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

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.

September 11, 2008

REVIEW: VERY COLD FOR MAY by William P. McGivern

Willie Garvin, he of knife-throwing fame, called it 'the flux' in one of Peter O'Donnell's terrific Modesty Blaise books. Willie was talking about coincidences that shouldn't happen, and the example he gives goes something like: Two books are published about the life of the 3rd underbutler for Queen Victoria. One book about such an obscure individual would be rare, but two? And published at the same time? Willie puts it down to 'the flux.' Something magnetic, he reckons.

Well, Willie, (that's Terence Stamp as Willie in the wretched Modesty Blaise film) here's another case of it. This past Tuesday I set my DVR to record a couple of movies (TCM is one of America's greatest cultural assets) I had never seen: Cops and Robbers and Odds Against Tomorrow. Went out to run some errands and of course (of course!) I dropped by the used bookstore. I was looking for something by James M. Cain and was happy to get a copy of 'Mildred Pierce.' I also picked up a paperback, 'Very Cold For May,' by William P. McGivern. Never heard of the guy, but the book sounded interesting and I love the 1940s-50s hardboiled stuff and I thought this might be one.

So yesterday, I sit down to watch my movies and whaddaya know? Guess who wrote the novel that was the basis for the noir 'Odds Against Tomorrow?' Yeah, this McGivern dude. So okay, now I have to research the guy a little more. Turns out he wrote more than 20 novels, mostly crime fiction, and three of his books became films, including 'The Big Heat' (starred Glenn Ford) which won an Edgar for Best Motion Picture. So there's another movie I need to see. And the John Wayne film, 'Brannigan,' which I saw more years ago than I like to remember. And McGivern also wrote a big ol' heap of scripts for TV: Kojak; Banyon; O'Hara, US Treasury; Adam-12; Ben Casey; Slattery's People; the list just goes on and on. So before I even open the book I know the guy has some serious credentials. Didn't one of my favorite, maybe my very favorite, crime fiction writers start off writing for TV? You know who I mean. Robert Crais.

Now down to business:

SYNOPSIS: May Laval is going to publish her memoirs. And a book from May will get everyone's attention because May not only knows everybody, she also knows where they buried the bodies, figuratively speaking. Captains of industry to US Senators, mafia dons to soap opera writers, she knows all their dirty little secrets and kept a pretty swell diary just so she wouldn't forget any of the details. One of her acquaintance, a steel baron named Riordan, has not only May to deal with, but a Congressional investigation into his business practices. If he's found guilty of profiteering during the recent war (you know, WW2), he'll be ruined. To handle both matters Riordan hires a PR man named Jake Harrison to start spinning things his way. Jake is just the man for it. Not only is he a friend of May's, a real friend, he's also completely indifferent to his client's guilt or innocence. It's business, after all, and Jake is very, very good at this PR game. Jake's only problem is trying to figure out why his wife left him. Oh, and who killed May?

REVIEW: Well, put simply, if you like the crime fiction of the 1950's you'll like this book. If you don't, you probably won't. This is not one of today's mass-produced mass-murder, paint the town with gore stories. McGivern is both clever and erudite enough to give Dash Hammett a run for his money. Seriously. Shove over, Nick and Nora Charles, because Jake and ex, Sheila, spout dialogue that is witty, urbane, and often cuts to the bone. The story, given its confinement to about 200 pages or so, is nicely twisty and I did NOT guess the killer. Hurrah! So I went back to the bookstore and got the other two McGivern titles.

Here's a sample from page 24:
Jake smiled pensively. "Why you left me I'll never know. We always had fun, didn't we?"

"Yes, but you drank too much," Sheila said. "Also you pulled too many deals like tonight."

"That's ridiculous," Jake said irritably.

"Not at all," Sheila smiled. "I wanted to be a wife, but you wanted a drinking companion."

"Good God," Jake said. "You sound like some creature who's just been dragged to civilization from darkest suburbia."

"Also, I never got adjusted to your working for a fraud like Gary Noble," Sheila said.

"Dear, you're beginning to rave. You work for Gary, too, remember."



And one more bit, because some of this is just so delicious. Here on page 34, Jake visits May in her boudoir to discuss the diary. (Don't worry, this book never gets coarse. Your nine-year-old could read it. Might need a dictionary though.)

Jake sat down on a dainty three-legged chair and built two drinks. May sipped hers approvingly, and said, "Don't you like the Walden simplicity I've created up here?"

Glancing around, Jake grinned. The high-ceilinged bedroom faced east, but thick pink drapes were pulled together now shutting off the view of the park and the lake. White fur rugs were scattered about the polished floor, and the immense four-poster bed, covered with fat pink pillows, stood imposingly in the middle of the room. The light was soft, and there was a fireplace and bookshelves. May's dressing table was impressive as a tribal altar, with its flesh-toned mirrors, and the banks of crystal jars that contained hand lotions, cold creams, powders and colognes.

"You need a couple of blackamoors with ostrich fans," Jake said. "Outside of that you didn't miss a trick."



See what I'm saying?

September 9, 2008

REVIEW: BORDERLANDS by Brian McGilloway

SYNOPSIS: Inspector Ben Devlin investigates a pair of seemingly unrelated murders in the border region between Northern Ireland and its southern counterpart. Assaults, arson, and assorted nasty occurrences trouble Devlin as he wends his way among travellers, former Provos, good cops/bad cops, an old flame, and a wife who won't stand for it. And amidst all of this, Devlin suspects his dog has been mauling his neighbor's sheep. Oh, and let's not forget it's Christmastime. Not much peace on earth for Ben Devlin though, not the way things are going here.

REVIEW: Because I am a salivating hound over much of the Irish crime fiction that has begun arriving in the USA ever since the Cult of Ken Bruen began, I had been anticipating the arrival of Borderlands by Brian McGilloway. I had not seen many reviews but enough to whet my appetite. I regret to report that I came away not unhappy but not satisfied either. The plot is nicely complicated, the prose is workmanlike, and the character development is...well, the characters are developed to a certain degree but not to the point where I found any of them irresistible. I couldn't work up any anger at Devlin for lusting beyond his marriage, nor fear for his family when they are placed in very real jeopardy. The first I attribute to inadequate characterization, the second to the lack of any real impact in the action sequences. Sometimes the writing in those scenes had the feeling of a writing puzzle being fit together, 'this goes here, that goes there.'

But in general, the prose does flow nicely. And kudos to the author for never getting bogged down in exposition, something I find occurs with a lot of procedurals. Yet neither through description nor action did I get any real feeling for or mental picture of this region. The political and historical complexities of the borderlands may just be too overwhelming to easily fit into a book of this length. I also suspect though that such complexity would best be shown through characterization and conflict, and there is some of both here, but insufficiently developed to keep me engaged.

One of the few scenes that really did give me a sense of place and people was when Devlin and a host of other men stayed out all night trying to catch the animal that was attacking the sheep. In that scene, the author does a nice job of conveying the cameraderie of strangers and the rural community spirit that leaves unspoken the obligation to unflinchingly help one's neighbors. Unfortunately there is not the same easy depiction of Devlin together with any other character, and once I began gathering the clues (a little ahead of Devlin I'm sorry to say) I had a hard time maintaining interest in him.

Still and all, the plot is generally solid and first books in a series (which I think this is intended to be) are often as much about promise as they are about delivery. In a blog, author McGilloway wrote:
A strong crime fiction series, to my mind, incorporates fine writing, a strong and engaging central character and an acute sense of a geographical place that reflects the personality of the protagonist and the themes of the novels in some way: Morse and Oxford are inseparable; likewise Rebus and Edinburgh, Bosch and LA, Parker and Maine and, of course, Robicheaux and Louisiana.

If future books are more like Rebus than Morse, I'll keep reading. If they trend toward Morse, popular though that character is with others, I'll move on.

September 4, 2008

REVIEW: THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS by Nancy Pickard


SYNOPSIS: In 1987 rural Kansas, a man and his two sons discover the frozen, naked, and bloody body of a beautiful young woman on their farm. That same night another young man, Mitch Newquist, the pride of Small Plains, is forced to suddenly leave his home and family and the love of his life. In 2004, the unidentified young woman's -- the Virgin's -- grave has become a sacred site for those who need divine intervention. But although the Virgin's gravestone has no name on it, there are several people who know who she was. The lies that are told and re-told to hide her identity, the horrific actions taken to maintain the secret will all forever change the people involved, and their children.

REVIEW: I'm leery when I read reviews of a crime fiction novel that include the attribute 'literary.' It's not that I think crime fiction is not or cannot be literary. Au contraire, mes amis. But I have often found that when critics feel the need to point out, relentlessly, the literary quality of a crime fiction tale then I can generally smell some pretty good prose and a weak theme disguising the stench of a story gone bad. So here's Nancy Pickard's The Virgin of Small Plains. Nominated for every crime fiction award going, or nearly; won half of them; and I keep hearing 'literary.'

Okay, I'm a skeptic but at least I will admit when I'm wrong. This is a literary crime fiction novel, and I mean that in the very best sense. No snarking about.

Told in simple prose (sorry, one needn't be as evocative as Benjamin Black or as elegiac as James Lee Burke to have a literary style), this is a story less about a murder than about the many lies people tell each other and themselves; a story about the loss of innocence; a story about how the past tinges the present, always. Weaving back and forth in time, across 17 years from the time of the murder to the present day, this book is a murder mystery, a romance, and a cautionary tale about the damage families do to themselves, sometimes through love and sometimes through the lack of same. And hey, author Pickard also manages to elegantly arrange a few words on faith and hope and their places in our lives. She does this in a writing voice that is without affectation, no 'look at me, I'm writing literature!' interjections.

Even though the prose is simple, don't be fooled. The construction of this story is anything but simple. There are at least six different characters sharing their own perspectives on the events, while moving from 1987 to present day, and back again. There are no phony cliffhanger chapter endings, and that allows the movement in time to feel less obstructive, less confusing, so that the flow of the narrative is barely interrupted by the time shift. Further, the author was wonderfully deft at allowing the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about the aspects of divine intervention. This is a story in which, based on you, the reader, the hand of God is either everywhere or nowhere.

The characters are perhaps more limned than finely drawn. That doesn't mean you don't get to know them through and through by their words and deeds, by who they trust and who they lie to, and why. I don't need to know what a character wants for breakfast or what clothes they sleep in. I need to know what moves them to passion, to anger, to revenge, to redemption. This I found in abundance. And the balance between the story being character driven or plot driven is a fine one. More things happen than just people telling lies: There is a tornado, a second murder, stolen birds, and sex for those would have it. The pacing never gallops but never limps either; the speed of events is perfect for this story.

If you are looking for a thriller to read, go elsewhere, unless you are thrilled by solid story, flawed but sympathetic characters, and writing without ruffles. If you want a story about real lives being turned inside out and shaken sideways by a small-town murder, then this is the book for you.