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

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.