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

August 20, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Former Hollywood bodyguard and now parolee Jimmy Boone is working as a bartender as well managing a small apartment complex, and generally just trying to keep his head down. No more bad decisions like the one that caused him to beat a man Jimmy incorrectly mistook for a child molester. Just stay squeaky clean and do nothing, nothing to violate his parole and get sent back to prison. When Robo, the bar's bouncer, asks Jimmy to tag along while Robo talks to an old man whose illegal immigrant son died of infected dog bites, Jimmy is supposed to do nothing but look like a cop. For $80, Jimmy figures he can do that. Jimmy didn't know his own curiosity and compassion would mix him up with drug-dealers, a crazed ex-stripper, a toothless pit bull, a no-nonsense ex-cop with a great figure, a dog-fighting ring, a desperate-to-make-a-score petty crime boss, and a whole bunch of counterfeit money. At times, going back to prison starts to look like a pretty good option.

REVIEW: Tell Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker to just shove over and make room for Richard Lange. When it comes to making the sprawling city of Los Angeles a character and not just a setting, Lange has done it here as well as anyone ever has. The streets of Hollywood and of South Central have never felt more sun-baked and alive with the scents and the scurrying of human activity.

Adding to the "you are there" atmosphere, Lange has populated his story with unforgettable characters, starting with a brief encounter with Oscar Rosales, a young man so filled with fear that he will not even seek treatment for his infected wounds. Lange doesn't just paint a desperate picture of Oscar's swan song, he gives you Oscar's dreams for the future and the motives that continue to drive him even through his fear. Every character has his own story and motives and mannerisms, and it is at the intersections of these people where the author seamlessly blends their personalities into actions.

Another example of the brilliance of Lange's characterization is the crime boss, Taggert. In lesser hands, Taggert would be just another example of a vicious, violent, no-holds-barred psychopath. Lange's deft touch maintains Taggert's base nature; he is despicable but he is also human, and though the reader never stoops to sympathy for him, Taggert's insecurity and his genuine affection for his girlfriend, Olivia, make him interesting and unpredictable. Olivia is even more unpredictable. She's clever and ambitious and she's pushing Taggert very hard to be made not just his sleeping partner, but also his business partner.

The story's pacing is remarkable. It's like climbing a steep hill, downshifting and and becoming more and more anxious about your vehicle making it to the top when suddenly you're there and then on the down slope, engine racing - and your friggin' brakes have failed. Like that.

If I have a quibble about this book, it is that the Chandleresque noir feel is almost undone by the unexpected hope extended to Jimmy at the story's end. But that's just me. I like an ending where everybody loses. I think most people will prefer Lange's ending. I'm looking forward to his next beginning.

August 18, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Twenty-seven Marines, housed in a Gothic mansion, are either mentally disturbed or they're faking it. When standard treatment fails to provide either progress or evidence, a new psychiatrist is brought in, Col. Hudson Kane. Kane's methods are unorthodox but at least he is gaining the inmates' trust. But Kane has his own issues, heavy baggage from his past. Can he resolve his problems without betraying the men who need his help?

REVIEW: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for sending this book to me. Published in 1978, it's a slender volume compared to today's novels, clocking in at a svelte 135 pages. That's good because I had to re-read it right away, that's how much I enjoyed this story.

Because the story is relatively brief, no words are wasted in an attempt to be lyrical or poetic. Yet somehow there are moments of utter poetry in the exchanges between doctor and patients, and in Kane's own introspective reasonings.

The hospital is populated with men who are well-educated, bright, witty, and pitifully disturbed, and they come at Kane over and over again with questions and challenges right out of left field. Most prominent is the unofficial leader of the men, astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw -- imagine Hawkeye Pierce with a religious fixation -- but there's also Lt. David Reno, formerly a B-52 navigator, now busy adapting Shakespeare's plays for dogs; and there's also the hospital's medical officer for physical ailments, the presumably sane Dr. Fell, who claims he was misassigned, that he is a pediatrician. But the rapid fire banter between the patients and their minders is less like the sparring in M*A*S*H, and closer to, oh, say the verbal tennis match in Tom Stoppard's classic play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It's okay for the reader to laugh, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't carefully weigh what is being said.

Amid the constant chaos of his characters, Blatty addresses issues of mistaken identity, faith and spirituality, and the nature of love and sacrifice. The story is tightly woven, deeply moving, and wonderfully thought-provoking. The ending is both reassuring and yet will tear the heart out of the reader.

In this excerpt, Dr. Kane has just arrived at the hospital and been shown to his office by the medical officer, Fell, when Billy Cutshaw interrupts them and begins testing the newcomer now in charge.
Kane heard heavy breathing. Cutshaw was standing inches away, his eyes staring madly, shining and wide. "Okay, now I'm ready for my ink-blot test," he said. He swooped to the chair, dragged it over to the desk, sat down, and looked expectant. "Come on, let's go."

"You want an ink-blot test?" asked Kane.

"What the hell, am I talking to myself? I want it now while you're fresh with all those roses in your cheeks."

Kane wiped his face with a handkerchief. "We have no Rorschach cards."

"Like hell. Take a look in the drawer," Cutshaw told him.

Kane pulled the desk drawer open and removed a stack of Rorschach cards. "Very well," he said, sliding into the chair behind the desk.

Fell ambled toward the desk to observe.

Kane held a Rorschach card up and the astronaut leaned his head in close, his eyes scrunched up in concentration as he studied the ink blot.

"What do you see?" asked Kane.

"My whole life rushing past me in an instant."


"Okay, okay, okay: I see a very old lady in funny clothes blowing poisoned darts at an elephant."

Kane replaced the card with another. "And this one?"

"Kafka talking to a bedbug."


"You're full of shit, do you know that?"

"I thought it was Kafka," Fell interjected, studying the card with interest.

"You wouldn't know Kafka from Bette Davis," Cutshaw accused him. "And you, you're a mental case," he told Kane.

"Yes, maybe I am."

Cutshaw rose and said, "Ingratiating bastard. Do you always play kiss-ass with the loonies?"


"I like you, Kane. You're regular."

Cutshaw tore the medal and chain from his neck and tossed them on the desk. "Here, take the medal. I'll take a book." He snatched How I Believe by Teilhard de Chardin.

"And now you'll be good for a week?" asked Kane.

"No. I'm an incorrigible liar." Cutshaw walked over to the door and threw it open with such force that again the crash loosened plaster from above. "May I go?" His voice had a childlike earnestness.

"Yes," said Kane.

"You're a very wise man, Van Helsing," said Cutshaw in an imitation of Dracula, "for one who has only lived one life." Then he loped out the door and disappeared from view.