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

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.