The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 31, 2008

The First Annual Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction

A drowning machine, as you may know, is the apt vernacular for a lowhead dam. Lowhead dams create a hydraulic motion that makes it almost impossible for anything (like, say, a person) to escape its power.

I named my blog after this contraption because of the vast number of books in existence and being published. With over 100 new publications every month, it is impossible to read every new crime fiction book, no matter how worthy. And it's equally unlikely that I'll ever read all of the previously published crime fiction. I feel as though I've been swept over the lowhead publishing dam and I am drowning in books.

I've never figured out how book award committees can deem a book to be "the best" on any basis except the limited number of books they've read because no one person can read all of the books published in any given genre in one year. Not possible. The committees must divvy up the work and since the whole process is entirely subjective it's quite likely that the Edgars, Shamuses, Agathas, Macavitys and Barrys have missed out on honoring some worthy reads, eh? It's just as likely that I don't always agree with the choices for those awards. Also, award committees generally play nice; they are above telling a bestselling author that his/her last book was a waste of paper and ink. Not me.

And thus I have created the Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction, and I frankly admit that these awards are based solely on what I have read and enjoyed (or not) during the year. These are the books that got caught in my hydraulic backwash, so to speak. The list of eligible books is in the sidebar, so eligible does include books published prior to this year. Naturally this leaves lots of room for someone to argue that I didn't consider one of their favorites as the 'best' or 'worst' in some category. Too bad. Convince me to read your nominee next year and let the chips fall whereever the cookie crumbles.

And now, the awards:

The Give a Dam Award was created to honor the best work of classic crime fiction I've read this year. The cutoff year for 'classic' is an arbitrary choice made by an impartial observer: me. A book must have been published at least 30 years ago in order to be eligible. And the award goes to:
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain. Moody, brutal, sexy, this is truly a classic tale. No doubt some who take the time to examine the sidebar list will argue the award should have gone to The Maltese Falcon but no way. No disrespect to Hammett but Cain's writing, the way he sucks the reader into the black hearts and twisted souls of his characters, tops Hammett's camera's-eye view every time. A much tougher decision for me was to give the award to Postman over Jim Thompson's fabulous allegory, The Getaway. It would take a lot longer to explain my reasoning than you'd want to spend time reading, so I won't bother. Let me just say, classics are called that for a reason. All three books are terrific.

The Water Over the Dam Award, honors the best work of crime fiction recommended to me by another blogger, website, bookseller or reader. This award is shared by author and the recommender. At first I thought this award was going to end in a tie, but then I realized that one of the books, a sequel of sorts, had not actually been recommended to me although the previous book by that author had been. So the uncontested award goes to:
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, recommended by Jen's Book Thoughts. And rightly so. This book features strong character development, affable humor, and a solid story to showcase it all. Thanks again, Jen, for a shove in the right direction.

The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award for the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction. This one wasn't even close:
First To Die by James Patterson. This award has the non-distinction of having neither a link nor a photo with an award stamp. And if you've read this book, you know why: Faux cliff-hanger chapter endings, cardboard setting, one-dimensional characters. This kind of writing is why 'literary' types look down their great, hairy noses at crime fiction. And yet several people recommended it to me, the book has sold something in the realm of a bazillion copies, and it generated a (thankfully defunct) television series. I ask you, is there any hope for America?
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The Dam Your Eyes Award, for the book I most anticipated and least enjoyed, goes to a book I waited something like 13 years to read. All of her fans wanted Elizabeth Peters to give us a new installment in the Vicky Bliss series. Lo and behold, The Laughter of Dead Kings was bestowed on the reading public and now I say put Vicky back in the file cabinet and don't let her out again until she loses that irritatingly arch 'aren't I smart and cute' voice. This book has plenty of what Hemingway would have called movement without action. And don't get me started on the characterization. Just pack up your award, Vicky, and go home.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that is closer to the cozy niche than to my preferred brand of edgy crime fic:
The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, by Donis Casey, is the first book in a series about Alafair Tucker, a turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) Oklahoman. Alafair is a farm wife with a large brood of children, and a great interest in her community. The prose is simple and so is the structure but the book has two strengths, the first of which is the characterizations of Alafair and her family. The second great asset of this story is the pitch perfect historical setting. Daily life in 1912 rural Oklahoma is depicted with both warmth and a pragmatic reality. I'm still surprised that a noir/hardboiled fan like me could go for a book like this, but good is good.

The Dam Skippy Award honors the best short crime fiction story I've read this year. Now I realize that I didn't list in the sidebar all the short stories I've read so you'll just have to take my word for it that I read more short stories than the one anthology I listed, I just didn't read entire books of them. I read some of the stories in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe - A Centennial Celebration, some of the stories in London Noir, even re-read Hemingway's The Killers, and a few other stories, some unpublished, that came my way. And there were so many wonderful stories that I thought for a while that this category would end in a three-way tie. But I re-read the three stories that I most enjoyed and I hereby grant Certificates of Honorable DAMention to The Man Who Knew Dick Bong by Robert Crais and A Failure to Communicate by Toni McGee Causey. And now, the Dam Skippy Award for best short story goes to:
One Serving of Bad Luck (from Killer Year, edited by Lee Child) by Sean Chercover. This story was my intro to both Chercover and his fictional PI Ray Dudgeon. The story itself falls chronologically between Chercover's first two books, Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City. I recommend you read'em all.

Choosing a winner for the Hot Dam Award, for the overall outstanding work of crime fiction, gave me serious heartburn. I think this was a strong year for crime fic, and on top of that I read some real gems that had been published prior to 2008. Just creating a personal shortlist of the top five was dam' troublesome. You can argue that a book like Winter's Bone or Chasing Darkness or Once Were Cops should have received the award and I will agree with you, they are all wonderful books and deserve recognition. How could the award not go to Michael Koryta or Olen Steinhauer? Or to Duane Swierczynski? Hey, all I can say is, it didn't. When I look back over this year's body of reading, the book that stood, if you will forgive a horrible pun as well as a cliche, head and shoulders above all of the others was Toros & Torsos by Craig McDonald. T&T has everything a good crime fic novel ought to have and then some. Original story line, fascinating characters, a flowing narrative. It also has a complex structure, erudition, cool mind games, tension, and subtlety. When I reviewed T&T back in October, I wrote that it "exceeds and expands its genre while also succeeding in it." I stand by my words.

Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all of the authors for their collective talent, diligence, and tolerance of amateur critics.

UPDATE: I've moved the list of books I read in 2008 from the sidebar to a post, 'Books I read in 2008.' Catchy title, eh? Anyway, at least the sidebar has been cleaned up.

December 10, 2008

Overdue books

Just a quick catch-up on recent reads:

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris: A cozy that wants to be a thriller when it grows up. Right now it's at that awkward stage.

The Getaway by Jim Thompson: A classic, though not one as easy to pigeon-hole as Thompson's fabulous The Killer Inside Me. Some readers have characterized the ending as surreal but I think this book is more of an allegory. Imagine finding the love of your life, who in turn loves you so much as to do anything, literally anything, for you. Then imagine that neither of you can be trusted not to murder the other. That's Thompson's idea of hell, and I think he pretty well nails it.

Hear the Wind Blow, Dear by David M. Pierce: This book dates from the early 1980s and it shows. The main character is kind of an embryonic Elvis Cole, but don't let that intrigue you. The plot doesn't match up. However, I was quite taken by the natural way the author handled the main character's mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's. He never let the situation get maudlin or shrill or take the focus off the mystery, it was merely a part of her character and something for the hero to deal with.

Tilt-a-Whirl by Chris Grabenstein: I can see its appeal to others but this one wasn't to my taste. I was unable to maintain my suspension of disbelief because of character behavior that too often seemed unlikely or inappropriate for the situation.

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern: I was blown away earlier this year by McGivern's quick, sophisticated repartee in Very Cold For May but this book is a very different kind of story. This one is much more hardboiled, very masculine, very late '50s-early '60s feel. Interesting but not clever or deft the way May was. Still, I'd be interested in seeing the film version that starred Glenn Ford.

The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine: From 1933, the story is a locked-room mystery, now a cliche in crime fiction but probably not so shop-worn at the time. Even making allowances for that, the main character, the dilettante detective Philo Vance, has so many affectations that he should have been the murder victim. I was ready to kill him by page 30. And the story's construction is made unwieldy by use of a first-person observer who could not realistically be expected to accompany the hero everywhere and yet does. For once, thanks to William Powell's screen talents, a movie is better than the book.

Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey: How did I end up reading two locked-room mysteries in a row? At least Lovesey's story was clever. A little too clever because I have some questions I'd like answered. Either the author overlooked some rather obvious holes in the story or he deliberately placed them there as yet another in an endless string of nods to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. If puzzly-puzzle whodunnits in the classic British style are to your taste, here's a book for you. If you prefer that the characters be well-developed or hardboiled, this one might not be for you. Still, Lovesey is so clever and tactfully acknowledges so many subgenres of crime fiction that I wasn't bored nor did I want to throttle any of the characters (as I did with Philo Vance).

December 3, 2008

REVIEW: THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Olen Steinhauer

SYNOPSIS: 1948, in an unidentified Eastern bloc nation, rookie homicide cop Emil Brod is given the overwhelming task of investigating the murder of a famous patriotic-songwriter with the expectation that he will fail. Brod, only 22, is hardly brilliant but he is dogged, and as he begins to unravel the twin threads of murder and blackmail, the case takes him into the halls of the rich and powerful and untouchable.

REVIEW: All of that pretty much sounds like your standard crime novel, doesn't it? Fortunately, Steinhauer can do magic tricks that revive the tired and time-worn cliches of crime fiction. I don't know if the author would consider this a compliment but the atmosphere of this story: the universal lack of trust, the depictions of broken people who survived the Nazi inferno only to find themselves in the icy clutch of 'Uncle Joe' Stalin, the poverty, the degradation, the starvation, the corruption, the almost universal misery of a nation, the bombed out cities, the abrupt violence that afflicts both young and old -- this bleak portrait put me forcibly in mind of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, which is based on Kosinski's own experiences in WWII Poland. Both books make statements about cruelty and survival, but while Kosinski's book has an innate power that stems from the truths it contains, Steinhauer's book carries with it a small, almost hidden message of love and how survival may not be worth the effort without that love. Like Emil, the reader may have to do some searching to find it hiding among all the ugliness.

The pace of the book may not be slow, it may only feel that way because the repressive atmosphere, the nearly hopeless and blind way Emil must find his way through the maze of intrigue would perhaps depress some people. Ugliness and cruelty are never easy to endure. Nevertheless it makes for a fascinating read. Emil is perhaps the only fully fleshed character start to finish, but as he grows and learns then other people begin to reveal themselves to him and to the reader: The funny, out-of-touch grandfather who worships heroes but turns out to have nothing heroic about himself. Leonek Kerzian, the fellow cop most brutal to Emil, turns out to be an intelligent man who lives quietly with his mother. Brano Sev, the Soviet eye on the police force, turns out to be more insidious than first guessed at but also more helpful to Emil.

The world Emil lives in is really a character all its own, a landscape Emil is trying very hard not to completely internalize. It's less important who blocks Emil's efforts to investigate or why than it is to understand that the system which allows it exists everywhere and in everyone at once. It isn't the sudden appearance of a man who shoots Emil on a crowded street in broad daylight that is so horrifying, it's the apathetic response of a nation, the shrug of collective shoulders, to such events that chills the blood.

Give kudos to Steinhauer, a Texan, for his use of language. This book has the feel and sensibility of a European writer, so that there is almost the impression that the book was first written in another language then translated into English. Steinhauer has distanced his characters and thus the reader, from the casual nature that marks American fiction. In Emil Brod he has created a character who could never understand Americans or be happy among them. But this American was happy to keep company with Emil. And I'll be reading more of Steinhauer's work, so let me give a shout-out with gratitude to Seth Marko over at The Book Catapult for his review of the forthcoming The Tourist, which led me to seek out The Bridge of Sighs, Steinhauer's first novel.

November 23, 2008

REVIEW: COFFIN'S GOT THE DEAD GUY ON THE INSIDE by Keith Snyder

Okay, this is not really a review. This is a post to point you to the review that was persuasive enough to get me to read this book. Over on The Rap Sheet a while back, J. Kingston Pierce posted an installment written by Timothy Hallinan to that blog's series, 'The Book You Have To Read,' in which great but forgotten books get their day in the sun and, it is hoped, find some new fans. Count me as one.

There's no reason for me to spout about my new-found fandomness when there's nothing I can say about this book that Hallinana has not already said and done a better job of it, too. So go here and read for a real review.

And aren't you predisposed to like a guy (and by extension, his books) who posts the following on his blog:
"People complain about musicals. They say:

Nobody just stops in the street and breaks into song.

I say you know the wrong people."
(I think Keith must have seen me outside The Refectory last night after one too many Taliskers, breezing my way through 'Ya Got Trouble.')

And if you're still undecided after reading Hallinan's terrific review, then please, please read this post by Snyder himself, a wonderful and witty bit of insight into his writing and his mind. Me, I'm off to find Snyder's other books.

November 17, 2008

REVIEW: DROWNED HOPES by Donald E. Westlake

Look at that face. Just look at him. A wise, kindly old gent, wouldn't you say? A beloved granddad's face, a grandpa who takes you fishing and buys you your first pocketknife and teaches you to whittle. A grandpa who never loses patience while you search for the correct wrench to help him fix the kitchen plumbing. A grandpa who seems no older than you as the pair of you sneak into the kitchen to steal cookies cooling on the rack.

Well, maybe that man in the photo is all of those things, I don't know, but that's not what I think of when I look at his picture. I think of a cold criminal named Parker who was killing a man in his garage when the phone rang. I think of an ex-airman named Ray who was a passenger in the car his father was driving when someone shot and killed his father. I think of dopey Fred Fitch, who never met a scam he didn't fall for. And I think of John Dortmunder & company, the most entertaining bunch of thieves and nogoodniks in print.

The man in the picture is, of course, Donald E. Westlake. If you haven't read any of his books, allow me to expound on the quality and quantity of his work. First off, he's won three Edgars in three different categories (the only other person to do that is Joe Gores): Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Motion Screenplay, and he's been named a Grand Master by the MWA. More than a dozen films have been based on his books: The Hot Rock, Point Blank, What's the Worst That Could Happen, A Slight Case of Murder, and more. More? Hey, one of his books, Jimmy the Kid, was made into films in three countries: Italy, Germany, and the USA. Westlake has also written numerous original screenplays (e.g., The Stepfather) and his screenplay for The Grifters, based on the classic crime novel by Jim Thompson, won him that Edgar. Under one name or another (more than eight, I think, but who can keep track?) Westlake has authored more than 100 novels, and is still going strong.

That's good news for his fans. I count myself among them, but I'm really a neophyte. It's only been two or three years since I first read one of his books. I'm perhaps a quarter of the way through his oeuvre, and let me just say that in those 25 or so books Westlake has never once disappointed me. He is equally adept at creating comic crime capers or taut, edgy, brutal crime fic, a la the Parker books, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym.

I consider comic crime fiction extremely difficult to write. As proof, I offer you the paucity of authors who do it well. How many authors can you name beyond Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake? I will admit there are some budding comic crime writers out there whose work I enjoy and admire: Troy Cook, Declan Burke, et al, and I expect more good things from them, but for consistency, longevity, originality and laugh-out-loudity nobody tops Westlake.

All of which brings me to my latest encounter with Westlake's John Dortmunder creation: Drowned Hopes (1989). This is not the latest book in the series, in fact I seem to be reading this series in no particular order at all. Doesn't matter, each Dortmunder tale is a comic gem that stands on its own.

SYNOPSIS: John Dortmunder arrives home after a futile night of thieving to find that a former cellmate and completely insane killer named Tom Jimson (and can you spot the similarity to Jim Thompson and his psychopathic characters?) has taken root in his living room. Tom wants John to figure out a way to get to the $700,000 Tom stole in an armed car robbery more than twenty years earlier. Problem: the money is in a coffin buried behind a library in a town that is now under 50 feet of water. Yes, while Tom was in prison a state reservoir was created that swamped the entire town. John doesn't think he can do this job, doesn't want to do this job even for half the money, he wants nothing to do with this madman, but if he doesn't somehow find the coffin and get the money to the surface Tom will dynamite the dam and hundreds of people will be killed in the resulting flood. And even if by some miracle John manages to salvage the money, he has to worry about Tom. Tom's partners all have a way of dying violently. Now if you put this same plot in the hands of, oh, say, Marcus Sakey, you would get a pretty good thriller, a nail-biter. In Westlake's hands, this story becomes a series of hilarious mishaps, misconstructions and misdeeds that build on themselves. A plan that starts with just Tom and John grows, little by little, to include all of Dortmunder's gang of regulars as well as a computer nerd, a dive instructor, an illegitimate librarian, her foul-mouthed mother, and possibly the unluckiest bridegroom who ever lived.

PACING: Drowned Hopes builds to its denouement in a more deliberate fashion than some of the other books in this series. In my opinion, that slightly slower pace is necessary due to the construction of the book. The story is sectioned into four separate attempts by Dortmunder to retrieve the lost loot. Each section is its own tale with its own story arc and each builds on the previous section. Instead of a single story arc, the sections stair step up and up to reach Westlake's last grand joke on Dortmunder.

CHARACTERIZATION: In the Dortmunder books, character is as much a physical attribute as it is about personality. To look at these people is to instantly know their nature.
When a lawman looked at Dortmunder and Tom Jimson, particularly together, he said to himself, "Probable Cause is their middle name."
And then there's Wally Knurr, computer geek a la 1989:
"...a round soft creature as milky white as vanilla yogurt...eagerly melting eyes, like blue-yolked soft-boiled eggs...perhaps elsewhere in the solar system he would find short, fat, moist creatures like himself..."
It is as much the interactions of the characters as it is the individual characterizations that make for reading enjoyment. For example, modern technology is anathema to Dortmunder, while the personal computer is Wally's raison d'etre. Wally lives in the gaming world, planet Zog to be exact, and although Dortmunder would like to verbally slay him for his otherworldly notions of how to retrieve the money (laser-burn off all the water? giant magnet on a spaceship?), he found "it wasn't easy to be hard-edged or sardonic when gazing down into that round guileless face."

SETTING: Westlake does not create the kind of breathable, walkable, everywhere-at-once ambiance that a Crais or a Connelly provides. Where those authors develop whole landscapes that are reflected within their characters, Westlake creates smaller, detailed exteriors that fight with his characters. Dortmunder becomes convinced the reservoir is trying to kill him but the inducements to keep him going back into the reservoir and his various escapes from the water make for some of the funniest moments in the book.

PLOT: The core idea of criminals going to great lengths to obtain property not their own is hardly new, but there's nothing cliched about Westlake's take on that idea. Of the books I've read in this series, Drowned Hopes may be the most tightly focused and the one in which he takes Dortmunder completely out of his comfort zone. When the basics of the story are fleshed out by events such as the hilarious bit-by-bit breakdown of the bridegroom or the sudden emergence of Tom's old -- and I mean old -- nemesis, the story takes (water) wings.

PROSE: Westlake provides a strong narrative flow in which digressions are always brought into play later. With so many characters and plot points, the third person, subjective POV was a wise choice. Here is an excerpt taken from chapter two, shortly after John and his companion, May, find that Tom Jimson, ruthless killer, has entered their lives:
Tom turned away, going back into the living room, walking rigid, like a man who's been broken and then put back together a little wrong, using too much Krazy Glue. Behind his stiff back, May waggled eyebrows and shoulders and fingers at Dortmunder, asking, Who is this person, why is he in my house, what's going on, when will it end? and Dortmunder shrugged ears and elbows and the corners of his mouth, answering, I don't know what's going on, I don't know if this is some kind of trouble or not, we'll just have to wait and see. Then they followed Tom into the living room.

Tom sat on the better easy chair, the one that hadn't sagged all the way to the floor, while Dortmunder and May took the sofa, sitting facing Tom with the look of a couple who've just been asked to think seriously about life insurance.

Other than advances in communication technology (Internet and cellphones specifically), this book has held up very well over the years. I recommend Westlake's Dortmunder books to everyone who likes a laugh, and I look forward to a new Dortmunder adventure next year, Get Real, when John and his friends agree to do a reality show heist. The mind boggles.

November 9, 2008

REVIEW: THE BIG O by Declan Burke

SYNOPSIS: Okay, pay attention: Karen (full-time receptionist, part-time armed robber) meets Ray (part-time painter, part-time kidnapper). Ray is planning on kidnapping Karen's best friend, Madge, who is almost divorced from Karen's boss, Frank, and Frank is kinda-sorta Ray's employer, too, but Karen's ex-boyfriend, Rossi, is out of prison and he plans on kidnapping Karen's best friend, Madge, to force Karen to give back some things that belong to him, Rossi. Got all that? Good.

REVIEW: Can you say funky? Can you say funky and Irish in the same sentence, is that legal? Is it possible? 'Course it is, you saw The Commitments, didn't you? The Big O is a fine, fun and altogether funky read. Take one part Ruthless People, add one part Fargo, mix with three parts black Irish humor, and you'll still need author Declan Burke's storytelling skills to get it all properly shook up.

The plot, as you were smart enough to infer from the synopsis, is complex. And until you read this book, you don't know the half of it. Burke has taken the 'six degrees of separation' game, melded it to a Rubik's cube, and out of this mass of complications and coincidences, told from a dizzying number of POVs, comes a story that is actually, surprisingly easy to follow. But only to follow; you don't get to lead here. Although you'll think you're a bright reader, you being one or two thoughts ahead of the characters, don't think you'll get ahead of the author. Around every corner he's installed another corner, every bright bulb of a character can come unscrewed (there, play with that metaphor, Mr. Burke!) or just burn out. There are no clear-cut heroes yet still there are characters to like and cheer for. And a couple to spit on. And even the character most spit-worthy (say Rossi or maybe Frank) is so luckless that his life is a series of laughable predicaments.

Declan Burke has not only created this fun fest of what has been called (by better wordsmiths than I) "screwball noir," he is also the author of one of my favorite blogs, Crime Always Pays. If you read a few of his posts and find that his style and humor appeal to you, you're sure to enjoy The Big O as well.

I waited a long, let me say it again, a lonnnggggg time to get my hands on this book. I had it on order at the bookstore back before the U.S. publication date, September 22, 2008. And the book finally arrived on November 5, in spite of the distributor's malingering, and there I'm standing at the front of the store, a couple of other readers milling about, I dunnamany, and the clerk yells out, 'Hey, Corey, your book is here: The Story of O.'

Ahem. Imagine my surprise. I couldn't work up to chagrin, I was thinking that maybe people in the store would maybe reckon I'm more interesting than I am. You'ns out there would know better of course. If you want interesting check out Declan Burke and The Big O.

November 2, 2008

REVIEW: ONCE WERE COPS by Ken Bruen

Synopsis: Shea is a young Irish cop, relatively inexperienced, who wangles a transfer to the New York City police force. Unfortunately for Shea, once in New York he gets paired with a psychotic brute nicknamed Kebar. Unfortunately for Kebar, Shea is not only smarter than Kebar, he's twice as psychotic. With Internal Affairs and the mob breathing down their backs, Shea and Kebar are about to turn the NYPD on its collective ear.

Review: Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature. Ah, crap, that sounds like gushing. Hell with it. [You see how my vocab and tone have changed from the norm as a result of swimming in the black depths of this book?] Bruen is just that brilliant. Consistently. Brilliance doesn't just flash occasionally for Bruen, the quality is so permanent and pervasive that you have to wonder just when it was that he sold his soul, eh? Even as I anticipated reading this book I worried that maybe, lacking old friends like Sgt. Brant and Jack Taylor, Once Were Cops might not be vintage Bruen. To the contrary, Bruen has managed to up his game. You young whippersnapper-writers out there (and you know who you are) take note: The Master is the Master for a reason. So what if your last book raised the ante? Bruen just upped it again, and he looked you dead in the eyes when he did it. Man up, boys.

For folks who are bigger fans of Bruen's Brant series than of the Jack Taylor books, you're going to love this book. Kebar is Brant taken one step farther. Shea is yet another step (or 12) farther out. And when you think Ken Bruen has taken you to the outer edge of cop psychoses, oh, brother, had you better think again. Think Mephistopheles. Yeah, I mean the characters, but I think I mean Bruen, too. Scary, ain't it?

The Bruen trademarks are all present: Pithy sentences that speak paragraphs more than many another crime fic writer; Bruen's usual nod to those younger authors (Duane Swierczynski this time around) I have come to think of as his crew; a mix of books and music worth noting; and a continuation of his, um, danse macabre with the Catholic church. And his finest trademark, the twist on the twist, with maybe a little extra turn of the screw.

Here'a sample from a scene in which Shea is being interviewed by two Internal Affairs cops after he saved Kebar's life by shooting a perp. The punctuation and spacing are as they appear in the book.
McCarthy put up his hand to stop me, asked,

"And did you caution him, tell him to drop his weapon, identify yourself as a police officer?"

I glanced at the black guy and was he smiling? I asked,

"You ever hear a shotgun being primed?"

He stared at me, irritation on his face, asked,

"What's your point?"

I made a click with my tongue, said,

"That's the sound and it tells you, you have maybe two seconds to identify yourself or...save your partner, what would you do or don't you get out from behind a desk?"

The black guy chuckled and McCarthy was riled, snapped,

"Hey pal, you're a goddamn rookie, don't get mouthy with me, you got that?"

I let that hover for a bit, then said,

"A rookie who saved his partner's life."

He changed tactics, became Mr. Cordiality, asked,

"How do you find your partner, busting your balls is he?"

Now I got to smile, said,

"I thought that was your job."

He let it go, continued,

"How do you feel about cops on the take?"

I didn't hesitate, said,

"Much the same way I feel about informers, sorry...Internal Affairs."

I usually like to point my reviews at those who would most appreciate the book. So if you've read Bruen's work and did not become an immediate fan, this book won't change things for you. If you're already a fan, you won't be disappointed. If you're thinking about trying out a Bruen book for the first time, this is as good a place as any to start. If John Sandford's books appeal to you because of the black humor, if you like Joe Pike best when he's killing someone, if you don't mind not having a single character to empathize with, if you think Jim Thompson's Lou Ford character was a wimp, and if you like going ooh and aah every so often while your eyebrows dance all over your forehead, this is your kind of book. Folks who like a mystery solved by cats, need not apply.

For all my raving, I find there is something negative to be said about this book. About the book, mind you, not about the story, not about the writing. Something present in this hardbound edition I purchased, that I have not noticed in other Bruen titles, is the white space. If the double-spacing were eliminated and the font set to something other than 'For the Legally Blind,' this book would run to perhaps 120-130 pages, rather than the 294 pages the publisher feels is required in a crime novel. So let me just say this to the good people at St. Martin's Minotaur: Save the trees! I will pay full price for every Ken Bruen title you publish, I even buy from an indie bookstore where there are no deep discounts, so cut the crap, okay? 120 pages from Ken Bruen carry more weight and have greater impact than 400-500 pages from almost any other author you care to name. Didn't I already say it? Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature.

UPDATE 11/8/08 - Duane Swierczynski says that Bruen has a couple of letters in his name swapped around in the book and thus the character is not really named after him. Bosh! I say, and bosh! again.

October 27, 2008

Shapeshifter

Tony Hillerman has died.

Through Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, his two most popular characters, Hillerman introduced much of America to the rich cultures of the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni peoples. He also provided an insight into the poverty, racism, and struggle that is the daily experience for many of them. And he did it without sounding preachy or pedantic. His admiration and respect were evident. His talent was undeniable. His books are a doorway to the Southwest.

I came late to the Hillerman book party, as is my wont. Dance Hall of the Dead was first published in 1973. A battered paperback copy was handed to me in 1987 by a pharmaceutical sales rep, with some condescension as I recall. Something to the effect of, 'you might be smart enough to enjoy this.' Much as I longed to hate the book after that, it was impossible. Dance Hall was a find, a gem, and remains one of my favorite Hillerman stories.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman's work, it is not too late to walk that particular spirit trail. Tony Hillerman is dead, but his stories carry his heart and soul. So the truth is, Tony Hillerman will never die. He has only shapeshifted.

October 21, 2008

REVIEW: TRIGGER CITY by Sean Chercover

SYNOPSIS: PI Ray Dudgeon is a mess. He has not recovered, either physically or psychologically, from the torture he experienced in Big City, Bad Blood. The love of his life doesn't think he'll live so long that she wants to hang around for the funeral. He's so broke he's going to have to sell his beloved '68 Shelby. But then he gets this case, a really good paying case (he can keep the Shelby), and there should be no real work involved because the facts are all right there in the police files: Joan Richmond, manager of payroll for a department store chain, was murdered by Steven Zhang, a co-worker from the IT department. He shot her, left a written confession with her body, then he went home and called his wife, said he'd done something very bad, sat down and blew his brains out. To quote the Kevin Bacon character in A Few Good Men, "These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed." Remember the tagline from "Absence of Malice?" Everything they said was accurate. But none of it was true. Chercover is more succinct: Facts are not truth.


REVIEW: Ray Dudgeon is a leading man to die for or to kill for, depending on whether you are a reader or an author. Ray comes from a similar mold as Elvis Cole and Lincoln Perry. Ray's blessing, or more probably his curse, is that he is more flawed than either of those two fine PIs. Don't get me wrong, he's altogether a noble guy when it comes to working the case and protecting the innocent. But Ray is almost incapable of compromise and although that may sound like a virtue, in what I consider one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Ray's journalist friend, Terry Green, communicates in no uncertain terms that that is just not the case:
Terry swallowed some more Scotch. "Don't start. I'm not in the mood."

"What?"

"You ever listen to yourself? You come on with all that sanctimonious bullshit. Sure, you're better than the rest of us. You quit, I stayed. Therefore, I sold out."

"Whoa. I never said that."

"You say it all the time. You say it every time you sneer about the state of the news business. Every time you talk about how you couldn't handle the compromises, like you're admitting some personal failing, but what you're really saying is plenty clear. Let me tell you something: quitting doesn't make you morally superior. I'm still in the trenches, busting my ass. And once in a while, I get a good story out there."

"Terry..."

"Yeah, I've been drinking. Doesn't mean it isn't true."

I fished my smokes from a pocket and lit one. Drank some scotch. I didn't want to deal with this right now. But it had obviously been brewing awhile and now it was out in the open and I couldn't pretend he hadn't said it.

And I couldn't escape the feeling that our friendship was hanging in the balance.


And coming across to his friends as morally superior is only one of his faults, and not the worst. What Ray Dudgeon is is a fully-developed, 3D, flesh-and-blood man, one who you like but who also makes you cringe occasionally and say, 'oh, no, he didn't just do that, did he?' And I'm not talking about the standard bad-boy behavior for some fictional PIs either, like Spenser and Hawke. Uh uh. Ray's a lot more Chicago, a lot more human than that. And needs to have friends willing to get in his face, that's for sure. Remember (if you've read the books) how Spenser gave his lady love, Susan Silverman, all the space in the world when she wanted to sever their relationship? Let me just say, Ray and Spenser would have a huge difference of opinion on how to deal with the fallout.

Not every character in this book is as fully developed as Ray. Good thing or I'd still be reading it. But every character who is close to Ray, or gets close to him, is well-developed, and even some least likely to be fully-drawn are handled beautifully. For example, the murder victim, Joan Richmond. This case really is not about her, or only peripherally, and yet Ray spends a lot of time getting to know her. She had no close friends; for family, only a father whom she had never really known. Her work could hardly be described as absorbing. But Ray spends time on her, in her house, among her music and furnishings, and he gets to know her pain, her loneliness, and through Ray, so do we get to know her, and ache for her, and grieve for her.

Chercover makes a fine case in this story for how little we Americans know about our government. We were all made aware by the media that our government uses private mercenaries in Iraq. How many of us read about paramilitary corporations beyond that particular news story? We all know, or think we do, about the genocide in Darfur. How many people are aware which foreign government has supported that devastation, and why? Chercover poses the question, and it may not be theoretical, what if a corporation of American mercenaries contracted out to work for a foreign government? The dangers of even allowing such corporations to exist, let alone thrive, pose threats far beyond the occasional international incident. Where is the accountability? Who becomes complicit in the actions of that company? Our government? Us? Trigger City is a terrific book not just because the story is compelling but also because the story and its outcome are so very possible. Maybe even probable. Maybe even certain. I'll buy the booze if Chercover wants to talk about it.

You can read this book and just enjoy the story if you want; it's a dandy and it's populated with interesting characters. (I forgot to mention Gravedigger Peace, didn't I? A favorite character of mine, reminds me of someone I know.) You don't have to go any deeper into the questions posed than you want to. But you should. Not only does it make for a richer reading experience but -- listen to me -- under the guise of crime fiction, Chercover raises issues that every American should be aware of, should read about, should think hard about. Should not make snap judgements about. But the pace of this book is Usain Bolt-swift. Start to finish, this is a sprint, not a marathon, and that makes it easy to just not think hard about these issues, to just move on to the next book. So let me urge you: Don't read too fast. Seriously. Puzzle pieces go flying everywhere in any given scene, and in all the excitement it gets easy to overlook the niceties Chercover has incorporated into the story. In short, he won't always stop to explain the fine details to you. If you aren't sure what he's talking about (MK-ULTRA, for example) stop and find out. That's why we have Google and Wikipedia.

And here's why it's important that you do this: Facts are not truth.

October 19, 2008

REVIEW: THE DRAINING LAKE by Arnaldur Indridason

SYNOPSIS: Near Reykjavik, a skeleton is found in a lakebed, a skeleton tied to a Soviet-era "listening device." Inspector Erlandur also wants to look into the case of a man who went missing in the late 1960s, leaving behind a broken-hearted fiancee and a brand-new Ford Falcon with a missing hubcap. And for those who would ask this question first, yes, the draining lake was a real phenomenon.

REVIEW: Each time I begin an Arnaldur book (in Iceland they pretty much go by first names) I question why? The ambiance is always one of dreary bleakness, the people cold and stiff with each other. The pacing is slow and melancholic. But by the end of each of his previous books, Arnaldur had turned my head and heart completely over. And he's done it again.

Absolutely this book can be defined as a mystery. I have seen Arnaldur's stories described as macabre thrillers. That's nonsense. These are gentle mysteries, with passion at the core. Not cozies, never cozies. Nothing, especially not the characterization, is ever so neat and tidy as in a cozy. And this book, The Draining Lake, is more than a mystery. It's a love story. And as with all the best love stories, it's about loss.

Loss echoes loss throughout the book. As Erlandur investigates his two cases, the missing man and the skeleton in the lake, the author also unfolds to the reader a story in the East Germany of the Cold War era, a story of enthusiastic young socialists, of "interactive surveillance," of promising futures, of family, and of rank betrayal. The author never cheats mystery buffs by having the cases solved by information they lack; if anything, the reader gets more information than Erlandur and his team. The denouement is wrenching because it not only furthers the theme of loss, but also demonstrates the haunting nature of love. It is through these themes that the story becomes more than an Icelandic mystery, it becomes an acknowledgment of a universal human experience.

Erlandur's character may be best defined by an event that occurred in his youth, a story given in detail in a prior book, when his brother was lost in a snowstorm and was never found. Erlandur consumes books of survivors' stories and spends his holidays in the countryside where his brother was lost. Erlandur's daughter, Eva Lind, is lost again to him, maybe forever this time as she has once more sunk into the hell that is the life of a junkie. This time Erlandur refuses to try to find and rescue her; he can't bear to bring her home again only to lose her again. That cycle of recovery and loss is more than he can bear. This leads to a scene between Erlandur and his long-estranged son, in which Erlandur's abandonment of his children when they were young depicts just how tragic that event was for Eva Lind. The scene is no less powerful for the spare prose:
'I'll try to talk to her,' Sindri said. 'But what I really think is that she's waiting for you to come and rescue her. I think she's on her last legs. She's often been bad, but I've never seen her like that before.'

'Why did she cut her hair?' Erlandur asked. 'When she was twelve.'

'Someone touched her and stroked her hair and talked dirty to her,' Sindri said.

He said this straightforwardly, as if he could search his memory for such incidents and find a whole hoard of them.

The losses keep mounting. One of Erlandur's assistants, Sigurdur Oli, a character with whom I felt no kinship in prior books, becomes deeply sympathetic as he must deal with the constant phone calls from a man who feels responsible for the death of the man's wife and child only because he asked his wife to buy strawberries on her way home. She and the child were struck by an out-of-control vehicle and the man, nameless throughout, cannot shake the burden of culpability. Sigurdur Oli takes the calls at all hours, in all places, and gives reassurance while begging the obviously suicidal man to seek professional help. The calls become progressively desperate. And then Sigurdur Oli and his beloved Bergthora experience their own loss.

All of these are modern echoes of the losses depicted in the two cases. In one instance a woman is herself lost, as she never comes to terms with the disappearance of her fiancee, her one love, never knowing what became of him or whether he might even still be alive. In the other case, a young man's love is not only stolen from him by betrayal, but his future, his family, and eventually his raison d'etre are drained from him. Loss is a slowly draining lake; Arnaldur chose an apt metaphor.

If you like sharply defined characters who will never surprise you from book to book, this may not be the story for you. You cannot read one Erlandur book and think you know him. Even Arnaldur Indridason admits he does not fully understand this character. If your taste runs to perky chick-lit, skip this book. Ditto gorey thrillers and forensic labyrinths. If, however, you enjoy the patient unravelling of knitted puzzles, if you are willing to invest your emotions in characters who may not be willing to participate in neatly-clipped endings, who may not even be thoroughly likeable; if you can get beyond the odd feel of Icelandic names to the humanity they represent, you may find it worthwhile to pick up the Erlandur books and explore the nature of loss, how it ripples across the surface of our lives, and how ignorant we often are of what happens below that surface.

Should you care to investigate more about the Erlandur books, the first one published in the USA was Jar City, which was also made into a film. Here's the trailer:

October 12, 2008

REVIEW: TOROS & TORSOS by Craig McDonald

Synopsis: Toros & Torsos covers a string of murders stretching over more than two decades: 1935, the Florida Keys: Crime writer Hector Lassiter is caught up in the devastation of the great Labor Day hurricane that killed hundreds. Concurrently, a string of murders occur in which the corpses are posed in the manner of surrealist paintings. The murders get too close to Hector and he is devastated. 1937, Spain: In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Lassiter takes a lover, an artist who has a connection to the surrealist murders in Key West. Lassiter is also denounced as a spy. A close-up-and-personal brush with the Secret Police prompts Lassiter and his long-time friend Ernest Hemingway to take drastic action after they learn similar surrealist murders have been taking place in Spain. 1947, Hollywood: Lassiter and Hemingway are on the outs after the events in Spain. Lassiter encounters a sinister, decadent group of surrealist artists, one of whom is father to one of the Key West murder victims. Between bouts of screenwriting, Lassiter is also babysitting Hollywood's enfant terrible, Orson Welles. 1959, Cuba: Ghosts rise up to haunt both Hector and Hemingway.

Review: Well. Sometimes you can finish a book, have a lot of great things to say about it and at the same time feel completely inadequate to the task of articulating it all. That's me. That's this book. I've spent three days trying to write a coherent review that encompasses the scope, depth, style, and intrigue of this book. I can't do it, I haven't the skill or talent. Hell, I'm not even sure I've really got my head around the whole story yet. The scope of the book covers more than just a lot of time: Natural disaster, art, politics, espionage, friendship, betrayal, murder, vice, psychology. If a picture says a thousand words, then this book trailer says it all for me:


So instead of a genuine review or analysis of this book, let me say a few things:

First, disabuse yourself of the notion that this book might be a straightforward PI or police investigation. Uh uh. This is the rare book that exceeds and expands its genre while also succeeding in it. If you prefer pure escapist reading that demands nothing from you, the reader, skip this book. But if you like a book that places demands on you, not unreasonable demands but the kind of challenges that stir you up, pique your interest, and make you turn to Google time and again (to investigate Spanish torture cells, surrealist art, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, Franco, FDR, Andre Breton, a game called 'Exquisite Corpse,' the Minotaur, Jonathan Latimer [of whom I had never heard but now have added to my 'must read' list]), the kind of book that weaves art, history, biography, and action together, then read this book. For my friends whose tastes run strictly to the likes of Janet Evanovich and James Patterson, I don't recommend this book. But for those who, like me, enjoy James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Ken Bruen, James Lee Burke, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. If this book is not a nominee for most of the crime fiction awards next year, then you know the fix is in. You will not read a crime fiction novel anything like this one in the next year, and you'll read damn few that are as good. John Banville could take a lesson in how to be both literary and two-fisted.

If in this age of political correctness you've been inundated with but not overwhelmed by the strong heroine capable of kicking ass without smearing her mascara, if you've been longing for a femme fatale with emphasis on the femme while the fatale is original and horrifying, then this is a must read for you. If you like your protagonists tough, smart, hard-drinking and just cold-blooded enough to commit murder, this book should be in your hands right now. McDonald doesn't cater to political correctness and why should he? Neither the term nor the attitude existed during the time period of this book. (And I can just hear Hemingway saying 'Kee - rist!' should someone explain it to him.) And don't confuse a lack of PC with misogyny. The author makes a clear distinction between the two.

McDonald does a masterful job of incorporating historical figures with his fictional characters. The words coming out of Orson Welles' mouth sound like Orson Welles, no kidding. Hemingway is precisely as I had always pictured him, warts and all. Hector Lassiter is enough like Hemingway that it's easy to buy into their friendship but enough unlike Hemingway, in the important ways, that it's also easy to buy into their falling out. Not content with overlapping his fictional creations with historical figures, McDonald weaves into the tale fictional characters that are not of his own creation. Case in point: A dinner guest mentions that she is reading a western novel by Holly Martens. Just in case that name doesn't ring a bell with you, Holly Martens was the name of the character, a writer of westerns, that Joseph Cotten played in The Third Man. And who starred in that film with Cotten? Orson Welles. But Orson Welles appears as himself in this story. Are you starting to get the idea that this book may be a little ... surreal?

In fact, the section of the book that occurs in Spain has the dark, angular, twisty feel of 'The Third Man,' as Lassiter, for all his nous, is sometimes naive about the people he most cares for, just in the way that Holly Martens was unaware of the true character of his good friend Harry Lime. Everything in this story's Madrid is all light and shadow and everyone has the truly skewed perspective of the surrealists. If there were to be a soundtrack to this section of the book no doubt it would be that relentless zither used in The Third Man.

In the Hollywood section, the music in the background constantly echoes the events and emotions. Appropriately, the author created a soundtrack to the reader's mental film of Hector's story. Welles is creating his surrealistic fun house for the climactic scene in The Lady From Shanghai. As Lassiter becomes a threat to the surrealist clique, they move to place him in check by framing Welles for murder. And when the House Un-American Activities Committee starts to take an interest, everyone gets nervous. John Huston comes across, not necessarily as incestuous, but in every other way as despicable as the character he portrayed in Chinatown.

The narrative wraps around itself in the impossible manner of a Mobius strip, or perhaps an Escher drawing, returning time and again to surrealism, the works of art and also the practical application (perhaps I should say the physical manifestation) of the surreal philosophy, e.g. the torture cells that were based on surreal art, murders, misogyny and general debauchery. I don't know whether the author's aim was to shred the philosophy and art of the surrealists, but I thought that was certainly one of the end results of this story. I used to enjoy working my way through the visuals of a Salvador Dali or a Rene Magritte painting but I will never again be able to view their work with as much detachment. Or that of any other surrealist. And if I never see another photo by Man Ray, that's okay by me.

But I'll be first in line to buy the next Craig McDonald book.

October 3, 2008

REVIEW: And that's what you eat when you are dead.*

Ladeeeez and gennelmunnnnn!

Step right up, folks! Peer at the subversive, the insensitive, the unAmerican! Watch the little fictional chilluns as they challenge authority! We got gore, we got cannibalism, we got your ghosties and ghoulies, witches and goblins, we got grown men in their BVDs, and yes, we got your Big Toe, too! For the small cost (free actually) of a library card, you, too, can admire the spectacle of grown-ups freaking out over terrifically fun children's books. Watch the big, smart grown-ups as they run amok, shriek hysterically, drop to the library floor and drum their collective heels in fine tantrums! And all in the name of protecting the wee'uns! Folks, I'll tell ya, censorship has no pride. It's a horrible sight! Horrible! So step right up, ladies and gents, step right up! As promised, two! Count'em! Two! reviews of books that appear in the top ten of the Top 100 Banned / Challenged Books in 2000 - 2007.

For your deee-lectation, allow me to present to you The Adventures of Captain Underpants: An Epic Novel by the one, the only, the wildly wild Dav Pilkey. According to the American Library Association, this morally reprehensible tome was challenged "for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey authority." Funny though, they didn't mention the part in the story about the adult blackmailing the kids into indentured servitude. As Captain Underpants would say, "tra la laaaa!"

What the book really is, is the story of two highly energetic, wonderfully creative boys, relentless pranksters, who write their own comic books about a superhero called Captain Underpants. In a train of imaginative, if unlikely events, the boys manage to hypnotize their school principal and turn him into their comic book creation, Captain Underpants. Now I admit there is no overriding moral theme to this story. But it was hard to find the book anything but perfect bedtime reading for rascally little boys who would never sit still for the character lessons of 'The Little Engine That Could.' Not only is the story giggle-inducing (or would be if I were still seven years old) but the illustrations are perfectly matched to the story as well as adding fine points to the written word. This book is just good fun for kids, the very thing to encourage the wee bairns to read more.

Now, ladies and gentlemen! Quiet, please! I must have absolute quiet. We are about to pass through the corridor of nightmares. Any sound at all will stir the censors, for they sleep but lightly. Aye, softly then and at the end of this dim hallway where the very walls seem to breathe challenges I will open this door, yes, with this very skeleton key I will unlock the creaky door to a world of -- gasp -- folklore! Horrid, horrid folklore!

Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz, is a perfect gem of a Halloween book. The 'scary stories' are short tales, 2-3 pages each, adapted from lengthier bits of folklore. These are the kinds of stories children love to scare themselves with, whether they are in their own rooms, huddled under a blanket tent with a flashlight and their own imaginations or whether they are cuddled next to Mom and Pop around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and listening to the grown-ups tell tales so horrific that the kids' eyes water from fear. The rugrats also get a brief but interesting lesson in folklore, which the author provides at the close of the stories. The book was challenged because it contains "depictions of cannibalism, murder, witchcraft, and ghosts."

Hey, you got me, it does contain those things...if by "depiction of cannibalism" they are referring to the Big Toe tale, where people find a big toe, eat it (economic crisis, I suppose), and then a ghoulie visits the house looking for his big toe. You know this story, everyone does, or else you know a similar one about a golden arm. And you know you were very young when you first heard the story. Did it ruin your psyche? Give you nightmares? Bah, humbug! Challenging this book was really just about adults who get creeped out easily. Kids have a very high tolerance for the gruesome and grotesque. And author Schwartz actually did a nice job of reducing these old stories down to a child's level of enjoyment without rendering them completely toothless. After all, folk tales usually were created for a purpose, either to comfort or to warn, etc. I had a fine time with this book as it brought back memories of my own childhood friends and swapping ghost stories, the eeriest and most frightening of which were told to me by a grown-up, a shy Cherokee from Oklahoma, name of Bradley.

And best of all, Schwartz reminded me of The Hearse Song,* a mainstay of childish grotesquerie. Yes, indeedy... "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out..."

October 1, 2008

Wandering Wednesday

Ah, the first of the month. It's that time when all you need from the supermarket is a bag of potatoes but good luck getting through the checkout lanes. More and more people are getting public assistance, and that's not suprising since Ohio is experiencing its highest unemployment in some 16 years. Okay, you got me. That's not really a photo of the local supermarket lines, it's a gaggle of tourists outside the Vatican. But I assure you that earlier today it was very difficult to tell the difference.

Along with autumn come elections. Better though, hockey season arrives. Hockey is best experienced live and in person. TV does not do the sport justice. I can't afford season tix to the Bluejackets (who can these days?) but a few years ago, when Columbus was still a minor-league hockey town, we had a terrific little team called the Columbus Chill, and I had to be unconscious before I would miss a game. (Yes, it happened. Occasionally.) They were attitude plus, and I don't just mean that they liked to drop the gloves and set to. The management's attitude was referred to by other hockey towns as irreverent, and sometimes disrespectful of the game. Whatever. Certainly they were disrespectful of other teams. And their fans. Virtually every game of every season was a sell-out, and it wasn't because the team was a consistent winner. Oh, glory, I loved watching those boys play the game: Jason Christie, Cam Brown, Sasha Lakovic, Jason Fitzsimmons, the late Jim Ballantine who left this earth far too soon. See, guys in the minors play with a joy and verve and genuine love of the sport. God knows they weren't there because the paychecks were good. Pitiable was the adjective most of us would use. When I see our Bluejackets play, most of them don't look like they're having as much fun as the Chill did; and the fans have a lost kind of expression, like they're there because they love hockey but haven't seen any lately. Ah, for the good bad ol' days...

Did I mention that thoroughbred racing starts here again on October 14?

You know Halloween is a mere 30 days out, right? Make your plans early. Have you considered the Greenlawn Cemetery mausoleum tour for the day after Halloween? Look at it - makes you want to pull on your sweater, pack up a lantern and maybe some garlic and wooden stakes and just party down, right? Yowzah!

This being a book blog (mostly, ok, sometimes) I should mention that Michael Connelly will be in town on October 20. The event benefits Thurber House which means one must have a ticket and one must pay $18 for said ticket. If it works out to be less costly, one has the option of going to Books & Co. (The Greene location) in Dayton on the 21st and seeing him without the ticket requirement though they are issuing line numbers beginning at 6pm. Just depends on whether the cost of gas is lesser or greater than the cost of the ticket, right? Your choice, if Connelly is someone you want to meet. I have no doubt the lines there will look just like the photo up at the top here.

My taste would run to the event on the 17th at the same Books & Co. only at their Town & Country location. Sean Chercover will be there to sign his new book, Trigger City. I am mad keen on his first title, Big City, Bad Blood, and the early reviews on his new book have it that Chercover does not know the meaning of "sophomore slump." Author blurbs on Trigger City are plentiful but I want to post the two that were most influential to me, as they came from two of my favorite authors:
"Listen to me. Read this book. TRIGGER CITY is blue-collar human drama, packed with action and heart-breaking moments of truth."
-Robert Crais

“Superb – dark poetry and violence in a seamless narrative of love, pain and redemption. Trigger City will break your heart in ways you never imagined.”
-Ken Bruen

A wealth of riches, eh? Makes me feel like one of those poor cows in Hud, wishing I could wipe that foam from around my mouth.

I finished the second in John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series, Heat Lightning. I consider it an improvement over the first in that series, with Virgil now more defined and differentiated from his legendary boss, Lucas Davenport. I also enjoy Sandford's website; it's very clean and organized and up-to-date, and has pretty much everything a reasonable reader wants in an author website. Of course IMHO, no author has as wonderful a fan forum on his/her website as does James Lee Burke. It's a regular fais do do down on the bayou every time I stop over there.

September 28, 2008

REVIEW: BLUE HEAVEN by C.J. Box

Short synopsis: In North Idaho, two children witness a murder in the woods and unable to return home, must run for their lives from four determined killers.

Okay, when you've just read a series of books that include the likes of Richard Price, Dashiell Hammett, Craig Johnson, and Craig McDonald, you have to know that at some point a book is going to come along to take you down off that kind of cloud-nine reading. I was a little surprised that the book to do it was Blue Heaven by C.J. Box.

I am unfamiliar with Box's Joe Pickett series but Blue Heaven came with glowing recommendations from those friends of mine who've read it. And it's not a bad book. Even allowing for the fact that the authors named above are a formidable bunch, I was fully prepared to enjoy a standard thriller. And the opening of the book hooked me right off. Child jeopardy? It's one of the great hooks in both printed and film thrillers, right? Especially when the children are deftly portrayed, as Box has done. The characterization throughout the rest of the story was much weaker. Box made an effort to make his hero three-dimensional, a flawed man of character except that really his only flaw was that he was a genuinely nice guy. The villains though are pure Saturday-morning-serial bad guys. I kept waiting for Singer, the head baddie, to twirl a mustache and laugh like Oil-Can Harry, maybe threaten to tie the children to the railroad tracks, and then...and then...and then...

And then along comes Jess, the Hero.

It was just about that pat. One lesson I've learned over the years by reading the best and the worst of writers like Sandford and Child, et al, is that one really fine, super scary villain is better for the story than half a dozen gee-he's-mean bad guys.

The prose is workmanlike, Box may never wax lyrical like James Lee Burke but to his credit there isn't any of the purple prose that has crept into Michael Connelly's recent books either. And with a child jeopardy tale that would have been all too easy to do. But Box never chose a word that made me step back and go, 'now really!' And the pacing was fine, the action clipped along nicely. The story never dragged, and conversely never felt artificially spurred on either. The story is seen from the viewpoints of several characters and sometimes that can drag a story down but not in this case. The changing of viewpoints actually allows for a faster pace. The setting was interesting and was integral to the story but while I liked the descriptions of the countryside and town, the characters' engagement with the place was something more talked about by the author than displayed by the characters, with the hero being the lone exception.

I will probably read more by this author but with tempered expectations. I believe that the things I did not like about this book may not be a problem in the Pickett series, as a series allows for deeper character development of the main characters and also for deeper development of a sense of place.

September 27, 2008

Nobody's Fool

Character and class are words I rarely think of in connection with the acting profession. But when I think of Paul Newman, those are the first words I would use to describe him. Handsome, tough, sexy, those adjectives are all secondary. Talented. There's an understatement. Gifted beyond reason. Intelligent, thoughtful, rational. Humane.

I never wanted to meet Paul Newman, so I guess I got my wish. I never wanted to meet him because he was a man of character and class. I always felt he was the kind of human being that I will always fall short of being, and I just never wanted to see either disappointment or contempt in those crazy-blue eyes.

All that acting talent and success and celebrity, and what does the man go and do? He creates a food manufacturing company that has donated more than $250,000,000 to charity, provided jobs to I dunnohowmany people, and has the world's best company motto: "Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the Common Good." What did I say? Character and class.

The first time I saw Paul Newman I didn't like him. Well, his name was Hud at that time and he was what my mom would have called a no-account. Thirty-five years on and I still love to watch Hud so I can despise him all over again.

As decades passed Newman seemed to go from strength to strength, acting wise. When you thought he couldn't be better than when he played Rocky Graziano or Fast Eddie Felson or Hud, he would come along and dazzle you as Ben Quick or Lew Harper. Who else but Paul Newman could personify literary legends like Quick or Brick Pollitt and never get typecast? It got so the man could turn in iconic performances like that in Cool Hand Luke as easily as Cary Grant could wear a tux. Do you realize that Newman didn't even get an Oscar nomination from 1968-1980, even though he gave us his take on Butch Cassidy (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); Henry Gondorf (The Sting); Reggie Dunlop (Slap Shot); Lew Harper (The Drowning Pool); and Murphy (Fort Apache the Bronx), among his many performances in that span?

Paul Newman tops many of my favorites lists: My all-time favorite movie: The Sting. My favorite sports movie: Slap Shot. My favorite bad boy role: The Long Hot Summer (just edges out Hud). Favorite guest on Actors' Studio. It's a funny thing though, that my favorite Newman movie is not one of those I've already named. And while I firmly believe that his performances in Absence of Malice and Verdict should have won him Oscars, as did The Color of Money, my favorite Newman film is one not often remembered by the masses: Nobody's Fool. If Paul Newman had been born without talent or ambition or native intelligence, if he had never received any breaks in life, I believe he would still have been the blunt, compassionate, lost-but-found town-caretaker that Sully was in that film. He had the character for it.

My condolences to Mr. Newman's family and friends. As for myself, I refuse to mourn his passing. As an actor and more, as a human being, he gave me so much to celebrate.

September 25, 2008

Ketchup! Soup and puree, don't get left behind!* (Review)

Catch-up time now that the power is on, the cable is on, and I have Internet again. Starting with a quick review of recent reads:



Richard Price's Lush Life: It's books like this that makes me wonder why we have to defend reading crime fiction as opposed to 'literary' fiction. This is both, easily and unobtrusively. Price isn't easy reading, his dialogue is too natural for it to scan quickly, and he likes to drop a lot of characters on the reader at once and let you sort them all out later. Nevermind, he's a brilliant artist with a unique voice and a capacity for understanding the human condition in all of its cultures, subcultures, flaws, frailties, vices, weaknesses, and even some of its virtues.

Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish was recommended by Jen over at Jen's Book Thoughts. I'll just say that I echo every positive comment Jen made about Johnson's work. I disremember the last time I read a debut work whose characters were so rich and warm that I wanted to pack up and move somewhere closer to them. I am going to get my own copies of all of Johnson's books because based on 'The Cold Dish,' I believe these are books I will want to re-read and want to share with friends. And thanks to Jen for pointing out Johnson's recent article about being interviewed in West Virginia. Now I know to pick up some Iron City beer to read with these books. And if you'd like to see/hear Craig Johnson talk about his work, click here.

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III: I was a trifle disappointed in this book, possibly because my expectations were absurdly high for a book by the man who gave us the basis for the film, House of Sand and Fog, and who happens to share the writing DNA of James Lee Burke (see the resemblance?) and Alafair Burke. This is in fact a pretty good book, well written without question, but lacking the magical spark that makes characters three-dimensional and situations, no matter how painful, impossible to turn away from. A book that leads to the horror of 9/11 should, I think, leave me emotionally wrung out but this one left me going, 'Huh. That's all?' But I suspect that I happened upon this author's work at less than his finest; I still have his Bluesman in the TBR stack, and I look forward to reading it.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers is the first of Lawrence Block's comic mystery series featuring burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. A slight but entertaining tale; fun but not memorable. But as first books in a series are often among the weakest, I have hopes that the Burglar series strengthened and became more layered and complex. I'll find out one of these days.

I re-read Head Games by Craig McDonald as a prelude to reading his newest, Toros and Torsos. Mini-rant: McDonald wuz robbed of the Edgar for Best First. 'Head Games' is a one-of-a-kind read, somewhere between Spillane-tough and Hemingway-macho and Chandler-mean but with a voice that's all Craig McDonald. His style is muy masculine and will not go down well with the squeamish. Short synop: Senator Prescott Bush (pappy of George Herbert Walker and grandpappy of Dubya) is a member of Yale's Skull & Bones club, and he is willing to pay $25K for the head of Pancho Villa. How novelist Hector Lassiter and his erstwhile biographer end up with Villa's head, how events go from bad to worse to I can't believe that just happened, how Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich and Ernest Hemingway get roped into the story, all make for a rockin' good time. The prose is pinpoint perfect, not lavish but every word counts (Hemingway would approve) so that when McDonald barely even mentions Lassiter remembering running at Pamplona with Papa it's still enough to make you smell the dust and look over your shoulder for those damned bulls. And I'm happy to say that the Bleak House edition I have is of much higher quality than the edition they produced of Reed Farrel Coleman's 'Soul Patch,' which is rife with errors. Or maybe, being a journalist, McDonald knows better how to proof and edit his work. I get my copy of Toros and Torsos tomorrow. If I can also pick up one or two of Craig Johnson's books my friends won't see me for days. And some tequila to drink while Hector goes adventuring. Definitely tequila.

What can I say that has not already been said, and said better, about Dash Hammett's The Maltese Falcon? I've only seen the movie about 20-30 times, but this is my first read of the book. Hammett's writing lends itself to the screen because unlike almost every novelist everywhere and anywhere, Hammett allows no introspection. Never never never do you, the reader, get inside Sam Spade's head. Never do you get a glimpse of what Brigid O'Shaughnessy thinks about Sam. Hammet gives you the action and the dialogue and once in a while he'll describe a facial expression. It's a very lean style of writing. And addictive, too.



*Thanks to Sir Macca for that original lyric.