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

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.