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

December 31, 2009

Online Indie Bookstores

Mystery Lovers Bookshop

The Poisoned Pen

Powell's Books

Skylight Books

Vroman's Books

Warwick's Books

Second Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

Another year has come and flown and it's time once again to distribute the Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction. Here are my caveats and disavowals once again: These awards are based solely on what I have read and enjoyed (or not) during the year. Not what someone else read, not what sold well, not what won at Bouchercon. These are the books that got caught in my hydraulic backwash, so to speak. The list of eligible books is in a separate post here. Eligible does include books published prior to this year and advance copies of books not generally available until next 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 where ever the cookie crumbl

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. I didn't read as many older books as I might normally have done, as my focus this year was on new and debut novels, as well as short stories. So although the competition was slim, this year the award goes to an already acknowledged classic:
The Long Goodbye (1953) by Raymond Chandler. Okay, maybe this isn't my favorite book by Chandler: the pacing is slower than the other titles of his I've read, and the tale just isn't as twisty-turny, but - it's still got all of Marlowe's cynicism mixed with a portion of misplaced knight errantry, and the atmosphere is Chandler at his best.
The Water Over the Dam Award, honors the best work of crime fiction recommended by another blogger, website, bookseller, reader or madman on the street. This award is shared by both author and the recommender. I picked up on some really solid recommendations this year. (Yes, I really do keep track of those recommendations that I follow.) If you don't think this is a competitive category, here are some titles that didn't even make it to the edge of the winner's circle: Beat the Reaper, American Rust, Jack Wakes Up, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But I have to give the nod to:
Gonzalo B (whose blog is Sweet Home Alameda) for his comment on Crime Fiction Dossier in July of '08 that caused me to add Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes to my reading list for '09. As you all know, I've been drooling over Zeltserman's books ever since.

An Honorable Dam-ention goes to Michael at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for providing me with TWO titles that made the short list for this award: Money Shot by Christa Faust and The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty. These books are well worth your time and cash. A second Honorable Dam-ention goes to author Dave Zeltserman as a recommender, for generously pointing me toward Roger Smith's Mixed Blood, a stellar debut.
The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award is given for the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction, while the Dam Your Eyes Award goes to the book I most anticipated and least enjoyed. For the first time I'm giving a single title more than one award, something I am loathe to do, but Andrew Grant's Even easily outpaces every other book this year to take both of these awards. Even proves that writing a good thriller is not a genetic gimme. I no longer trust the opinions of those authors who wrote such flattering blurbs for this one. The book has poor character development, hammy dialogue, and a barely comprehensible plot cobbled together by desultory prose. And if life doles out its usual irony, you can bet that Grant will go on to become the next Dan Brown in bestsellers.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that, while it runs a trifle closer to the cozy niche than to my generally preferred brand of edgy crime fic, has a strong message about the mental health system and wraps that message in a gentle, whimsical tale of murder. The Body in the Record Room, by Joe Barone, tells the story of a mental patient who thinks he is Roy Rogers and is investigating a murder within a mental institution. Barone never treats his characters as characters, something far too many cozy and traditional mysteries do. Instead they are people of dimension, people with stories and problems and goals, and he writes them with grace and with respect for their humanity, their strength, and their frailty.

The Dam Skippy Award honors the best short crime fiction story I've read this year. And boy, did I read a lot of short stories this year, easily more than three times the number I set as my goal  last January. I gained a renewed appreciation for the form and how difficult it is to succeed in/at/with.

There were several extremely tasty short morsels I nibbled on: Marcus Sakey's The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away; Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find; Horse Laugh by Donald Westlake; and Going, Going, Gone by Peter Blauner. For most of the year there was one story that, for me, stood out from the others: Free With This Box! by Harlan Ellison. It's about a little boy who just can't wait to get the prizes in the cereal boxes. It's a straightforward story that provides not a twist at the end, but rather a punch. Great, great story. You'll find it in the Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction.

For months I was pretty sure the Ellison story was going to be my choice for the Dam Skippy Award. I just couldn't imagine another story that would poleaxe me the way that one had. Suddenly, right in mid-December (and this is why my awards aren't determined before December 31), a copy of Craig McDonald's fabulous short story, The Last Interview, was dropped into my lap. This is the story that gave birth and death to Hector Lassiter. Saying even one word more would be to ruin the story for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. So The Last Interview just nudges past Free With This Box! to win the award. Allow me to recommend all of these stories for they are indeed all excellent and they differ vastly in style and approach. Every fan of crime fiction is certain to enjoy at least one of them.

Choosing a winner for the Hot Dam Award, awarded to the overall outstanding work of crime fiction, gave me serious heartburn again this year, just as I was running low on Prevacid. I was tempted to cop out by just listing all my favorites, the most recent of which is Don Winslow's superb The Gentlemen's Hour. To read Winslow is to become an instant addict to his storytelling, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael A. for making this book, not yet published in the USA, available to me.

The other favorites? Well, some fine reading was provided via Richard Lange's This Wicked World. I'll be watching for his next book for sure.And the same goes for Paul Tremblay. His debut novel, The Little Sleep, creates a unique interior landscape for his PI that compares favorably with any geographic depiction by any writer you care to name.

Also among this year's favorites was another debut, one I mentioned earlier as being recommended by Dave Z.  Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith, turned out to be devastating, jaw-clenching noir.

You can argue that Ken Bruen's Sanctuary or Declan Hughes's The Price of Blood should receive the award and I could support such an argument. Then there was Olen Steinhauer's heart-shredding story of cross and double-cross in The Confession, and the thrill ride of laughs and chills provided by Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment, and the wonderful coming-of-age adventure of David Benioff's City of Thieves.

And could there be any finer noir ever, at any time, than Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes and Pariah? Those titles deserve universal recognition. Zeltserman is an early front-runner for the yet-to-be-created Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame.

Like Zeltserman, Craig McDonald may have to go straight into Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame, as soon as that shrine is built, because I've yet to see anything from him that does not deserve the highest accolades, including the forthcoming Print the Legend.

And I feel like a complete heel for not handing the Hot Dam Award straight to Robert Crais for his soon-to-be-released Joe Pike novel, The First Rule, because it so far exceeded even this fan's hyper-anticipation.

I hate not having awards for each of those books, and I hope/expect that they will all garner their share of those in other, more prestigious places. All of these books floated above the others I read, but there was one that, after long and careful consideration, I thought floated just that tiny fraction higher. So the Hot Dam Award goes to:
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty. Since Mr. McKinty and I hold vastly differing opinions on The Beatles, it is greatly to my credit that I was able to overlook this deficiency in the author and see the worth of his work -- although I continue to marvel at how McKinty can fail to properly appreciate The Beatles' version of Please Mr. Postman and yet have enough poetry in his soul to write a book as remarkable as Fifty Grand. This book is as much about freedom and socio-ethnic-economic perceptions as it is about solving a murder. Wrap all of that in an edgy, sometimes staccato, darkly lyrical prose and I think you'll find that Fifty Grand is worth its title and more.
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all of the authors for their collective talent, diligence, and (so very important) their tolerance of and generosity towards amateur critics.

Books I read in 2009

* The Gentlemen's Hour by Don Winslow
* Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
* The First Rule by Robert Crais
* Or She Dies by Gregg Hurwitz (b)
* The Gift of Murder: An Anthology of Holiday Crime Stories to Benefit Toys for Tots; John M. Floyd, Editor
* Get Real by Donald E. Westlake
* Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein (ab)
* The Violet Hour by Daniel Judson (b)
* Rizzo's War by Lou Manfredo (ab)
* Death Notice by M.S. Karl (b)
* Rough Country by John Sandford
* City of Thieves by David Benioff (b)
* Eight Ball Boogie by Declan Burke
* Bad Karma by Dave Zeltserman
* Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas
* Bad Thoughts by Dave Zeltserman
* This Wicked World by Richard Lange (b)
* 36 Yalta Boulevard by Olen Steinhauer
* The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
* A Bad Day For a Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (ab)
* Flood by Andrew Vachss (bc)
* Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood (b)
* Dark End of the Street by Ace Atkins (bc)
* Slammer by Allan Guthrie
* Death Of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet (b)
* Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. (b)
* Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (b)
* The Big Empty by Declan Burke
* Money Shot by Christa Faust (b)
* The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta
* Many and Many a Year Ago by Selcuk Altun (b)
* Mixed Blood by Roger Smith (ab)
* Every Dead Thing by John Connolly (bc)
* Port Tropique by Barry Gifford (bc)
* Awakening by S.J. Bolton (b)
* Saturday's Child by Ray Banks
* The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (c)
* The Fourth Man by K.O. Dahl (b)
* The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie by Alan Bradley (b)
* Hickey and Boggs by Phillip Rock (b)
* Dark Horse by Craig Johnson
* The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes (b)
* The Last Gig by Norman Green (b)
* Sworn To Silence by Linda Castillo (b)
* Hard Man by Allan Guthrie (b)
* Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by John McFetridge (b)
* Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
* Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
* Pariah by Dave Zeltserman
* Wicked Prey by John Sandford
* Presumed Dead by Hugh Holton (bc)
* The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald (bc)
* 13 Things That Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks (b)
* The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (b)
* The Venus Death by Ben Benson (bc)
* Mating Season by Jon Loomis (b)
* Sucker Punch by Ray Banks (b)
* Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya (ab)
* Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg (ab)
* Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry (b)
* Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty
* Death at Bishop's Keep by Robin Paige (b)
* The Confession by Olen Steinhauer
* Fright by Cornell Woolrich (c)
* Hit and Run by Lawrence Block (c)
* Safer by Sean Doolittle
* American Rust by Philipp Meyer (ab)
* The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli (b)
* Lullaby Town by Robert Crais (Audio Book)
* The Renegades by T. Jefferson Parker
* Brother by James Fredericks (ab)
* The Devil In the White City by Eric Larson (b)
* Tempest Rider by Saundra Crum Akers (bc)
* Even by Andrew Grant (ab)
* Cape Disappointment by Earl Emerson
* Down In the Flood by Kenneth Abel
* Sanctuary by Ken Bruen
* Rogues Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life by Craig McDonald
* Spade & Archer by Joe Gores (b)
* When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (b)
* The Body In the Record Room by Joe Barone (b)
* The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey
* O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor (bc)
* Good People by Marcus Sakey
* Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson (c)
* Super in the City by Daphne Uviller (b)
* Runner by Thomas Perry
* Fatal Impressions by Wayne Warga (bc)
* The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (b)
* Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (c)
* L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker
* Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (ab)
* The Case of the Deceiving Don by Carl Brookins (b)
* Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman (b)
* The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
* A Likely Story by Donald E. Westlake (c)
* Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs (bc)

December 22, 2009

THE NIGHT MEN by Keith Snyder

I'll just say it right up front, okay? I loved this book.

Why? Because you get three crime stories all neatly fitted one inside the other, just like a set of those Russian nesting dolls. And each story is worthwhile, scratch that, each story is terrific in its own right/write. (Shades of a John Lennon book title!)

The smallest, innermost story is told in the form of a crime novel called "The Night Men," very much an old pulp-style detective story, all about a man trying to save a mute child from the bad guys. Think Philip Marlowe, only tougher. Maybe Mickey Spillane stuff.

In the middle story, that novel is being read/shared by three teenage boys in Los Angeles. Each of these boys has in some way become severed from his family, either physically, emotionally or both.. The  three of them band together in a nightly watch to protect one of them from his violently anti-Semitic neighbors. The book becomes their road map to manhood: Everything they know about honor and manning up, they either know instinctively or they learn from this book's 'mean streets' character.

What happened to those boys is then recalled, bit by bit, in the outermost story when two of those boys, now adults, agree to keep watch all night in a Brooklyn music store that has been vandalized in what may have been a hate crime against the store's gay owners.

Snyder has crafted wonderful, fully realized characters here. They are bright and unique, even down to the minor characters, but the two leading characters, Jason and Robert, will have men everywhere recalling the angst of their teen years and the ultimate face-offs with their dads. Jason and Robert will also have women readers wanting to mother the intelligent, misunderstood, scared-but-brave boys they once were. The closest he comes to any kind of cliche is in the character of Thomas Carter, the protagonist of the pulp novel the boys are reading. It's easy to see that in those sections Snyder did not simply lapse into cliche, but instead faithfully wrote in the style he was imitating. It's as if the reader is witnessing three smart kids getting turned on to "I, the Jury." Or watching them as they begin to understand Sam Spade's dictate that when a man's partner is murdered, a man is supposed to do something about it.

As if these three stories aren't enough, Snyder also takes Jason and Robert on a magic-mushroom trip of an investigation into who vandalized the store, called the Magic Music Shop. Their journey takes them not only from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, but from contemporary times to the psychedelic '60s. And what's especially cool, is that Snyder gets it right. When he introduces a character from the heyday of psychedelia, it's not some buffoonish Cheech-and-Chong opportunity to poke fun at the hippies. That character is a real person, with his own history and presence and effect on the world he lives in.

You want more? Okay, as well as being a writer of no mean talent, Snyder is also a composer, and his Jason character is a musician. In a music shop, there's bound to be music, and even though this was not an audio book, Snyder made me hear Jason's music and made me appreciate those rare and special moments when a group of players fall into a zone where the art takes over and the music is a presence that creates and defines itself. Sort of like Snyder's writing.

Disclosure notice: I bought this book at retail. This is my opinion of the book. I don't get any money or gifts for saying what I think.  I guess I could never cut it as a Congressional representative.

December 17, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Boone Daniels divides his time between surfing and private investigating. He'd much rather be surfing full time but he has to work two cases, neither of which he wants: A buddy wants him to find out whether said buddy's wife is cheating on him; and Boone is also looking into the open-and-shut case against a spoiled rich kid who admits to killing one of the most admired men in San Diego and a personal hero to Boone and his surfer friends. It's the latter case that is costing Boone the trust and life-long friendships of the Dawn Patrol, the men who surf the early morning hours at Pacific Beach, but it's the former case that may cost Boone his life.

How many crime fiction authors can you name in relation to Southern California? Several, right? Several ranging to perhaps too damned many. Because after you've read Chandler, Crais, Connelly, and Parker, where are you going to find a writer who brings something new to the SoCal crime fiction genre?

Look no further than Don Winslow. Remember that name: Don Winslow. His name is probably the best kept secret in crime fiction, and that's a damned shame.

One of the things that Winslow does differently than those other very talented writers is to place his protagonist in a world of close-knit friends. How is that different, you ask? Well, if Harry Bosch joined Facebook, how many friends would he have? That's right, zero. He's got loads of acquaintances, no friends.

How about Elvis Cole? Yeah, he's got Joe Pike and Lou Poitras. Exactly two friends; you wouldn't really call Lucille Chenier a friend to Elvis, would you? And heaven knows Phil Marlowe wasn't tripping over friends every time he left the office, while Parker's latest cop lead, Charlie Hood, doesn't exactly have a posse either.

But Boone Daniels has many friends. For starters, he has the entire Dawn Patrol, a half-dozen or so guys who surf together, hang out together, and have each other's back come what may. Right up until Boone starts working for Corey Blasingame's defense lawyer. Corey didn't kill just anybody, he killed a guy who was a surfing legend. Killed him for no reason and confessed. There are witnesses: Corey's fellow gang members and a couple of bystanders. Everyone says Corey did it. Hell, Corey, a budding neo-Nazi, says he did it. But Boone doesn't buy it, he thinks Corey has neither the guts nor the physicality to have committed the crime, and he begins to dig into Corey's life.

And this is the one thing that all of Boone's friends cannot and will not accept. By even trying to find mitigating circumstances for Corey, Boone has betrayed his friends, the community, and worst of all, the victim. Because the victim wasn't just one of them, the surfing crowd, he was the best of them. Best on the board and the best in life. Not only that, but if Boone does find anything the cops missed, it's probably going to put paid to any career hopes that Johnny Banzai, Boone's oldest and best friend, has in the police department.

This falling out among friends couldn't come at a worse time for Boone, as his other case, the marital infidelity case, erupts in murder and Boone is on the spot for it, either as the trigger-man or as an accessory to murder.

And it is this complex overlay of work and friendships that is one of the major points of difference between this book and most other SoCal crime fiction. The only other book I know that thoroughly works this particular complication is Crais's LA Requiem, and if a book can stand comparison to that particular classic then you know you've got your mitts on one heckuva story.

Add in that Winslow knows surf jargon and uses it judiciously; add in a sense of humor that leavens the darker sides of this story (Boone trying to decide how to dress for what may or may not be a booty call is hilarious); add in minor characters with major story effects; add in the maturation of the lead character without losing any sense of what that character has always been about; add in that Winslow writes in an unpretentious yet unabashedly masculine style that never crosses the line into buffoonery; add in well-executed pace and tension, and the sum total is a terrific story that will get its hooks into you and cause you to grieve, as Boone does, for the deteriorating world not only of the surfers but of everyone who ever lived by a code of honor and respect. Say adios to Moondoggie and Gidget; the skinheads have staked a claim to the beaches. And what land the skinheads aren't fighting over has already been forfeited to the real estate developers. What Winslow says about that latter group and their hand-in-glove corruption with local officials, well, he may not be saying anything new but he sure says it with force and conviction.

I have to address one last crime in regard to this book. The last time I checked, The Gentlemen's Hour was not available for purchase in the US, and won't be until 2011. Now that's criminal. Try the UK if you don't want to or can't afford to wait that long. And the only positive thing I can say about the idiocy of waiting so long for a US release is that it gives unaware readers a chance to pick up the first of Winslow's Boone Daniels books, The Dawn Patrol. Good as that book is, it is but an appetizer for the reading feast that is The Gentlemen's Hour.

(For those who might be interested, Dick Adler has a recent post at The Rap Sheet that has some interesting info about what Winslow is up to these days.)

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was loaned to me by a friend. I get no remuneration from writing about this book. But if the enjoyment I received from reading this book could be translated into dollars, I'd be as rich as any of those Wall Street fat cats.

Bah, humbug, anyone?

I received a pair of books for Christmas from my southernmost sister and what with every other blogger sharing lists of books about crime at Christmas, I figured I might as well chime in with my take on one of these books. It isn't strictly about crime, although there are some near-murders and illegal drug activity sprinkled on a few pages.

This delightful book that takes the wind out of the holiday sails is The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Michele Clark and Taylor Plimpton. It's a malicious/delicious anthology perhaps not best suited for the very young, it being neither warm-hearted nor child-like. But certainly hilarious and occasionally tragic.

Perhaps it is revealing that my reading of the book began, not with P.J. O'Rourke's introduction, but with Mark Twain's amusing installment -- certainly the sweetest and gentlest of those I've read so far -- and then I moved on to Charles Bukowski's darkly hilarious -- and oh-so-real to those of us with inner-city roots -- chapter on Christmas and Women. What does that say about me?

Speaking of women, as writers they aren't particularly well-represented in this anthology and the one I have read thus far, Chris Radant's Home for the Holidays: A Survivor's Frightening Account, reflects the popular notion that the modern woman finds her parents intolerably provincial. Not popular with me, but Hollywood seems to like the idea.

If Jay McInerney's The Madonna of Turkey Season is like watching a holiday trainwreck, one can only imagine the emotional pain prevalent at the McInerney holiday dinners. I staggered away from his story and went directly to James Thurber's struggle with the mountainous dilemma of Christmas cards in Merry Christmas. It didn't quite wash away the angst of the McInerney clan but it helped. Still to read: Hunter S. Thompson, John Cheever, George Plimpton (whose chapter I shall probably save for last), David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and many more.

If, like me, you're prone to the holiday blues because everything is supposed to be merry and bright but rarely never is, this may be just the reading material that will help you to realize you are not alone and that while it ain't all bubble lights and snowflakes, life still beats the alternative. And for an intelligent review of this book, as opposed to me just burbling on, check out James Yeh's post at The Faster Times.

December 14, 2009

Santa Dave has an elf...

And that elf dropped off a copy of Dave Zeltserman's Killer today. Bliss... You all know what I'll be reading on Christmas Day.

December 10, 2009

Dear Santa,

Well, it's been a while, I know, since I last wrote to you. Years. But you've always been a forgiving kind of guy. I mean, I've been dumping change and bills into your kettles every Christmas and you've never once taken the opportunity to reproach me about being a poor correspondent...

...Sorry. It's just that old America song popped into my head. You know the one, Sister Goldenhair?

Anyway, it's not like I've ever even had a postcard from you in return. How've you been? Working hard or hardly working? How's the missus? You two still take that Caribbean cruise every January?

So. I reckon it's still okay to send you my Christmas wish list, right? Don't worry, I'm not going to ask for world peace or more time or perfect happiness. If you could handle those things it would be great, but I know lots of people have already asked and come away disappointed.

But I do want some gifts for other people, okay?

I want book critics everywhere to start genuflecting when they hear Craig McDonald's name.

I want every major NYC publisher to get on their collective knees and kiss Dave Zeltserman's tush before offering him a 50-book contract. In fact, let me amend this wish to just having all the major publishers get their heads out of their... well, Santa, old pal, I suppose if I finished that sentence I guess you'd put me right back on the naughty list. Again.

I want Declan Burke to sell a million books of his own creation.

I want Robert Crais to live forever and never get too old or too tired to write about Elvis and Joe.

I want to see Don Winslow in that little red dress, surrounded by bestsellers bearing his name.

I want Andrews Vachss to win an unconditional surrender in the war against the monsters who abuse children and animals.

I want Donald Westlake's family to find a secret stash of Dortmunder books ready for publication. (OK, this one really is a gift for me, but I'm willing to share it with others.)

I want Ken Bruen to be canonized so that we all can go ahead speak of him as St. Ken, since we already think of him that way. And I'd like a St. Ken medal, please, in the shape of a hurley.

I want Jen to win the next 100 annual BBAWs for best book blog.

I want UCLA to win the Pac-10 football championship next year for Michael's son; and free audiobooks for life for Michael.

I want Naomi to get paid for her short stories. You might consider sprinkling that wish around to the other web crime writers, too.

I want publishers to give indie bookstores a fighting chance against the chain stores and mass merchandisers. Oh, wait. I already made that wish earlier about the publishers. That wish should cover this one.

I want more support for libraries and literacy efforts.

Last of all, I want people to read more. And I want them to want to read more.
Well, good buddy, guess it's almost time for the mail carrier's visit so I better get the envelope made out. You take care up there, get plenty of vitamin D, and don't work the elves too hard.

Your friend,

PS Say, man, you never have said what you would like for Christmas. What'll it be?

December 9, 2009

THE BLACK PATH by Asa Larsson

The body of a woman has been found in an ice-fishing hut in Sweden. No one knows who she is, so it's difficult to determine who might have tortured and stabbed her. Prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson is trying to piece her life and her sanity back together after nearly being murdered herself, but she jumps eagerly into another murder case. If this summary sounds a bit disjointed, consider it a reflection of the book.

The Black Path has atmosphere to spare, a hallmark of Swedish crime fic, and the characters are thoroughly developed. When I say thoroughly I mean to the point that the details of every character's life, past and present, drag the pace down to NASCAR (National Association of Snail Crawling and Roundaboutation) speed. Larsson doesn't appear to have that rare gift of limning characters in short, swift indelible strokes; instead they are all illustrated at Tolstoyesque length, from the moment of tragic birth through collegiate peccadilloes. The reader comes to know all of the characters and to understand their motivations, and yet when the book is closed, none of them linger in the mind.

The POV is constantly shifting from one character to another, and some authors do this so well they make it look easy. Larsson isn't bad at writing those transitions, but although the characters have widely differing upbringings and motives and flaws, they none of them seem to have individual voices. They all talk and walk the same, and in the end they all become one anonymous blur.

The motivations for murder, having to do with intricate corporate finances and overseas mining ventures and funding third-world revolutions, make for an interesting premise but the execution is delivered with too much exposition, making it all fairly colorless. An unlikely blood bath as the climax combined with what seemed a brief and pointless interjection of romance at novel's end, all left me unmoved. If that was the light at the end of a dark Swedish winter, I'd just as soon save on the electric bill.

From the first page, I was made to feel that I would have benefited by having read the prior books in order to understand some of the dynamics between recurring characters. The plot gets doled out just a bit in the opening pages and then en masse near the end, while in between is mostly the characters moaning on about how rough each has it or has had it, or what the problem is with the other characters. Tension sags and then falls away completely when the plot is exposed more through exposition than through dialogue or action. The revelation of incest comes across as ho-hum. Even in the action scene at the end, there is a regrettable lack of tension and a little too much built-in coincidence.

On the plus side, the author doesn't get overly graphic with the murder and torture, but at the same time the reader never develops an empathy with the murder victim or what she endured, nor with the two women - cop and prosecutor - who lead the investigation. And neither the cop nor prosecutor develops that empathy, being instead pretty much consumed by their own interior lives. A far cry, this, from the Harry Bosch mantra that "everybody counts or no one does."

The story takes place in a cold climate and leaves the reader feeling those icy temps but, paradoxically, with no hint of a chill.

I'm supposed to add a disclosure notice to pacify the Feds. Okay, here goes. I bought this book with my own money. I'm not making any money or getting anything in return for either promoting it or dissing it. Life sucks that way.

December 4, 2009

Monsieur Malaprop et fille

Everyone has that one relative, don't they? Maybe that relative is noted for his (or her) bad timing and puerile humor, like choosing to loudly pass gas just as the maestro lifts his baton. Is there any family who cannot lay claim, however remotely, to a hothead who ruins the restaurant meal for everyone by abusing the server for bringing toast one shade darker than ecru? There's certainly a maniac driver in every family; how else to account for all the road rage? And some families have that one relative who doesn't suffer from dementia but does carry eccentricity to extremes: the uncle who has to Armor All the tires in a certain order, on a certain day, with a certain cloth that must be folded just so; the cousin who takes apart toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms, just to make sure the paper all hangs in the "right" direction. And from what I've seen in restaurants, everyone has a relative who was raised in the barnyard, and lacks any vestige of acceptable table manners.

But I have this brother-in-law. His name is Jeff. Okay, his name is Robert, but we all call him Jeff. Jeff is the dearest, gentlest bear of a man. A sweetheart, the kind of guy you can pour out all your troubles to and be certain of a sympathetic yet pragmatic ear. Married to my elder sister for 38 years, he's been a stellar husband, father and provider. Good table manners, too. Courteous and considerate of others. You can pretty much take him anywhere. But one of these days he's going to show up in one of my stories.

Jeff is not a reader. No books, magazines, newspapers, nada. He glides through life, never listening to any news more current than the weather report. In all the decades I've known him I have only once, outside of church, seen him with a book in his hands: He was reading Goldilocks to his great-niece, sort of. That is, he was turning the pages and she was telling him the story punctuated frequently with her favorite word: Why?

And I think it is this lack of close contact with the English language in print that has caused Jeff's vocabulary to become a thing of curiosity and a joy forever. Whether he chooses the wrong word or makes up a new one, he manages to twist the meanings of his sentences in ways unique and startling.

Once Jeff was explaining scuba diving to me. A diver has to pause on his way to the surface, he informed me, in order to decapitate. And here I always thought divers were supposed to stay calm and not lose their heads.

At a family gathering before the death of my father, Jeff wanted to get a photo of the clan. This was, he assured us, a kodiak moment. Another of those moments was probably the picture my face made when he told me the VA would give him radioactive pay for his disability. Yeah. That one took me a few seconds to translate.

I promise you, he is blissfully unaware of the impact of these declarations. As in the time when Jeff said he could never have been an office worker, as I once was. He said he couldn't stand to be cooped up all day in one of those pubicles. Well. Who could blame him? Some time later I was amazed  to learn that the word 'pubicle' has entered our vocabulary and it refers to a bathroom that has been made into an office. Nope, can't say I'd care to spend nine-to-five in a pubicle either. But somehow I don't think Jeff was ahead of the curve when he said that word.

Not only does he not care to work in a 'pubicle,' but he's decided that he doesn't really want to visit Scotland because all the men there wear (drum roll, please) stilts. When his daughter wanted to go to the store to get some balm for her sore muscles, he protested the necessity of doing so when he had some perfectly good embalming cream in the medicine cabinet.

You can only imagine what he does to song lyrics. As his wife and I are both life long Beatlemaniacs, we don't go long without hearing their music. Do you know the words to Let It Be?
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me...

Try singing along with Jeff:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Nature calls to me...
We were pretty sure he did that one on purpose, but he certainly acted innocent when we called him on it. Because of another incident later on we decided he was innocent, and we also decided his daughter, Amanda, the wide-eyed recipient of the "embalming cream," had inherited his verbal malady. Looking over the menu at a Chinese restaurant, Mandy was startled -- as we all were -- to find Human Chicken on the menu. And she wasn't half as amused as I was when she discovered that her flight home was scheduled with Pinochle -- sorry, that's Pinnacle -- Airlines. Those slips could have been merely coincidental but one day as Mandy sang along to The Beatles' Help!, we realized her condition was a genetic reflection of her father. Her version of that famous song?
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down,
And I do appreciate your feelin' 'round.
What's that old t-shirt slogan? "The gene pool could use a little chlorine." Well, if you're at all concerned about the gene pool, you may be relieved to learn that as of this writing, Amanda -- an only child herself -- has not replicated.

December 2, 2009


Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
Minotaur Books
February, 2010
ISBN 978-0-312-55437-8

1965. In Ketchum, Idaho, the last residence of Ernest Hemingway, a perfect storm is brewing. A conference of Hemingway scholars has descended on the small town, each of them frenetically eager to espouse and gain support for his own opinions on Hemingway's work, his life and especially his death. Among the scholars are Professor Richard Paulson and his pregnant wife, Hannah, a budding writer. The alcoholic Paulson has somehow gained the inside track to write a book with the widow, Mary Hemingway. Paulson, whose career is in a slump, believes Mary killed her husband and he will do anything to secure a confession from her and get his hands on the treasure trove of unpublished papers Hemingway left to Mary. But Mary has her own agenda, and Paulson's wife is on it. And she guards her late husband's work with murderous tenacity. But there are more sinister forces at work than a pack of self-absorbed, backstabbing Papa-wannabes. Hannah is certain that she and Richard are being followed. The Hemingway house is overflowing with wiretaps and listening devices, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. A cold killer named Donovan Creedy is even more hellbent than the scholars to get his hands on the Hemingway papers and destroy all literary and popular respect for Hemingway. At the center of this perfect storm is Hemingway's long-time friend, Hector Lassiter. Lassiter has a clear mission in mind: Protect his late friend's legacy from the bastards who would destroy it, and while he's at it, he might as well make them pay.

REVIEW: I had a great deal of difficulty trying to review McDonald's last novel, Toros & Torsos, because of its scope, depth, style, and complex plot. Right up front, I'll tell you: the man hasn't missed a step in this third episode of the life and times of Hector Lassiter, the crime writer who "writes what he lives and lives what he writes."

Hector is 65 years old now, far beyond the years allowed for the generic fictional he-men of the 21st century. But Hector is a rare breed; he's "the last man standing of The Lost Generation." He's a man of letters who carries a Colt, a two-fisted intellectual, and age has not diminished him. McDonald stays true to the character we saw in the first two books while developing Hector further. Hector is still a romantic in some ways, but he's also learned a degree of caution in his more intimate relationships. His anger can still escape his control, and when that happens Hector's reaction is extreme. He will stare into the face of the American criminal justice system, with all of its power and minions, and not blink.

The character of Donovan Creedy bears a strong resemblance to the notorious E. Howard Hunt in that both are right-wing nuts, CIA/FBI shadow ops agents, and mediocre (at best) crime novelists. Creedy has a string of pulp novels to his name in this story, as did Hunt in real life. (Remember the scene in All the President's Men when Woodward and Bernstein found out Hunt wrote spy novels? That always struck me as something worthy of fiction, and McDonald has neatly taken care of that.)

Other characters such as Paulson, Hannah, Mary Hemingway, are all so deftly drawn that one feels that it would be entirely possible for any of them to show up on Larry King Live to defend their motivations. Hannah in particular is a fascinating creature, a short story writer and a keen observer, but she is also one of the several bazillion women who are much stronger than they realize, until they are put to a crucial test. Hannah passes her test of strength and character with flying colors, and in sharp contrast to how her husband, Mary, Creedy, and even Hector face their own trials. I'd love to tell you how Hannah did it, too, because she put McGyver to shame. He would never have thought of something so simple.

Action? Yep, there's plenty of that and plenty of suspense. There's murder and there's attempted murder. There are threats and there are warnings. There are the evil and the weak, the good and the strong, the selfless and the self-absorbed. There are illegal drugs. Plane crashes. Ambushes. Beatings. Even one orgy. For those who just want action and heroes and villains, you won't go wrong with this book. But you'd be cheating yourself if you didn't look even just a little deeper. There's a rich, liquid quality to this book, in characterization and in plot, that leaves me thirsting for more. And the historical facts used to frame and enhance the fiction are mesmerizing even without any help from the author.

As McDonald played his small surrealistic mind games in the text of Toros & Torsos, here again he has seamlessly blended fact and fiction until my head was in a whirl. I kept one hand on the book and one hand on Google while I was reading. While McDonald's text of Toros &Torsos is actually told in third person as it follows Hector over several decades, in Print the Legend, that book is being written by Hector (still in third person) about himself, treating biographical facts about himself as fiction. Okay, treating fictional biographical facts about himself as truth. No, as true fiction. I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here? McDonald writes it so that I know what he's doing but I can't even describe it. It's history and fiction tied up in one neat Möbius strip. When Hannah gets a sneak peek at Hector's manuscript, she is astounded that it "transcended any notions of genre writing."

Well, hell, Hannah, welcome to the club. I take pride (the I-told-you-so variety) in noting in my review of Toros & Torsos that the book 'exceeds and expands the genre.' Should I be wondering at this point if McDonald is Hector made flesh and reincarnated? In my haste to praise and deify McDonald's talent have I actually underestimated the caliber of his work? Can I get an amen, somebody?

Still don't believe me about the mind games? Well... In Print the Legend, one Hemingway scholar is observed to have stolen the title of his book from one of Bud Fiske's volumes of poetry. Don't know who Bud is? Google him; read his poetry. Better still, read Head Games, the first in the Hector Lassiter series, then read Bud's poetry.

Is it a coincidence that the spook following Lassiter around has the last name of Langley? Or that chapter 22 is titled Art in the Blood? When Creedy accuses Lassiter of "chasing post-modernism" by using himself as a character in one of his own books, one has to wonder what he would make of what McDonald is doing: biting post-modernism on the ass?

What really happened on that July morning in Idaho? The book ends with a delicious mixture of resolution and ambiguity. While studying the ripple effect of Hemingway's life and death, McDonald has created his own ripple effect. Long may he wave.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.