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

July 30, 2009

REVIEW: SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
November 18, 2009 (US)

SYNOPSIS:
Prison guard Nick Glass is new to the job, and he's completely unsuited to it. He's an obvious mark for both the hardened cons and the veteran guards alike. When his wife and child are threatened, Nick agrees to do one favor for the cons. Of course, one favor turns into many and soon the pressure of trying to hold together and protect his family, as well as do his job, pushes Nick closer to his breaking point and a chain of events that no one, least of all Nick Glass, could have predicted.

REVIEW: After reading the synopsis, you may think you know what this book is about and you may even think you have some idea of how it will progress. You'd be dead wrong. In fact, this isn't even a prison story in the usual sense of that term. 'Slammer' isn't just about a physical prison; it's about all the prisons, external and internal, that confine a young man who suffers bullying and abuse and extortion. While some events occur within the prison where Nick works, Nick himself becomes the figurative prisoner of more forceful characters, and he's also a prisoner to those he loves. This is a dark jigsaw-puzzle of a book where mirrors and memories are not to be trusted anymore than Nick can trust the prisoners out to take advantage of his weaknesses.

Author Allan Guthrie does a staggering job of creating a Nick Glass who is irritating in his weakness but is also pitiable and likeable, a man as fragile as his name. Nick has murky depths beyond his primary character flaw, and Guthrie irrevocably adjusts, sometimes violently and sometimes indirectly, the lights and mirrors to reveal what's swimming in those depths. To say more would be to give away important elements of the story, and this book is too good to mistreat.

Adding to the vise-like pressure of Nick's situation are the claustrophobic scenes occurring either within the confines of the prison or the small house Nick shares with his wife and child. Nick becomes a black hole of pressure, where tension goes in but cannot be released. The author doesn't so much raise the level of tension as he compresses it around and into Nick personally, and the scenes begin to feel more and more confined until it's as if everything that is happening is entirely internal to Nick.

Readers should be prepared to give Nick's story full time and attention because events move quickly and there are time shifts. Casual references made early assume greater significance as the book progresses. Even so, expect moments of 'oh, I see!' mingled with sharp sadness. Nick Glass is an unforgettable protagonist and Guthrie has placed him in a darkly tragic, poignant, and ultimately satisfying psychological thriller.

July 26, 2009

REVIEW: THE BIG EMPTY by Declan Burke

SYNOPSIS: Ex-con Harry Rigby drives a cab, mules a small amount of grass, and now and again he acts as father figure to his young nephew, Ben. An odd kind of a father figure, because Harry killed his brother, Ben's father. That's how Harry got to be a con in the first place. When Harry delivers some grass to an acquaintance named Finn Hamilton, he's just in time to witness Finn's nine-floor swan dive. Suddenly everyone wants something from Harry: the cops, Finn's shyster lawyer and accompanying goon, Finn's sexually combustible mama and his more-than-a-smidgen dysfunctional sister with the long claws. For Harry, keeping himself alive while trying to get his hands on Finn's much sought after laptop and gun is one thing. Protecting the one person he loves most, that's a whole different problem.

REVIEW: I miss having a photo of a book jacket to post at the top left of my review. That's because there is no book jacket for The Big Empty. I'm sure the publishers put it down to the recession that they haven't found a place for this sharply funny, jaggedly violent tale of a man walking a tightrope above a twisty canyon of family deceit and dirty money. Whatever the reason, recession or otherwise, it's a shame. Declan Burke writes with a razor wit so fine that the reader feels the sting of a thousand cuts by the end of Harry's journey. (Burke is so incisive that if the man were writing political commentary instead of crime fiction, I would expect to see his column on the Op Ed pages of every major English language newspaper in existence.)

Burke creates a pallet of characters to root for or against, or even just to marvel at. The late Finn's femme fatale mother is a devious creature whose literary ancestry hearkens back to female characters produced by Raymond Chandler and Tennessee Williams. Solicitor Gillick, Finn's shyster, conjures up images of Orson Welles in 'Touch of Evil.' Ben is no cardboard child; he's a breath of fresh air, being both as smart and aware as only a 10-year-old can be, and at the same time as naive as one would expect (or at least hope for) from a child his age; slightly rebellious but still more obedient than he will be at fifteen. He's a kid you can love because he's genuine, being neither a plaster saint nor the demon seed. And that's true of Harry as well. The reader can believe in Harry as much for his failings as for his strengths. And when Harry has been pushed to his limits, when he finally is bent on payback, prefixing 'Dirty' to his name would not be a misnomer. He does some things I've myself wanted to do to a lawyer or two. And it doesn't hurt that Harry cracks wiser than Philip Marlowe.

The pace and tension ratchet up with every complication or obstacle Harry encounters. And the author wisely opted to give Harry enough native wit to parry and sort out the tightly knitted problems and mysteries rather than relying on chance or the one lone missing miracle clue that suddenly ties it all together. Life is not so neat as Jessica Fletcher would have her viewers believe. Some of the mysteries and puzzles may be solved by this story's end, but no one's life is ever going to be as it was, and some mysteries may never be solved. Beyond the wisecracking and the hot tempo, this book has a heart easily wounded. Harry Rigby is that heart. The reader, and Harry, are left in no doubt that where there are wounds, there will be scars.

Just a couple of my favorite lines from this book:
You know you've arrived when a lawyer-type says you lack even a shred of human decency, by the shred being how lawyer-types measure decency.

Kids should love their mothers and hate their fathers. It's in all the best Feng Shui books.


And I forgot to point out that Burke's imagery creates vivid mental scenes:
O'Neill Crescent lay on the outer fringe of the estate, a quiet left-hooking curve of semi-detached cardboard boxes which petered out just before the crumbing road tipped over into a shallow ditch, through which ran a muddy stream choked with shopping trolleys, tin cans, condoms and bicycle wheels. In the bare field beyond, three emaciated ponies snuffled for grazing among the blackened circles of dead bonfires and the rusting hulks of burnt-out cars.


Can it really be recession that's keeping a fast, witty work of crime fic like this off the bookstore shelves? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Harry Rigby, or someone like him, should have a little talk with the publishers.

July 23, 2009

REVIEW: MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust

SYNOPSIS: Former video porn star and now the owner of an upscale adult modeling agency, Angel Dare gets bound, shot, dumped in a car trunk, and left for dead. And with no idea why. But she's going to find out why. And who. Oh, especially who.

REVIEW: Noir comes in all styles these days: Bleak, sleek, bold, gritty, detached, focussed, traditional, neo- and post- and so on. But you don't get much raunchy noir these days. Raunch fell out of fashion a while back, about same the time Mickey Spillane did. But books like Money Shot, by Christa Faust, make one remember when raunch was available on a metal rack down at the local drugstore (pre-CVS and Walgreen's world-conquering explosions); when a book like this one would have sat comfortably right next to William Goldman's Boys and Girls Together and just above some of those books for sale at Pop Sensation.

A bit raunchy (but not repellent), fast-paced, violent, occasionally funny, and a whiplash smart heroine - what lover of noir could ask for more? Angel Dare isn't the old 'whore with a heart of gold' stereotype. She's a woman who worked long and hard to acquire simple things like a home and business of her own. She's got determination and guts. She's also got a gun and she will use it. But that's nothing compared to what she can do with a roll of duct tape. Except that Angel has a touch of sentiment in her makeup, she would be a fitting mate to Westlake's Parker character. They both do 'getting even' really, really well.

Money Shot is a fast, fun read with terrific cover art. Tip o' the hat and many thanks to Michael for sending this book along to me.

July 18, 2009

REVIEW: THE SILENT HOUR by Michael Koryta

SYNOPSIS: PI Lincoln Perry isn't happy about his latest client, a murderous ex-con who did 15 years in prison but has been free for the past 13 years. The client, Parker Harrison, wants Perry to find a woman named Alexandra Cantrell who, along with her husband, disappeared a year after Harrison was paroled into their care. Matters aren't helped when Perry finds out that his client has knowledge of the husband's death. Out of state cops, an inexperienced PI and an aging FBI agent all find their way to Perry's door, wanting answers Perry doesn't have and doesn't want to have, because among the many people beating a path to his door in Harrison's trail, is one Dominic Sanabria, a mobster of the old school and the brother of Alexandra Cantrell. Lincoln Perry is not stupid enough to try and cross Sanabria, and he wants out of this case fast. But everyone else seems determined to make him a player. People should be careful what they ask for.

REVIEW: There are so many things good and right about this book that it feels like quibbling to say that this is not Michael Koryta's best work. And yet it's something of a relief to know that he's as fallible as other writers.

What's good: Koryta continues to build and develop and mature Perry's character, and in the process makes this one of his most emotionally memorable books. Perry himself is fallible but he's lucky enough to have friends who will point out his flaws for the purpose of self-improvement, but who will also support him just because he is who he is, warts and all. Throughout this case, Perry finds himself trying to learn whether his work will define him or destroy him. Koryta never lets Perry off the hook; the consequences of his decisions affect not only Perry and his clients but also his friends, lover, and partner. The untried PI, Ken Merriman, and client Harrison also are characters of depth and interest and it is crucial that the reader sees them as such because without them, without the sympathetic nature of their problems and mysteries, the story would lack momentum.

That's where the not-so-good comes into play. Much -- a little too much, I think -- of the mystery is unraveled as Lincoln interviews people or studies files. The beginning of the book hooks the reader early on, with the mystery of the loving couple who disappeared from their eerily beautiful home, an otherworldly place that carries its own epitaph by the front door. In the last section of the book, Perry begins hooking all the clues together and the story gathers steam for its final (and almost only) action sequence. The middle section of the story, aptly titled Cold Trail Blues, is where the story sags. Raymond Chandler (I think it was he) once said something about when the story falters, have a man come in with a gun. In the middle section I kept waiting for a man to come in with a gun. Mostly what happens is Lincoln listens to a lot of reminiscences and tries to sort out truth from lies. The information in that mid-section is necessary to build the story, but the presentation lacks drive. The energy that ran through Envy the Night, Koryta's previous book, start to finish, is missing from the midsection of The Silent Hour.

And yet, having said that, the emotional wallop of this book is so powerful that it's easily worth the reader's patience to get the answers to all the mysteries; to understand the ripple effect, on people and across time, of one's decisions; to understand how it is often our weaknesses that inform our decisions instead of our strengths; and the never-good results of allowing one's work, however well-intentioned, to devour one's soul. No, this may not be Koryta's best work, but it's still pretty damned good, and will probably please most of his fans and garner some new ones as well.

Here's an excerpt, an exchange that takes place at Lincoln's home, between Lincoln and mobster Dominic Sanabria:
"Who hired you?"

I shook my head.

"You've been around," he said. "You understand that people can eventually be convinced to share information."

"I've also seen how stupid and wasteful all that convincing becomes when it doesn't produce any information of value. I've seen the problems that can arise as a result of the effort."

"You were a cop."

"I was."

"Cops tend to feel safe. Off-limits, protected. That sort of thing."

"I've been to a few police funerals. Enough to know better."

"Still you refuse me."

"The name can't help you, Mr. Sanabria. My client is a nobody.
Was a nobody."

"Maybe you like me," he said. "Maybe you like having me around, want me to drop in again. That must be it, because here you have a chance to send me away for good, and you're refusing that."

"I like you fine. You're terrific, trust me. Even so, I sure as shit don't want you around."

"You sound a little uneasy there."

"I am."

"You sound, maybe, even afraid," he said, and there was a bite in his voice. a taunt.

"I'm afraid of my own stupidity," I answered. "There are people I'd rather not be involved with, at any level, at any time. You are one of those people."

"That could be viewed as an insult."

"It should be viewed as a statement of fact. I don't want anything to do with you, and I don't know anything that can help you. Where we go from here, I guess you will decide and I'll deal with."

He nodded his head very slowly. "Yes. Yes, I guess I will decide."

Another pause, and then he got to his feet and walked toward me.

July 1, 2009

Strawberry short takes.

A round-up of my June reading:

The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes. Traditional American crime fiction by an Irishman; and no Yank could have done it better. PI Ed Loy is searching for a jockey who's been missing for years, and why does it seem like even the priest who hired Loy doesn't really want the guy found? Loy's dialogue comes straight out of Humphrey Bogart's mouth. I'm looking forward to more of Hughes's work as this book inherits all the best qualities of the Chandler-Hammett legacy and none of the excesses of many another legatee.

Saturday's Child, by Ray Banks, introduces the reader to Cal Innes, fresh from jail and a PI without a license. Cal is forced to take a job for a local mob boss, and while searching for the dealer who ran off with the boss's money, the boss's son plays the nastiest game of cat-and-mouse Cal has yet encountered. Hard, mean, and wincingly funny (as if you fell down a flight of stairs: you know you looked hilarious but it hurt like hell). This is the first book in the Cal Innes series. Some series are best read in order of publication; some series, the order of reading doesn't really matter. To fully appreciate Cal's situation in book two, Sucker Punch, it's best to start with Saturday's Child.

Dark Horse by Craig Johnson. Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire is back, and this time he literally gets to ride the range. Not that horses are his favored mode of transportation. In this episode, Wyoming Sheriff Longmire tries to understand the events that led to a man's brutal death and the open-and-shut case against that man's wife. Johnson's gift for characterization never flags, and his western sense of humor keeps a tragic story from becoming maudlin.

The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie by Alan Bradley. A budding young scientist discovers a murder victim in the garden and worries that her father might be responsible. Lots of buzz about this book, about its award-winning charm. I can see why some are taken with this book, but the mechanics of the story are too obvious and contrived for my taste. I didn't find the uber-precocious 11-year old heroine all that entertaining. Maybe I read too much noir, but that kid has the potential to become a sweet young psychopath. But who knows, if she ever turns into a female Lou Ford I might become quite enamored of her. As it is, I think a lot of folks, particularly young readers, will be big fans of young Flavia de Luce. And if Walt Disney were still making Hayley Mills movies, this one would be a dandy. For a contrasting viewpoint, check out Joe Barone's review here.

The Fourth Man by K.O. Dahl. Intriguing psychological mystery. Full review here.

Awakening by S.J. Bolton. A smart, energetic gothic suspense. Full review here.

Hickey and Boggs by Phillip Rock, is about a pair of down-at-heel PIs whose search for a woman leads them into the crossfire over $400,000 in stolen bank notes. The book is a novelized version of the film. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer. He provided me with both book and film, which stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. This is not a slap-dash film version of I Spy, but is instead a suitably bleak neo-noir tale from the early 1970s, when noir had fallen well and truly out of fashion in Hollywood. Some kind of neo-noir magnetic force must be at work because no sooner had Michael sent this book to me than Duane Swierczynski penned a paean to the film at Secret Dead Blog. That post is well worth a look-see, as are the comments. But of course, you should see the film, right? Click here to watch it for free. Thanks also to Michael for steering me to the Film Noir Reader for the comparative analysis between Hickey and Boggs and Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. The very fact that it's feasible to examine the film in the light of Chandler's work should tell you a lot about this movie.

And since that analysis has already been done, I won't dig any deeper here. In The Long Goodbye, PI Philip Marlowe befriends an alcoholic war veteran whose rich, indiscreet wife gets her head bashed in. Some aspects of this book seem autobiographical (not the murders of course), and as a result Chandler gave us a slower paced, more introspective story than I'm used to from him. At the same time the story is awash with all the things that make reading Chandler such a rich experience: seamless prose, picture-perfect similes, painfully accurate portrayals of the human condition and the environment we create for our personal dramas. Not my favorite Marlowe story, but it carries an emotional complexity I haven't seen in his other works, though I haven't read his entire body of work. I'm glad to have read it, and will probably re-read it at some point. Because I never get everything Chandler says in one reading. Has anyone ever?