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

March 30, 2009

March mayhem and suchlike.

I'm a bit late to the party but allow me to boast that hometown writer Naomi Johnson (I stole your pic from Crimespace, Naomi. Hope you don't object.) has garnered a Spinetingler nomination for 'Best Short Story on the Web' for her nasty little take on police interrogation, Sisters Under the Skin. You can see all the nominees with links to their stories here. You can read Naomi's story here. And you can vote here. Please note the scroll bar on the voting page, you'll need it to vote in this category. You have until April 30 to cast your vote.

What with one thing and another March has been a difficult month. I'll try not to take it out on the authors.


The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Eric Larson. Larson chronicles in detail the construction of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a far more interesting topic than I ever would have guessed, and intersperses with it the story of H.H. Holmes, the first recorded capture of a serial killer in the USA. As interesting as the Holmes case is, and it is fascinating, I became even more mesmerized by the characters who made the pipe dream of a world's fair come to fruition.

Hit and Run by Lawrence Block. Since Block has announced his retirement it appears that this is the last we'll ever hear from hitman and determined stamp collector John Paul Keller. What a freakin' pity. When the hitman himself is framed for a political assassination, who can he turn to for help? You guessed it, nobody. Can he go after the people who set him up? Not if he doesn't know who they are. Not if it means showing his face, the face that's been plastered all over CNN and USA Today. How far and fast can Keller run with less than $200 in his pocket? And why will I fall down laughing if I ever see a Homer Simpson ball cap?

Safer by Sean Doolittle. A move from the east coast to a Midwestern suburb sets a chain of events in motion that will forever change English professor Paul Callaway. On their first night in their beautiful new home, Paul's wife is assaulted. Then comes Paul's arrest for child pornography, and accusations from a neighborhood teenager, a nice girl really, who had worked for him. And from then on, believe me, Paul's problems are only just beginning. Author Doolittle ratchets up the tension gradually until you think your head will explode. And of course, someone's does.

American Rust by Philipp Meyer. Possibly more mainstream novel than crime fiction, but don't let that deter any crime fic aficionados. There's enough crime to make it worth your while, but even if there wasn't, the story's structure is so solid, the characters so thoroughly understood and beautifully conveyed, that one can only wonder how Meyer can follow up this debut novel without facing overwhelming expectations. The story is about two young men, boys really, who because of an act of violence must face trials and decisions that would leave -- did leave -- experienced adults crying for help. Dramatic and wrenching. Have some lighter reading nearby, because an occasional break from the intensity is necessary.

The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli. NYC undercover narc Creasey is in it up to his eyeballs. His love for his job (and its illegal perks) are ruining his marriage, his son hates him, he's got his mobster boss's mistress pregnant. What else can go wrong? Why not pick this time to have an early midlife crisis and go haring off to the small Vermont town where he grew up? Where his father shot and killed a little girl, where the chief of police once ran Creasey out of town, where the foundation for all his woes was first poured. This book gets slapped with the 'neo-noir' label a lot, but that's a rather shallow assessment. As with Jim Thompson's and Dave Zeltserman's books, there's more going on here than shows up in a simple synopsis.

Fright by Cornell Woolrich. This book was just agony to read. A good kind of agony, the kind a master of suspense creates by stringing the reader along, letting one see only a glimpse of what is to come and dreading it all the while. The building suspense and dementia, with a crashing denouement, just kept me twisting and wincing throughout -- again, in a good way. Set around 1915, it's a simple story about a fairly nice, if somewhat ambitious, young man's descent into murder and alcoholism after being blackmailed. What isn't simple is the way Woolrich digs into the paranoia and obsession that develops in his main character. Charles Ardai, the publisher, says that this book was lost for 50 years and had never before been published under Woolrich's own name. That can only be the reason why Hitchcock never made this into a film.


The Renegades by T. Jefferson Parker. Not as much fun as it's predecessor, LA Outlaws, because that book has a charismatic character in Allison Murietta. Now the burden of the story rests on Deputy Charlie Hood, and Charlie just ain't that fascinating. The best thing about this book is that it holds out the promise of Allison's son, Bradley, being just as smart, as devious, and as charismatic as she, in the next book (if there is to be one).

Lullaby Town by Robert Crais. Okay, so I've read this book before, and it's Robert Crais writing about Elvis Cole, so what's not to like? But this time around I listened to the audiobook, narrated by William Roberts. Roberts is a way better narrator than the helium-throated Patrick Lawlor, but the producers still haven't found the reader that, for me, evokes Elvis Cole and his L.A.

Brother by James Fredericks. I'll refer you to the full review at Jen's Book Thoughts for a synopsis and an unequivocally positive take on this book. My take is that the author has great potential, his prose flows nicely and I like the way he constructed the story. The only problem I had was that -- and this was mostly in the first third of the book -- there were some moments that my disbelief came crashing to earth. But if you can suck it up and move on, the story takes over and commands your attention. I would recommend this book to fans of Grisham and John Hart. Fredericks may not be quite in their league yet, but he hasn't very far to travel as a writer.


Even by Andrew Grant. British Naval Intelligence officer Trevellyan is framed for murder and disavowed. I was pretty excited to read this book (which will be released in May) because I had learned that the author is Lee Child's brother. And if you look at the page for this book you'll see that relationship has resulted in a plethora of kind blurbs from bestselling authors and even a starred review from PW. I take it all to mean that everyone feels they have to be nice to Lee Child, of whose books I am a fan, because the truth is that this book is bad. The writing is nothing out of the ordinary, the characters are so flat I could weep, the setting is Anywhere Generic, Planet Earth, and the plot is a thin excuse for a few action scenes that have no whiff of credibility.

Tempest Rider by Saundra Crum Akers. Okay, I may have qualms about this book but I do think it's better, or at least has the potential to be better than Andrew Grant's Even. Tempest Rider is self-published, so don't you always lower your expectations upon learning that? The thing is, the author really has a very good story going on here and some interesting characters. What's needed is a strong guiding hand by an editor. The story involves the coming together in a small Ohio town of a gentle teacher who has fled his abusive wife and a woman who can never outrun her own past of being molested by her uncle. The pair develop a platonic friendship but someone thinks there's more going on and sets out to break them up. From there the story spirals into a series of events that edge ever closer to fatal violence. The scenes involving the abusive wife, Darla, are just riveting, even when she's doing nothing more interesting than talking on the phone. The way her mind works is wonderfully repellent. A little less exposition, some work on the dialogue so that all the characters don't speak with the same mannerisms, some shuffling back and forth of scenes to improve pace and tension, and this book could be a real winner.

March 18, 2009

Unelectrifying 'Mist'

Spring fever is here. I can tell. I always enjoy the initial bursts of green and brief hours of almost-warm temperatures, but nature's renaissance always does something bad to my psyche. I get depressed. Apathetic. Negative. And this year I also got the mother of all head colds to go with it. So the thing to do when you get like I am now is not to see In the Electric Mist. Wait until you're in a more charitable mood than I.

Someone else will have to write the post that says what a terrific film was made from one of James Lee Burke's finest books, because I'm pretty sure that even without the head cold and clouds of apathy draining my will to blog, that was not a good movie. I've seen worse, sure, but the disappointment is intense when a mediocre film is derived from a great book.

And no one can blame the actors. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as Dave Robicheaux (but I confess he has always been my first choice to tackle the role), Mary Steenburgen fulfills my mental image of Bootsy. Levon Helm's take on General John Bell Hood will never be equalled (and only partly because Hood rarely is a movie character). Ned Beatty as a scum-sucking Southern baddie? Natch, he does his usual bang-up job. Even musician Buddy Guy is rightly cast as the knowing bluesman Hogman Patin. John Goodman as 'Babyfeet' Balboni should have been perfect as the NOLA mobster but Goodman phoned in his performance (and didn't pay attention even then, his accent wavered so badly) so he's the only one of the cast who let me down. And I don't even blame him, because if daily production work was as choppy and incoherent as the film turned out to be I wouldn't be turning in my best work either. And rumor has it there were some troubles during production, notably between Tommy Lee Jones and directer Bernard Tavernier.

Granted, there are some 15 minutes of the director's cut missing from the US dvd. But I really don't think the missing minutes would correct all the problems. It might smooth some of the jerky transitions, explain a little more of the story, maybe even fix the lousy ending, but I don't know that a mere 15 minutes would add the necessary depth to the characters or restore a real sense of suspense to the mystery. When a viewer can barely remember the name and face of the guy who turns out to be the villain chopping up women, it's hard to work up more than a mild 'is that right?' reaction to learning he's the baddie.

Only if you're a fan of the Dave Robicheaux series and have read the terrific book the film is based on, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, will the movie make any sense to you, but I'd be surprised if it satisfied you. It did not me. Such a shame, with that great cast of actors doing their darnedest (all but Goodman) and that evocative setting, not to have found an equally outstanding screenwriter and a director to do them, and author Burke, justice.

March 1, 2009


SYNOPSIS: A plane crash takes the lives of 11 people, including a US Senator and Kathy, the wife PI Thomas Black. Weeks later a bomb explodes in a gymnasium, taking four lives and nearly taking Black's life. Severely injured, hospitalized, his mind and memories clouded by painkillers, Thomas tries to patch events together. He recalls witnessing the plane crash just off Cape Disappointment. He also recalls the Slezak twins, Elmer aka 'Snake,' and Bert. Snake is a friend and fellow PI. Bert is whole 'nother story, Bert is a guy to worry about. A repeat offender only a half step from living on the streets and who was represented in court by Kathy for violating a restraining order, Bert had also warned Thomas to keep Kathy away from Senator Sheffield in case an 'asteroid' were to strike the Senator. Bert is full of paranoia, conspiracy theories and wild hairs, and he also has a mobile home stockpiled with more guns and ammunition than the Alamo. But if Bert is really the simple nutcase Thomas believes him to be, why are the FBI and the NTSB interested enough to hold him after the crash? How could a social outcast like Bert have known anything was going to happen to the Senator? Was it just coincidence that Bert was on the phone to Thomas right when the bomb exploded, killing four people and putting a steel bar through Thomas' abdomen? And the reporter who was asking some interesting questions about the plane crash, was the car wreck that killed her husband another coincidence?

REVIEW: It's been about 10 years since Emerson gave readers a new installment in the Thomas Black series, and it was so worth the wait. Over the years Emerson has created some memorable characters and thrilling plots, but I will argue with anyone who thinks this is not his best book yet because it is, and not by a small margin either. I was a little wary before reading this book because so much time had passed, I wondered if the author could still capture the upbeat, wise-cracking, affable voice of his PI. No worries. Opening this book was like falling in with old friends, there was a strong comfort level. At the same time, the reader is immediately sucked into the nightmare that has become Thomas' life.

It's a rare thriller that can evoke as much emotion as Cape Disappointment does without losing the thrill aspect. The unutterable grief Thomas Black endures is one that nearly everyone can identify with. Who has lost a loved one who has not also seen that person in parks, in cars, in stores for days, weeks even, after their death? We dream of them still being alive, we see signs around us that tell us they are trying to connect with the living. Most of us catch our breath, bear down on the pain, and go on. Thomas has a more difficult time than many because he has no body to bury – not all of the crash victims were recovered, although some bodies had washed ashore – and they were in the middle of a phone call when the plane went down. So when he sees Kathy anywhere he runs after her, but it's never Kathy. It's usually someone who doesn't even really look like her. Over and over, until the hinges on his mind start to work loose and he swears he won't run after people again. But he always does. His own personal Cape Disappointment awaits him every time. Emerson not only captures the early stages of grief perfectly, he also captures the actions and speech of those who are not grieving but must deal with the stricken Thomas. Those people run the gamut from the caring friend who simply watches over him (even Thomas realizes he's approaching a suicidal state of mind) to the attractive redhead who callously offers to come by and help clean out his wife's closet.

One of the wonderful things that has happened since Emerson last wrote about his PI is that his writing has been truly tested, grown and stretched. For this book the author has returned to the first-person singular POV so common to detective stories but that narrow POV doesn't feel like a restriction here, possibly because Emerson has learned so well how to seamlessly move the story back and forth in time. And because he has such an ear for conversation that his dialogue almost carries inflection. He could teach a master class on how to accomplish chronological and scene transitions without confusing the reader or slowing the pace while always moving the story forward. The tale moves back and forth from Thomas in and out of the hospital after the bombing to scenes before and after Kathy's death. With each change clues to the bombing or to the plane crash are provided, but also we get insight to the relationship between Thomas and his wife, between his wife and her clients and co-workers. Their marriage was not a perfect relationship but a longstanding one of depth and true friendship, and along the way we start to grieve with Thomas.

No thriller would be that without unexpected plot twists and Emerson provides some dandies, but never does he pull a James Patterson-like faux-frantic chapter ending just to leave the reader dangling. Every twist, every complication, has a raison d'etre, which gets really scary when social misfit Bert Slezak starts spouting conspiracy theories tightly connected with reality. When Thomas makes a CIA connection between Bert and the head of the NTSB, when he starts to think someone is poisoning him, and when Kathy's cellphone – the one at the bottom of the ocean – calls his cellphone, the puzzle isn't even close to being solved. Along the way Thomas is forced to face realities he never thought could exist and carry secrets that will forever haunt him.

Cape Disappointment was anything but disappointing. Characterization, pace, tight plotting, complex structure, and strong, muscular prose all combine in a winner of a book. It's absolutely, far and away, the best thriller I've read in ages. Welcome back, Thomas Black!

You shouldn't think that because Thomas is a recent widower that there is no humor in this book. Emerson always makes me laugh, and here's a sample that tickled my funny bone. In this scene Thomas is working in his cubicle and he overhears Kathy questioning the flaky Bert about the charges against him for violating a restraining order against his ex-wife:
"Then what happened?"

"Her boyfriend showed up."


"He was supposed to be at work. He works the night shift down at Nucor Steel in West Seattle. You think somebody tipped him off? Maybe the government? I've been seeing more undercover federal agents in town. Did I tell you that? I'm being followed by government agents. I ditched one this morning on the way here." Bert's paranoia showed up in almost every conversation, though it was usually under some degree of control by the time he headed to court, as if the sweat factor snapped him out of it.

"Okay. What can you tell me about the car?"

"They can't prove a thing."

"They have a witness who ID'd you. And it is quite a coincidence that the boyfriend throws you out of the house and three hours later his car burns down to the rims."

"Coincidences happen all the time."

"We drew Anderson and she's tough on domestic cases. It would help if you could show some remorse in court."

"Sure. I can fake remorse."

"Genuine remorse would be better."

"No problem. I can fake that, too." He must have made a comical face, which he was prone to, because Kathy laughed.

"You're laughing. They say that's the key to a woman's heart. Make her laugh. Check out how many comedians have married beautiful women. What do you say? Costa Rica? Just you and me and a thatched roof under the stars. We could be there in two days. We'd never have another care in this world. I would read Emily Dickinson out loud and massage your feet after long walks on the beach. Haven't you ever wanted to have a man who made you laugh, worshipped your every move, and knew how to skin a rabbit?"

"The man I have makes me laugh and worships my every move, and what's more I believe he's sitting outside that door."

"Can he skin a rabbit?"

"Probably not, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was about to tan your hide."