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

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.