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.