Jimmy Luntz likening his situation to going into battle: he's about to go on stage in a singing competition. That sets the oddball tone. Jimmy is quickly intercepted by a loan shark collector, there's a shooting, Jimmy flees, gets tangled up with a femme fatale who claims to have access (with help) to 2 million dollars, and so on. For all this genre action, Johnson wants to dwell on character, including Gambol, the weathered and gunshot collector. He writes with clarity, emotion, and purpose, which are refreshingly tethered by the crime elements. Incidentally, Jon Breen, the reviewer for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, didn't like this book too much because of its thin plot and unlikable characters. For me, the book might be compelling because of these two factors.

Now, The Ones You Do: I had never read Woodrell and had heard high praise for him for a while. He deserves the praise (based on my reading of this one novel), but I find it strange that he is being blurbed by James Ellroy and shelved with mystery fiction. Maybe his other books run closer to the genre. In this book, there is one character who is a suspended cop and a cameo by his brother, a DA, but really this novel reads closer to Flannery O'Connor or Harry Crews (e.g., Feast of Snakes) than crime fiction. Like Johnson, Woodrell follows the frame of a crime plot: $47K is stolen from thug Lunch Pumphrey, and recognizing that he'll take the blame, washed-up pool hustler John X. Slade flees one southern town for another with his tweener daughter. Woodrell has great dialogue, characterization, and black humor. A few scenes with Lunch are especially memorable and startling. I plan to read more Woodrell, who like O'Connor two generations before him, came through the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but I won't approach him with crime genre expectations in place (but maybe with Southern Noir expectations; Woodrell uses the phrase "Country Noir" to describe his work, and southern writers often detest the label "Southern Gothic," so "Southern Noir" seems a good compromise).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Latest Bernie Gunther Novels from Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir" trilogy has a deserved following. March Violets (1989) introduces Bernie Gunther, a Berlin cop in the 1930s. It's been more than a decade since I read the trilogy, so I'm foggy on the plots. Basically, Bernie hates the Nazis, ends up leaving the police, and becomes a private investigator. With people disappearing right and left after the Nazis come to power, Bernie has a lot of missing persons work. Bernie is a PI somewhat in the Marlowe tradition -- weary, moral, wisecracking, smart, and physical. He lands more women than Marlowe, though. The Nazis are essentially thugs and gangsters -- sort of organized criminals in power. One of the real appeals of Kerr's Gunther novels is the feel of time and place -- fear, rising antisemitism, and later, destroyed cities and desperate people. Historical figures play minor parts in the books.

Kerr put Bernie on a 15-year hiatus and wrote a bunch of other stuff, including a series of books for kids (maybe aiming to catch the Harry Potter wave). Several years ago, I read and enthusiastically reviewed (for The Oregonian) Dark Matter -- a crime novel with Isaac Newton as the central character.

Bernie reappeared a few years ago, but I only noticed when the second novel -- A Quiet Flame -- of the new cycle was released this year in the U.S. I read that one and backtracked to the first, The One From the Other. (The third, If the Dead Rise Not, is not available in the U.S. yet.) In A Quiet Flame, Bernie makes his way to Argentina along with other ex-SS men. (His reasons for fleeing are behind the plot in The One From...) He is hired by an official in Argentine security to find a missing girl after another girl has been gruesomely killed; the killing seems to copy two memorable murders in Germany in the 1930s. Bernie is off and running, delving into the world of ex-Nazis in Argentina, and even pursuing rumors of an Argentine death camp.

Both Flame and The One rely on complicated, multilevel subterfuge. Of course, traditionally, PIs are misdirected by their clients. Especially in The One, the plotting involves a con game of sorts that puts a little strain on the reading experience. Both books are compelling, but Flame is more satisfying. If you haven't read any of the Gunther novels, start with March Violets.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Two Months Later... and Ross Thomas

Oh my -- almost two months between posts. Uh-oh. I think I read that 90 percent of blogs (or thereabouts) haven't been updated in months, so I'm just about contributing to the inertia. I'm vaguely lousy at self-exposure.

I actually have kept busy -- reading and some writing (and the slog of regular work). On July 3, I received acceptance of a story called, "The Docile Shark," from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which was very gratifying (makes the earlier acceptance seem less of a fluke). I'll post when the story hits the stands (probably more than a year away). I also wrote an out-of-character humorous story, which I sent to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Meanwhile, if I could finish that heist novel...

I have been on a roll with reading good books. I backtracked to George Pelecanos's stand-alone heist novel, Shoedog, which was just great (though demoralizing as I look at my own in-progress heist novel). I'll comment in the future on the two latest Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr, which I also recently read. For now, though, a few words about Ross Thomas...

In the last month or so, I read The Eighth Dwarf and The Fools in Town are on Our Side. A few years back, I read Briarpatch, Chinaman's Chance, and The Brass Go-Between (under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck). Thomas has been dead for more than a decade and seems somewhat forgotten (he won a couple Edgar Awards -- Best First Novel and Best Novel) . He wrote prolifically and his books are ambitious, quasi-capers of sorts. They often have political intrigue, bits of espionage, droll humor, and sex (in that offhand, somewhat gratuitous 1970s sort of way). A couple that I've read are historical or have historical episodes (WWII and post-WWII). In some ways, Thomas was a writer of over-the-top yarns. The books have wild plotting, colorful characters (sample names: Lucifer Dye, Homer Necessary), and lots of action. The two that I read recently veer off track a bit toward the end -- Thomas couldn't deliver on the promise of his formidable build-ups. Thomas may tire some readers, and his books might just be a little dated (Cold War, 1970s ethos, etc.), but he was a skilled and ambitious storyteller who should be given a whirl by any semi-dedicated reader of crime fiction.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Breaking the Blogger Block... and Highsmith and Cain

Okay, I missed posting for the entire month of May. I actually read a bunch of books, saw some movies, and wrote a humorous short story (very unlike my other stories). And I blog all the time -- but on a client's website, not here.

The standout reads recently: (1) James M. Cain's Double Indemnity. I'd read The Postman Always Rings Twice, but not this one (but saw the movie years ago). Great read that shouldn't be skipped because you saw the movie. Brutal and wound tight -- the language and mood. I've been thinking about character back story -- and here the protagonist is young, professional, and successful, and with no malice, he is just ready, naturally and easily, to commit a brutal crime for money and lust.

And (2) Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, a memoir by Marijane Meaker (aka Vin Packer). I have read about 20 books by Highsmith; she is one of my favorites. Her biography, Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson, covers more of her life and her works, but the Meaker book offers personal experiences and a mood that Wilson can't provide. The Meaker book also captures the milieu of intellectual and gay life in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Meaker and Highsmith parted ways in about 1961 and never saw one another again until the early 1990s. At this point, Highsmith was even more cranky, and her antisemitism had become more obsessive and feverish.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Prison Break!

I fell off the blog wagon again. I have made some progress on some fiction (more on that in a different post), and wasn't too inspired to write about the latest books I've been reading.

I'm on the road, and yesterday I was at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It is an influential and now derelict prison that was open from the 1810s to 1971. I have a couple story ideas percolating, using the place as a setting. But now I'm wondering, what good crime novels (or stories) have been set in prisons. I never read Shawshank Redemption. Edward Bunker's No Beast So Fierce discusses prison life, but most of the novel takes place on the outside. A good portion of Highsmith's The Glass Cell is set in prison. I'll have to figure out what else.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hardboiled Portland from Lono Waiwaiole

On Monday, I went to a presentation and reading by a Portland-local writer, Lono Waiwaiole. St. Martin's Minotaur dropped him after three books (the Wiley series), and his new novel, Dark Paradise, was picked up by Dennis McMillan Publications. (I first got to know Dennis McMillan more than a decade back when I was writing a biographical essay (for the Dictionary of Literary Biography) about Charles Willeford; and Dennis included a story of mine in his 20th anniversary collection, Measures of Poison.) Dark Paradise is set on the Big Island of Hawaii, and since I just got the book on Monday, I haven't read it yet. I'll post about it when I do.

Before going to the event, I read Waiwaiole's first novel, Wiley's Lament, which is set here in my home town of Portland, Oregon (with lots of accurate, local color). It is a fast-paced, ultra-violent "street" (to use McMillan's term) novel -- maybe akin to works by Donald Goines, but with better prose and more sentiment. Wiley, a card player (though that profession is just mentioned in passing) and criminal with a good heart, investigates the murder of his daughter. More to the point, he and friend/crime boss Leon blaze through leads, leaving broken bodies in their wake.

Early on, Waiwaiole alternates points of view between Wiley and the killer Fernando, a Mexican drug cartel man under corrupt DEA protection. The latter part of the book stays closer to Wiley, whose mood appropriately alternates between anguish and rage. The plotting and pace might strike some readers as over the top, but if you're willing to roll with it, the book is pretty fun.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Missing Author, an Unknown Dwarf

Normally, I would be comfortable boasting that I have a pretty good familiarity with crime and mystery novels. There are plenty of authors whom I haven't read, but I like to think that I have at least heard of established and prolific crime fiction writers worth reading. So I was surprised to read the death notice (in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter) of George C. Chesbro. I had never heard of him. His main series character seems made for my tastes, Dr. Robert Frederickson, also known as Mongo the Magnificent : an ingenious professor of criminology who has a P.I. business on the side; he is also an acrobat, a black belt in karate, a former circus star, and a dwarf.

I went ahead and read the first of the Mongo series, Shadow of a Broken Man (1977). Mongo is hired to investigate the past seemingly accidental death of a celebrity architect, Victor Rafferty. In quick fashion, Mongo discovers strange circumstances around the death and a connected murder. The plot then spins wildly into areas of national security, pitting nations against the United Nations. It also includes elements of parapsychology -- so in its interests and Cold War theme, it is a book of its time. Though it has welcome pulpy and adventure elements, the book is quite serious, and Mongo's dwarfism is never used cheaply. At one point, too, Mongo endures torture and suffers terrible psychological aftereffects. For some readers, this section might be too heavy: a fantastical, though grounded fiction suddenly becomes harrowingly gritty. I plan to read more Chesbro and contemplate why he went out of print and why I had never heard of him before.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Polish Officer: Character and Form

At the end of December, I was a house guest and pulled a copy of Alan Furst's The Polish Officer off my host's shelf and read it. I tend not to read historical crime novels or spy thrillers too much. Still, I had heard low-key buzz about Furst for a while, and I'm interested in World War II, so I thought I would give this book a whirl. (Incidentally, I highly recommend the Berlin Noir trilogy, or at least the first book, March Violets by Philip Kerr -- a sort of Philip Marlowe in Berlin tale, with Nazis as gangsters and the corrupt upperclass.)

The Furst book was enjoyable and something of a surprise -- in part because of what it was not. I expected a "high-concept" (e.g., intricately plotted, much at stake), breakneck-paced story of derring-do. Instead, The Polish Officer proceeds episodically: it is divided into five sections that essentially are novellas about the same character, an honorable, lucky, and mild-mannered cartographer (and Polish officer) who operates as a spy and quasi-guerilla soldier. The book also includes a few romances -- the flames of passion fanned by the flames of war. Furst also tells small stories, vignettes, about other characters, and those stories (in their level of detail) are sometimes very tangential to the plot, but still interesting.

The Polish Officer, then, sort of defies demands for tight plotting (which perhaps helps earn Furst his "literary" cache) -- and it succeeds in its descriptive intensity and historical vividness. (I would never try to write such a book simply because of the historical research required -- not dates and facts -- but the details of everyday life generations ago.) Because I don't generally read historical mysteries or spy novels, I won't rush out and read another book by Furst, but I would pluck another one off someone's shelf if I were a housebound guest again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Few Comments about Donald Westlake

On New Year's Eve, I was kicking around in tropical Mexico (first time there since I was a child) on my 20th anniversary. Donald Westlake was also in Mexico, a few hundred miles north of me apparently, but he never made it to his evening engagement. When I returned to the U.S., the first piece of news I heard from my older daughter was that Westlake had died. I was about as shaken as I've ever been over news of the non-violent death of someone I didn't know personally. I had a couple chances to meet Westlake, but missed both opportunities. But of course, like a gazillion other people, I assumed a special, privileged, imaginative relationship with Westlake simply because I had read a lot of his books. I've read and enjoyed some of the Dortmunder books (and maybe like the collection of Dortmunder stories, Thieves' Dozen, even more) and liked The Ax and The Hook quite a bit. But I was a hugely devoted fan of the Parker books written under the Richard Stark pseudonym. I've read all of them -- 20-plus titles. When I was first reading them, I had to fill the gaps through interlibrary loan. It was a small miracle for me when Westlake resurrected Parker after a 23-year or so hiatus. I wrote a short review of Flashfire for the Oregonian, which I'll paste below. A bunch of other writers wrote memorial posts about Westlake (links here, but more keeps rolling out) -- a reflection of how much Westlake was admired and read by other crime writers. Here's that review:

Richard Stark’s crime novels are a little like amphetamine: fast, frantic and highly addictive.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Donald Westlake -- the author behind Stark and other pseudonyms -- was a king among latter-day pulp writers. Terse, gritty and often amoral, his fiction delivered action and intelligence.
After a 23-year hiatus, Stark brought back his antihero Parker in 1997, and “Flashfire” is the third of the new Parker books. Parker would call himself a heister or a mechanic. He blueprints robberies, puts together a string (the gang) and pulls the job. Inevitably, the score goes sour, and Parker must think on his feet to recover stolen loot, evade police or take down double-crossers.
In “Flashfire,” three “gaudy” robbers steal Parker’s share in a bank robbery to finance an elaborate Palm Beach jewel heist. To get even, Parker establishes a new identity and heads to Florida to catch up with his money. Leslie Mackenzie, a suspicious real estate agent, catches on to Parker’s scheme, so he unwillingly makes her his partner.
If you’re looking for romance, however, Parker is not your man. He never mixes sex and work. Besides, stuck in a dead-end life, Leslie is looking for another type of fulfillment. “She’d known for a long time, you don’t change your life on commissions. You need a score. Somewhere, somehow, a score.” Stark succeeds because he knows that his readers might want a big score too, and he takes them on a wild ride to get there.