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.