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

December 3, 2008


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.

November 23, 2008


Okay, this is not really a review. This is a post to point you to the review that was persuasive enough to get me to read this book. Over on The Rap Sheet a while back, J. Kingston Pierce posted an installment written by Timothy Hallinan to that blog's series, 'The Book You Have To Read,' in which great but forgotten books get their day in the sun and, it is hoped, find some new fans. Count me as one.

There's no reason for me to spout about my new-found fandomness when there's nothing I can say about this book that Hallinana has not already said and done a better job of it, too. So go here and read for a real review.

And aren't you predisposed to like a guy (and by extension, his books) who posts the following on his blog:
"People complain about musicals. They say:

Nobody just stops in the street and breaks into song.

I say you know the wrong people."
(I think Keith must have seen me outside The Refectory last night after one too many Taliskers, breezing my way through 'Ya Got Trouble.')

And if you're still undecided after reading Hallinan's terrific review, then please, please read this post by Snyder himself, a wonderful and witty bit of insight into his writing and his mind. Me, I'm off to find Snyder's other books.

November 17, 2008

REVIEW: DROWNED HOPES by Donald E. Westlake

Look at that face. Just look at him. A wise, kindly old gent, wouldn't you say? A beloved granddad's face, a grandpa who takes you fishing and buys you your first pocketknife and teaches you to whittle. A grandpa who never loses patience while you search for the correct wrench to help him fix the kitchen plumbing. A grandpa who seems no older than you as the pair of you sneak into the kitchen to steal cookies cooling on the rack.

Well, maybe that man in the photo is all of those things, I don't know, but that's not what I think of when I look at his picture. I think of a cold criminal named Parker who was killing a man in his garage when the phone rang. I think of an ex-airman named Ray who was a passenger in the car his father was driving when someone shot and killed his father. I think of dopey Fred Fitch, who never met a scam he didn't fall for. And I think of John Dortmunder & company, the most entertaining bunch of thieves and nogoodniks in print.

The man in the picture is, of course, Donald E. Westlake. If you haven't read any of his books, allow me to expound on the quality and quantity of his work. First off, he's won three Edgars in three different categories (the only other person to do that is Joe Gores): Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Motion Screenplay, and he's been named a Grand Master by the MWA. More than a dozen films have been based on his books: The Hot Rock, Point Blank, What's the Worst That Could Happen, A Slight Case of Murder, and more. More? Hey, one of his books, Jimmy the Kid, was made into films in three countries: Italy, Germany, and the USA. Westlake has also written numerous original screenplays (e.g., The Stepfather) and his screenplay for The Grifters, based on the classic crime novel by Jim Thompson, won him that Edgar. Under one name or another (more than eight, I think, but who can keep track?) Westlake has authored more than 100 novels, and is still going strong.

That's good news for his fans. I count myself among them, but I'm really a neophyte. It's only been two or three years since I first read one of his books. I'm perhaps a quarter of the way through his oeuvre, and let me just say that in those 25 or so books Westlake has never once disappointed me. He is equally adept at creating comic crime capers or taut, edgy, brutal crime fic, a la the Parker books, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym.

I consider comic crime fiction extremely difficult to write. As proof, I offer you the paucity of authors who do it well. How many authors can you name beyond Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake? I will admit there are some budding comic crime writers out there whose work I enjoy and admire: Troy Cook, Declan Burke, et al, and I expect more good things from them, but for consistency, longevity, originality and laugh-out-loudity nobody tops Westlake.

All of which brings me to my latest encounter with Westlake's John Dortmunder creation: Drowned Hopes (1989). This is not the latest book in the series, in fact I seem to be reading this series in no particular order at all. Doesn't matter, each Dortmunder tale is a comic gem that stands on its own.

SYNOPSIS: John Dortmunder arrives home after a futile night of thieving to find that a former cellmate and completely insane killer named Tom Jimson (and can you spot the similarity to Jim Thompson and his psychopathic characters?) has taken root in his living room. Tom wants John to figure out a way to get to the $700,000 Tom stole in an armed car robbery more than twenty years earlier. Problem: the money is in a coffin buried behind a library in a town that is now under 50 feet of water. Yes, while Tom was in prison a state reservoir was created that swamped the entire town. John doesn't think he can do this job, doesn't want to do this job even for half the money, he wants nothing to do with this madman, but if he doesn't somehow find the coffin and get the money to the surface Tom will dynamite the dam and hundreds of people will be killed in the resulting flood. And even if by some miracle John manages to salvage the money, he has to worry about Tom. Tom's partners all have a way of dying violently. Now if you put this same plot in the hands of, oh, say, Marcus Sakey, you would get a pretty good thriller, a nail-biter. In Westlake's hands, this story becomes a series of hilarious mishaps, misconstructions and misdeeds that build on themselves. A plan that starts with just Tom and John grows, little by little, to include all of Dortmunder's gang of regulars as well as a computer nerd, a dive instructor, an illegitimate librarian, her foul-mouthed mother, and possibly the unluckiest bridegroom who ever lived.

PACING: Drowned Hopes builds to its denouement in a more deliberate fashion than some of the other books in this series. In my opinion, that slightly slower pace is necessary due to the construction of the book. The story is sectioned into four separate attempts by Dortmunder to retrieve the lost loot. Each section is its own tale with its own story arc and each builds on the previous section. Instead of a single story arc, the sections stair step up and up to reach Westlake's last grand joke on Dortmunder.

CHARACTERIZATION: In the Dortmunder books, character is as much a physical attribute as it is about personality. To look at these people is to instantly know their nature.
When a lawman looked at Dortmunder and Tom Jimson, particularly together, he said to himself, "Probable Cause is their middle name."
And then there's Wally Knurr, computer geek a la 1989:
"...a round soft creature as milky white as vanilla yogurt...eagerly melting eyes, like blue-yolked soft-boiled eggs...perhaps elsewhere in the solar system he would find short, fat, moist creatures like himself..."
It is as much the interactions of the characters as it is the individual characterizations that make for reading enjoyment. For example, modern technology is anathema to Dortmunder, while the personal computer is Wally's raison d'etre. Wally lives in the gaming world, planet Zog to be exact, and although Dortmunder would like to verbally slay him for his otherworldly notions of how to retrieve the money (laser-burn off all the water? giant magnet on a spaceship?), he found "it wasn't easy to be hard-edged or sardonic when gazing down into that round guileless face."

SETTING: Westlake does not create the kind of breathable, walkable, everywhere-at-once ambiance that a Crais or a Connelly provides. Where those authors develop whole landscapes that are reflected within their characters, Westlake creates smaller, detailed exteriors that fight with his characters. Dortmunder becomes convinced the reservoir is trying to kill him but the inducements to keep him going back into the reservoir and his various escapes from the water make for some of the funniest moments in the book.

PLOT: The core idea of criminals going to great lengths to obtain property not their own is hardly new, but there's nothing cliched about Westlake's take on that idea. Of the books I've read in this series, Drowned Hopes may be the most tightly focused and the one in which he takes Dortmunder completely out of his comfort zone. When the basics of the story are fleshed out by events such as the hilarious bit-by-bit breakdown of the bridegroom or the sudden emergence of Tom's old -- and I mean old -- nemesis, the story takes (water) wings.

PROSE: Westlake provides a strong narrative flow in which digressions are always brought into play later. With so many characters and plot points, the third person, subjective POV was a wise choice. Here is an excerpt taken from chapter two, shortly after John and his companion, May, find that Tom Jimson, ruthless killer, has entered their lives:
Tom turned away, going back into the living room, walking rigid, like a man who's been broken and then put back together a little wrong, using too much Krazy Glue. Behind his stiff back, May waggled eyebrows and shoulders and fingers at Dortmunder, asking, Who is this person, why is he in my house, what's going on, when will it end? and Dortmunder shrugged ears and elbows and the corners of his mouth, answering, I don't know what's going on, I don't know if this is some kind of trouble or not, we'll just have to wait and see. Then they followed Tom into the living room.

Tom sat on the better easy chair, the one that hadn't sagged all the way to the floor, while Dortmunder and May took the sofa, sitting facing Tom with the look of a couple who've just been asked to think seriously about life insurance.

Other than advances in communication technology (Internet and cellphones specifically), this book has held up very well over the years. I recommend Westlake's Dortmunder books to everyone who likes a laugh, and I look forward to a new Dortmunder adventure next year, Get Real, when John and his friends agree to do a reality show heist. The mind boggles.

November 9, 2008

REVIEW: THE BIG O by Declan Burke

SYNOPSIS: Okay, pay attention: Karen (full-time receptionist, part-time armed robber) meets Ray (part-time painter, part-time kidnapper). Ray is planning on kidnapping Karen's best friend, Madge, who is almost divorced from Karen's boss, Frank, and Frank is kinda-sorta Ray's employer, too, but Karen's ex-boyfriend, Rossi, is out of prison and he plans on kidnapping Karen's best friend, Madge, to force Karen to give back some things that belong to him, Rossi. Got all that? Good.

REVIEW: Can you say funky? Can you say funky and Irish in the same sentence, is that legal? Is it possible? 'Course it is, you saw The Commitments, didn't you? The Big O is a fine, fun and altogether funky read. Take one part Ruthless People, add one part Fargo, mix with three parts black Irish humor, and you'll still need author Declan Burke's storytelling skills to get it all properly shook up.

The plot, as you were smart enough to infer from the synopsis, is complex. And until you read this book, you don't know the half of it. Burke has taken the 'six degrees of separation' game, melded it to a Rubik's cube, and out of this mass of complications and coincidences, told from a dizzying number of POVs, comes a story that is actually, surprisingly easy to follow. But only to follow; you don't get to lead here. Although you'll think you're a bright reader, you being one or two thoughts ahead of the characters, don't think you'll get ahead of the author. Around every corner he's installed another corner, every bright bulb of a character can come unscrewed (there, play with that metaphor, Mr. Burke!) or just burn out. There are no clear-cut heroes yet still there are characters to like and cheer for. And a couple to spit on. And even the character most spit-worthy (say Rossi or maybe Frank) is so luckless that his life is a series of laughable predicaments.

Declan Burke has not only created this fun fest of what has been called (by better wordsmiths than I) "screwball noir," he is also the author of one of my favorite blogs, Crime Always Pays. If you read a few of his posts and find that his style and humor appeal to you, you're sure to enjoy The Big O as well.

I waited a long, let me say it again, a lonnnggggg time to get my hands on this book. I had it on order at the bookstore back before the U.S. publication date, September 22, 2008. And the book finally arrived on November 5, in spite of the distributor's malingering, and there I'm standing at the front of the store, a couple of other readers milling about, I dunnamany, and the clerk yells out, 'Hey, Corey, your book is here: The Story of O.'

Ahem. Imagine my surprise. I couldn't work up to chagrin, I was thinking that maybe people in the store would maybe reckon I'm more interesting than I am. You'ns out there would know better of course. If you want interesting check out Declan Burke and The Big O.

November 2, 2008


Synopsis: Shea is a young Irish cop, relatively inexperienced, who wangles a transfer to the New York City police force. Unfortunately for Shea, once in New York he gets paired with a psychotic brute nicknamed Kebar. Unfortunately for Kebar, Shea is not only smarter than Kebar, he's twice as psychotic. With Internal Affairs and the mob breathing down their backs, Shea and Kebar are about to turn the NYPD on its collective ear.

Review: Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature. Ah, crap, that sounds like gushing. Hell with it. [You see how my vocab and tone have changed from the norm as a result of swimming in the black depths of this book?] Bruen is just that brilliant. Consistently. Brilliance doesn't just flash occasionally for Bruen, the quality is so permanent and pervasive that you have to wonder just when it was that he sold his soul, eh? Even as I anticipated reading this book I worried that maybe, lacking old friends like Sgt. Brant and Jack Taylor, Once Were Cops might not be vintage Bruen. To the contrary, Bruen has managed to up his game. You young whippersnapper-writers out there (and you know who you are) take note: The Master is the Master for a reason. So what if your last book raised the ante? Bruen just upped it again, and he looked you dead in the eyes when he did it. Man up, boys.

For folks who are bigger fans of Bruen's Brant series than of the Jack Taylor books, you're going to love this book. Kebar is Brant taken one step farther. Shea is yet another step (or 12) farther out. And when you think Ken Bruen has taken you to the outer edge of cop psychoses, oh, brother, had you better think again. Think Mephistopheles. Yeah, I mean the characters, but I think I mean Bruen, too. Scary, ain't it?

The Bruen trademarks are all present: Pithy sentences that speak paragraphs more than many another crime fic writer; Bruen's usual nod to those younger authors (Duane Swierczynski this time around) I have come to think of as his crew; a mix of books and music worth noting; and a continuation of his, um, danse macabre with the Catholic church. And his finest trademark, the twist on the twist, with maybe a little extra turn of the screw.

Here'a sample from a scene in which Shea is being interviewed by two Internal Affairs cops after he saved Kebar's life by shooting a perp. The punctuation and spacing are as they appear in the book.
McCarthy put up his hand to stop me, asked,

"And did you caution him, tell him to drop his weapon, identify yourself as a police officer?"

I glanced at the black guy and was he smiling? I asked,

"You ever hear a shotgun being primed?"

He stared at me, irritation on his face, asked,

"What's your point?"

I made a click with my tongue, said,

"That's the sound and it tells you, you have maybe two seconds to identify yourself your partner, what would you do or don't you get out from behind a desk?"

The black guy chuckled and McCarthy was riled, snapped,

"Hey pal, you're a goddamn rookie, don't get mouthy with me, you got that?"

I let that hover for a bit, then said,

"A rookie who saved his partner's life."

He changed tactics, became Mr. Cordiality, asked,

"How do you find your partner, busting your balls is he?"

Now I got to smile, said,

"I thought that was your job."

He let it go, continued,

"How do you feel about cops on the take?"

I didn't hesitate, said,

"Much the same way I feel about informers, sorry...Internal Affairs."

I usually like to point my reviews at those who would most appreciate the book. So if you've read Bruen's work and did not become an immediate fan, this book won't change things for you. If you're already a fan, you won't be disappointed. If you're thinking about trying out a Bruen book for the first time, this is as good a place as any to start. If John Sandford's books appeal to you because of the black humor, if you like Joe Pike best when he's killing someone, if you don't mind not having a single character to empathize with, if you think Jim Thompson's Lou Ford character was a wimp, and if you like going ooh and aah every so often while your eyebrows dance all over your forehead, this is your kind of book. Folks who like a mystery solved by cats, need not apply.

For all my raving, I find there is something negative to be said about this book. About the book, mind you, not about the story, not about the writing. Something present in this hardbound edition I purchased, that I have not noticed in other Bruen titles, is the white space. If the double-spacing were eliminated and the font set to something other than 'For the Legally Blind,' this book would run to perhaps 120-130 pages, rather than the 294 pages the publisher feels is required in a crime novel. So let me just say this to the good people at St. Martin's Minotaur: Save the trees! I will pay full price for every Ken Bruen title you publish, I even buy from an indie bookstore where there are no deep discounts, so cut the crap, okay? 120 pages from Ken Bruen carry more weight and have greater impact than 400-500 pages from almost any other author you care to name. Didn't I already say it? Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature.

UPDATE 11/8/08 - Duane Swierczynski says that Bruen has a couple of letters in his name swapped around in the book and thus the character is not really named after him. Bosh! I say, and bosh! again.

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."


"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."


"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.

September 28, 2008


Short synopsis: In North Idaho, two children witness a murder in the woods and unable to return home, must run for their lives from four determined killers.

Okay, when you've just read a series of books that include the likes of Richard Price, Dashiell Hammett, Craig Johnson, and Craig McDonald, you have to know that at some point a book is going to come along to take you down off that kind of cloud-nine reading. I was a little surprised that the book to do it was Blue Heaven by C.J. Box.

I am unfamiliar with Box's Joe Pickett series but Blue Heaven came with glowing recommendations from those friends of mine who've read it. And it's not a bad book. Even allowing for the fact that the authors named above are a formidable bunch, I was fully prepared to enjoy a standard thriller. And the opening of the book hooked me right off. Child jeopardy? It's one of the great hooks in both printed and film thrillers, right? Especially when the children are deftly portrayed, as Box has done. The characterization throughout the rest of the story was much weaker. Box made an effort to make his hero three-dimensional, a flawed man of character except that really his only flaw was that he was a genuinely nice guy. The villains though are pure Saturday-morning-serial bad guys. I kept waiting for Singer, the head baddie, to twirl a mustache and laugh like Oil-Can Harry, maybe threaten to tie the children to the railroad tracks, and then...and then...and then...

And then along comes Jess, the Hero.

It was just about that pat. One lesson I've learned over the years by reading the best and the worst of writers like Sandford and Child, et al, is that one really fine, super scary villain is better for the story than half a dozen gee-he's-mean bad guys.

The prose is workmanlike, Box may never wax lyrical like James Lee Burke but to his credit there isn't any of the purple prose that has crept into Michael Connelly's recent books either. And with a child jeopardy tale that would have been all too easy to do. But Box never chose a word that made me step back and go, 'now really!' And the pacing was fine, the action clipped along nicely. The story never dragged, and conversely never felt artificially spurred on either. The story is seen from the viewpoints of several characters and sometimes that can drag a story down but not in this case. The changing of viewpoints actually allows for a faster pace. The setting was interesting and was integral to the story but while I liked the descriptions of the countryside and town, the characters' engagement with the place was something more talked about by the author than displayed by the characters, with the hero being the lone exception.

I will probably read more by this author but with tempered expectations. I believe that the things I did not like about this book may not be a problem in the Pickett series, as a series allows for deeper character development of the main characters and also for deeper development of a sense of place.

September 11, 2008

REVIEW: VERY COLD FOR MAY by William P. McGivern

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

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

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

Now down to business:

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

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

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

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

"That's ridiculous," Jake said irritably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See what I'm saying?

September 9, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

September 4, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2008

REVIEW: RAIN DOGS by Sean Doolittle

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Tom Coleman is running from the death of his young daughter and the ruin of his marriage. He is running to the bottle. Leaving behind his job in Chicago for his grandfather's legacy in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Tom encounters a destroyed meth lab, drug runners, police brutality, and faces his own weakness. He also renews his acquaintance with his first love, Abby, now a widow and with a stepson who is right up to his teen angst in all the trouble.

On the whole I enjoyed this book and I think author Sean Doolittle has tremendous potential. My expectations may have been a little high because the recommendation to read Doolittle's work came from one of my favorite authors, Michael Koryta, who said that Doolittle was writing the best crime fiction in America right now. High praise indeed, and possibly true of Doolittle's more recent work which I do intend to read. This book, however, is good but not good enough to qualify it as the best crime fiction in America. And after reading Laura Lippman's blurb on the jacket: "Sean Doolittle is a cult writer for the masses -- hip, smart and mordantly funny," I think she must have been referring to a different book as well. Rain Dogs is very much a mainstream work of crime fiction. In other words, if this book is 'cult' crime fiction then so is Laura Lippman's.

Characterization: The characters are solidly drawn but rarely went deep enough to resonate with me, in spite of the great torment that provides the protagonist his excuse to drink. Compare the descriptions of Tom Coleman's binges to one of the Dave Robicheaux character's (from author James Lee Burke) lapses. There is a relentless and awesomely ugly honesty in the Robicheaux portrait. Coleman's episodes are more simplistic. He drinks and then he awakens. The nastiness in-between somehow seems not only not to be part of the Coleman character, it almost seems never to happen. Except for one truly well-written, out-of-the-body depiction of a drunk Coleman holding a gun to his head and contemplating suicide it's hard to believe the guy is really as pathetic as such a man would be in reality. It's like a cheat, that the author gives you this terribly flawed character but then disguises the results of the flaw so well that you are hardly ever out of sympathy with him. If Coleman had no worse habit than biting his fingernails I would have had the same reaction to him. The finest bit of characterization is that of the county sheriff, Roy Hilliard. Hilliard walks and talks like he could be a stereotypical small-town crooked sheriff but the man goes deeper than that, often leaving the reader wondering about his motives. He's a political creature as well as a community leader; a man of realism but not so pragmatic that he lacks fire in the belly. For me, he was the most interesting character in the story. Best part of all the characterization was the dialogue. Doolittle can definitely write dialogue, from strait-laced Federal agents to laid-back stoners.

Pacing: Slow to build, but not too slow, the tension does wind tighter and tighter. From the beginning, small bits of information are dropped, keeping the reader's interest honed right through the climactic confrontation. I thought the pacing was perfection.

Setting / Ambiance: Maybe I didn't feel like I was about to go canoeing on the river with these folks, but I still got a good feeling about the distances between everything, including people, and I was surprised by how the landscape felt more welcoming and much more variable than I anticipated when I first realized the setting was western Nebraska. I was totally intrigued by the aquifer and I'll be reading up on that, you better believe.

Plot: Maybe not the most original I've read, but given there were some holes in the story and a certain lack of resolution, it's probably best that the story was more mainstream than cult, Laura Lippman notwithstanding. The story in fact, is rather basic, and if there is a single theme that unites the book and lifts it above merely being an enjoyable read, well, I missed it. So sue me.

Overall satisfaction: Maybe it doesn't seem like it, but I really did enjoy Rain Dogs. It held my interest and moved along nicely without rushing me or leaving me in the dust. I feel certain that author Sean Doolittle can do better (probably even already has), and I love to read along as a new author begins to stretch and find for him/herself what works and what does not, and just what his own writing voice is. If I were recommending this book, it would be to people who are fans of Michael Koryta, Robert Crais, Sean Chercover and Giles Blunt perhaps, with the advisory that this particular book was written by an author who has the potential to be as good as they are. Doolittle's particular gift lies in the easy flow of his prose, the dialogue and exposition never step on each other and neither gets short shrift. And one of the best things about Doolittle's prose is the lack of affectation and pretention, something all too prevalent among certain new writers who think they are the next coming of Ken Bruen.

In summary, I'd say that Rain Dogs, regardless of its shortcomings, is one of the best books I've read this month, and that puts it squarely in the company of books by Koryta, Winslow, and Westlake. Not quite to their level of craftsmanship perhaps but it sure enough makes Doolittle a writer that I'll keep tabs on.

July 18, 2008

RE-REVIEW: THE BLACK ECHO by Michael Connelly

In the quest to resolve my riddle of whether Michael Connelly's latter books are not as good as the early ones, or whether my expectations for Connelly's work are set too high, I have now finished re-reading The Black Echo, the first in the Harry Bosch series. I half-expected to no longer enjoy this first book just because my opinion of Connelly's work is now so tainted by how I feel about books such as The Lincoln Lawyer and The Narrows. That was not the case. I enjoyed re-reading Black Echo, naturally not as much as upon first reading if only because I know the ending, but even reading more analytically than before, I still find this book to be not only an outstanding work of crime fiction in and of itself, but when one considers that this is the first of Connelly's books, the quality seems even more remarkable. Small wonder that the great James Lee Burke used this title in a small piece of action in one of his own Robicheaux books.

Characterization: A+ Getting to know Harry Bosch, his good and his, um, lesser qualities, is a great part of what is so fascinating about this book. This is one of the strongest initial entries for any series I've read. Not the strongest, but one of them.

Pacing: A Excellent. The reader is pulled along on a string, slowly at first, then more rapidly, and then yanked into the ending. The ending was a trifle jerky, but remember that this is a 'first' book.

Setting / Ambiance: A LA becomes a character all its own.

Prose: A- Occasionally wordy, but not overpoweringly so. Occasionnally workman-like. But the flow is good, and sometimes Connelly is downright poetic.

Plot: A- Not all that original, but not a mass of cliches either. Some cliches, yes, but Connelly's prose and characterization often mask them or even refresh them. Wonderfully intricate plotting, and this for me is a hallmark of Connelly's best work. I enjoy the way he can scatter worms of details hither and yon, then later get them all back into the proverbial can. Of course, there have been books where I think the worms got away, but that's something to discover as I continue re-reading this series.

Overall satisfaction and how well the book has held up over the years: A-
The book has really not suffered much for the years since its publication (1992). If some things seem more cliched than they did upon first reading, remember that some points were original to Connelly at the time but have since been swiped by dozens of imitators. The ending seemed more contrived than I recall, but if this was my first reading I doubt it would seem so. I can clearly see from this book why I and so many others became instant fans.

Next up: Black Ice

July 4, 2008


If you've never read any of Crais's Elvis Cole books, I sincerely pity you. If you are already a fan, go get this book right now. Put simply, Crais is writing at the top of his game: Evocative prose, 3D characters, tight plot.

I dislike writing synopses; there's a fine line between a simple description of the plot and just giving away the story. To put it in a nutshell, Elvis must retrace a murder investigation he handled three years earlier. Elvis's work resulted in freeing a man who apparently went on to commit two more brutal murders. His confidence rattled, choking on guilt, Elvis does what he does better than anyone: Detect. And therein lies the story. Collecting pieces of the puzzle is almost more fun than solving the puzzle, and in CHASING DARKNESS Elvis Cole gives a master class in the fine art, as well as the science, of being a private detective.

Cole's friend and partner, Joe Pike, lends a hand as needed. Pike is one of those unusual characters where less is more, and Crais is well aware of that. If Pike even speaks a single line of dialogue it is to say more than any other character at hand. Just his physical presence carries an impact and alters the dynamics of any scene.

If you've not read Crais before, I don't recommend beginning with this book. Yes, the story does stand entirely on its own, but the fact is that as good as the characterization is here it will be all the richer if you go back and begin with earlier books in the series. And a book this good should certainly be given all the advantages.