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

December 22, 2009

THE NIGHT MEN by Keith Snyder

I'll just say it right up front, okay? I loved this book.

Why? Because you get three crime stories all neatly fitted one inside the other, just like a set of those Russian nesting dolls. And each story is worthwhile, scratch that, each story is terrific in its own right/write. (Shades of a John Lennon book title!)

The smallest, innermost story is told in the form of a crime novel called "The Night Men," very much an old pulp-style detective story, all about a man trying to save a mute child from the bad guys. Think Philip Marlowe, only tougher. Maybe Mickey Spillane stuff.

In the middle story, that novel is being read/shared by three teenage boys in Los Angeles. Each of these boys has in some way become severed from his family, either physically, emotionally or both.. The  three of them band together in a nightly watch to protect one of them from his violently anti-Semitic neighbors. The book becomes their road map to manhood: Everything they know about honor and manning up, they either know instinctively or they learn from this book's 'mean streets' character.

What happened to those boys is then recalled, bit by bit, in the outermost story when two of those boys, now adults, agree to keep watch all night in a Brooklyn music store that has been vandalized in what may have been a hate crime against the store's gay owners.

Snyder has crafted wonderful, fully realized characters here. They are bright and unique, even down to the minor characters, but the two leading characters, Jason and Robert, will have men everywhere recalling the angst of their teen years and the ultimate face-offs with their dads. Jason and Robert will also have women readers wanting to mother the intelligent, misunderstood, scared-but-brave boys they once were. The closest he comes to any kind of cliche is in the character of Thomas Carter, the protagonist of the pulp novel the boys are reading. It's easy to see that in those sections Snyder did not simply lapse into cliche, but instead faithfully wrote in the style he was imitating. It's as if the reader is witnessing three smart kids getting turned on to "I, the Jury." Or watching them as they begin to understand Sam Spade's dictate that when a man's partner is murdered, a man is supposed to do something about it.

As if these three stories aren't enough, Snyder also takes Jason and Robert on a magic-mushroom trip of an investigation into who vandalized the store, called the Magic Music Shop. Their journey takes them not only from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, but from contemporary times to the psychedelic '60s. And what's especially cool, is that Snyder gets it right. When he introduces a character from the heyday of psychedelia, it's not some buffoonish Cheech-and-Chong opportunity to poke fun at the hippies. That character is a real person, with his own history and presence and effect on the world he lives in.

You want more? Okay, as well as being a writer of no mean talent, Snyder is also a composer, and his Jason character is a musician. In a music shop, there's bound to be music, and even though this was not an audio book, Snyder made me hear Jason's music and made me appreciate those rare and special moments when a group of players fall into a zone where the art takes over and the music is a presence that creates and defines itself. Sort of like Snyder's writing.

Disclosure notice: I bought this book at retail. This is my opinion of the book. I don't get any money or gifts for saying what I think.  I guess I could never cut it as a Congressional representative.

December 17, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Boone Daniels divides his time between surfing and private investigating. He'd much rather be surfing full time but he has to work two cases, neither of which he wants: A buddy wants him to find out whether said buddy's wife is cheating on him; and Boone is also looking into the open-and-shut case against a spoiled rich kid who admits to killing one of the most admired men in San Diego and a personal hero to Boone and his surfer friends. It's the latter case that is costing Boone the trust and life-long friendships of the Dawn Patrol, the men who surf the early morning hours at Pacific Beach, but it's the former case that may cost Boone his life.

How many crime fiction authors can you name in relation to Southern California? Several, right? Several ranging to perhaps too damned many. Because after you've read Chandler, Crais, Connelly, and Parker, where are you going to find a writer who brings something new to the SoCal crime fiction genre?

Look no further than Don Winslow. Remember that name: Don Winslow. His name is probably the best kept secret in crime fiction, and that's a damned shame.

One of the things that Winslow does differently than those other very talented writers is to place his protagonist in a world of close-knit friends. How is that different, you ask? Well, if Harry Bosch joined Facebook, how many friends would he have? That's right, zero. He's got loads of acquaintances, no friends.

How about Elvis Cole? Yeah, he's got Joe Pike and Lou Poitras. Exactly two friends; you wouldn't really call Lucille Chenier a friend to Elvis, would you? And heaven knows Phil Marlowe wasn't tripping over friends every time he left the office, while Parker's latest cop lead, Charlie Hood, doesn't exactly have a posse either.

But Boone Daniels has many friends. For starters, he has the entire Dawn Patrol, a half-dozen or so guys who surf together, hang out together, and have each other's back come what may. Right up until Boone starts working for Corey Blasingame's defense lawyer. Corey didn't kill just anybody, he killed a guy who was a surfing legend. Killed him for no reason and confessed. There are witnesses: Corey's fellow gang members and a couple of bystanders. Everyone says Corey did it. Hell, Corey, a budding neo-Nazi, says he did it. But Boone doesn't buy it, he thinks Corey has neither the guts nor the physicality to have committed the crime, and he begins to dig into Corey's life.

And this is the one thing that all of Boone's friends cannot and will not accept. By even trying to find mitigating circumstances for Corey, Boone has betrayed his friends, the community, and worst of all, the victim. Because the victim wasn't just one of them, the surfing crowd, he was the best of them. Best on the board and the best in life. Not only that, but if Boone does find anything the cops missed, it's probably going to put paid to any career hopes that Johnny Banzai, Boone's oldest and best friend, has in the police department.

This falling out among friends couldn't come at a worse time for Boone, as his other case, the marital infidelity case, erupts in murder and Boone is on the spot for it, either as the trigger-man or as an accessory to murder.

And it is this complex overlay of work and friendships that is one of the major points of difference between this book and most other SoCal crime fiction. The only other book I know that thoroughly works this particular complication is Crais's LA Requiem, and if a book can stand comparison to that particular classic then you know you've got your mitts on one heckuva story.

Add in that Winslow knows surf jargon and uses it judiciously; add in a sense of humor that leavens the darker sides of this story (Boone trying to decide how to dress for what may or may not be a booty call is hilarious); add in minor characters with major story effects; add in the maturation of the lead character without losing any sense of what that character has always been about; add in that Winslow writes in an unpretentious yet unabashedly masculine style that never crosses the line into buffoonery; add in well-executed pace and tension, and the sum total is a terrific story that will get its hooks into you and cause you to grieve, as Boone does, for the deteriorating world not only of the surfers but of everyone who ever lived by a code of honor and respect. Say adios to Moondoggie and Gidget; the skinheads have staked a claim to the beaches. And what land the skinheads aren't fighting over has already been forfeited to the real estate developers. What Winslow says about that latter group and their hand-in-glove corruption with local officials, well, he may not be saying anything new but he sure says it with force and conviction.

I have to address one last crime in regard to this book. The last time I checked, The Gentlemen's Hour was not available for purchase in the US, and won't be until 2011. Now that's criminal. Try the UK if you don't want to or can't afford to wait that long. And the only positive thing I can say about the idiocy of waiting so long for a US release is that it gives unaware readers a chance to pick up the first of Winslow's Boone Daniels books, The Dawn Patrol. Good as that book is, it is but an appetizer for the reading feast that is The Gentlemen's Hour.

(For those who might be interested, Dick Adler has a recent post at The Rap Sheet that has some interesting info about what Winslow is up to these days.)

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was loaned to me by a friend. I get no remuneration from writing about this book. But if the enjoyment I received from reading this book could be translated into dollars, I'd be as rich as any of those Wall Street fat cats.

December 9, 2009

THE BLACK PATH by Asa Larsson

The body of a woman has been found in an ice-fishing hut in Sweden. No one knows who she is, so it's difficult to determine who might have tortured and stabbed her. Prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson is trying to piece her life and her sanity back together after nearly being murdered herself, but she jumps eagerly into another murder case. If this summary sounds a bit disjointed, consider it a reflection of the book.

The Black Path has atmosphere to spare, a hallmark of Swedish crime fic, and the characters are thoroughly developed. When I say thoroughly I mean to the point that the details of every character's life, past and present, drag the pace down to NASCAR (National Association of Snail Crawling and Roundaboutation) speed. Larsson doesn't appear to have that rare gift of limning characters in short, swift indelible strokes; instead they are all illustrated at Tolstoyesque length, from the moment of tragic birth through collegiate peccadilloes. The reader comes to know all of the characters and to understand their motivations, and yet when the book is closed, none of them linger in the mind.

The POV is constantly shifting from one character to another, and some authors do this so well they make it look easy. Larsson isn't bad at writing those transitions, but although the characters have widely differing upbringings and motives and flaws, they none of them seem to have individual voices. They all talk and walk the same, and in the end they all become one anonymous blur.

The motivations for murder, having to do with intricate corporate finances and overseas mining ventures and funding third-world revolutions, make for an interesting premise but the execution is delivered with too much exposition, making it all fairly colorless. An unlikely blood bath as the climax combined with what seemed a brief and pointless interjection of romance at novel's end, all left me unmoved. If that was the light at the end of a dark Swedish winter, I'd just as soon save on the electric bill.

From the first page, I was made to feel that I would have benefited by having read the prior books in order to understand some of the dynamics between recurring characters. The plot gets doled out just a bit in the opening pages and then en masse near the end, while in between is mostly the characters moaning on about how rough each has it or has had it, or what the problem is with the other characters. Tension sags and then falls away completely when the plot is exposed more through exposition than through dialogue or action. The revelation of incest comes across as ho-hum. Even in the action scene at the end, there is a regrettable lack of tension and a little too much built-in coincidence.

On the plus side, the author doesn't get overly graphic with the murder and torture, but at the same time the reader never develops an empathy with the murder victim or what she endured, nor with the two women - cop and prosecutor - who lead the investigation. And neither the cop nor prosecutor develops that empathy, being instead pretty much consumed by their own interior lives. A far cry, this, from the Harry Bosch mantra that "everybody counts or no one does."

The story takes place in a cold climate and leaves the reader feeling those icy temps but, paradoxically, with no hint of a chill.

I'm supposed to add a disclosure notice to pacify the Feds. Okay, here goes. I bought this book with my own money. I'm not making any money or getting anything in return for either promoting it or dissing it. Life sucks that way.

December 2, 2009


Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
Minotaur Books
February, 2010
ISBN 978-0-312-55437-8

1965. In Ketchum, Idaho, the last residence of Ernest Hemingway, a perfect storm is brewing. A conference of Hemingway scholars has descended on the small town, each of them frenetically eager to espouse and gain support for his own opinions on Hemingway's work, his life and especially his death. Among the scholars are Professor Richard Paulson and his pregnant wife, Hannah, a budding writer. The alcoholic Paulson has somehow gained the inside track to write a book with the widow, Mary Hemingway. Paulson, whose career is in a slump, believes Mary killed her husband and he will do anything to secure a confession from her and get his hands on the treasure trove of unpublished papers Hemingway left to Mary. But Mary has her own agenda, and Paulson's wife is on it. And she guards her late husband's work with murderous tenacity. But there are more sinister forces at work than a pack of self-absorbed, backstabbing Papa-wannabes. Hannah is certain that she and Richard are being followed. The Hemingway house is overflowing with wiretaps and listening devices, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. A cold killer named Donovan Creedy is even more hellbent than the scholars to get his hands on the Hemingway papers and destroy all literary and popular respect for Hemingway. At the center of this perfect storm is Hemingway's long-time friend, Hector Lassiter. Lassiter has a clear mission in mind: Protect his late friend's legacy from the bastards who would destroy it, and while he's at it, he might as well make them pay.

REVIEW: I had a great deal of difficulty trying to review McDonald's last novel, Toros & Torsos, because of its scope, depth, style, and complex plot. Right up front, I'll tell you: the man hasn't missed a step in this third episode of the life and times of Hector Lassiter, the crime writer who "writes what he lives and lives what he writes."

Hector is 65 years old now, far beyond the years allowed for the generic fictional he-men of the 21st century. But Hector is a rare breed; he's "the last man standing of The Lost Generation." He's a man of letters who carries a Colt, a two-fisted intellectual, and age has not diminished him. McDonald stays true to the character we saw in the first two books while developing Hector further. Hector is still a romantic in some ways, but he's also learned a degree of caution in his more intimate relationships. His anger can still escape his control, and when that happens Hector's reaction is extreme. He will stare into the face of the American criminal justice system, with all of its power and minions, and not blink.

The character of Donovan Creedy bears a strong resemblance to the notorious E. Howard Hunt in that both are right-wing nuts, CIA/FBI shadow ops agents, and mediocre (at best) crime novelists. Creedy has a string of pulp novels to his name in this story, as did Hunt in real life. (Remember the scene in All the President's Men when Woodward and Bernstein found out Hunt wrote spy novels? That always struck me as something worthy of fiction, and McDonald has neatly taken care of that.)

Other characters such as Paulson, Hannah, Mary Hemingway, are all so deftly drawn that one feels that it would be entirely possible for any of them to show up on Larry King Live to defend their motivations. Hannah in particular is a fascinating creature, a short story writer and a keen observer, but she is also one of the several bazillion women who are much stronger than they realize, until they are put to a crucial test. Hannah passes her test of strength and character with flying colors, and in sharp contrast to how her husband, Mary, Creedy, and even Hector face their own trials. I'd love to tell you how Hannah did it, too, because she put McGyver to shame. He would never have thought of something so simple.

Action? Yep, there's plenty of that and plenty of suspense. There's murder and there's attempted murder. There are threats and there are warnings. There are the evil and the weak, the good and the strong, the selfless and the self-absorbed. There are illegal drugs. Plane crashes. Ambushes. Beatings. Even one orgy. For those who just want action and heroes and villains, you won't go wrong with this book. But you'd be cheating yourself if you didn't look even just a little deeper. There's a rich, liquid quality to this book, in characterization and in plot, that leaves me thirsting for more. And the historical facts used to frame and enhance the fiction are mesmerizing even without any help from the author.

As McDonald played his small surrealistic mind games in the text of Toros & Torsos, here again he has seamlessly blended fact and fiction until my head was in a whirl. I kept one hand on the book and one hand on Google while I was reading. While McDonald's text of Toros &Torsos is actually told in third person as it follows Hector over several decades, in Print the Legend, that book is being written by Hector (still in third person) about himself, treating biographical facts about himself as fiction. Okay, treating fictional biographical facts about himself as truth. No, as true fiction. I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here? McDonald writes it so that I know what he's doing but I can't even describe it. It's history and fiction tied up in one neat Möbius strip. When Hannah gets a sneak peek at Hector's manuscript, she is astounded that it "transcended any notions of genre writing."

Well, hell, Hannah, welcome to the club. I take pride (the I-told-you-so variety) in noting in my review of Toros & Torsos that the book 'exceeds and expands the genre.' Should I be wondering at this point if McDonald is Hector made flesh and reincarnated? In my haste to praise and deify McDonald's talent have I actually underestimated the caliber of his work? Can I get an amen, somebody?

Still don't believe me about the mind games? Well... In Print the Legend, one Hemingway scholar is observed to have stolen the title of his book from one of Bud Fiske's volumes of poetry. Don't know who Bud is? Google him; read his poetry. Better still, read Head Games, the first in the Hector Lassiter series, then read Bud's poetry.

Is it a coincidence that the spook following Lassiter around has the last name of Langley? Or that chapter 22 is titled Art in the Blood? When Creedy accuses Lassiter of "chasing post-modernism" by using himself as a character in one of his own books, one has to wonder what he would make of what McDonald is doing: biting post-modernism on the ass?

What really happened on that July morning in Idaho? The book ends with a delicious mixture of resolution and ambiguity. While studying the ripple effect of Hemingway's life and death, McDonald has created his own ripple effect. Long may he wave.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.