Thursday, May 25, 2006

James Sallis has been getting some long-overdue attention lately – including a front page story in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. His thriller DRIVE (which should have been an Edgar nominee but wasn’t; Sallis will have to settle for the movie sale he made of it to actor Hugh Jackman ) is just out in paperback.
Here’s what I wrote when it first appeared:
Imagine the black heart of Jim Thompson beating in the poetic chest of James Sallis and you’ll have some idea of the beauty, sadness and power of Drive – the title of which comes from the same Robert Creeley poem which was used by Jeremy Larner for his memorable novel (made into a film directed by Jack Nicholson) Drive, He Said.
Drive is short – a novella – but has more thought, feeling and murderous energy than books twice its length. It’s about a young man called Driver, who escaped from a tragic background in Arizona (where his mother stabbed his abusive father to death) by learning how to turn a car into a way of life. We meet him when he arrives in Los Angeles and quickly – thanks to an expert mentor – becomes a top stunt driver for B-movies.
“The sequences didn’t make much sense to him, but they rarely did,” Sallis tells us. After a first take which pleased everyone but himself, “Second run went like a song. Driver gave himself a little more time to get up to speed, hit the ramp to go up on two wheels as he sailed through the alley, came back down onto four and into a moonshiner’s turn to face the way he’d come… The crew applauded.”
Driver also earns money by driving for carefully selected armed robbers, more often than not turning down a job because he doesn’t trust the people in charge. He makes one big mistake, which results in several deaths by gunshots and a serious injury to his arm. Finding and killing the people who played him for a sucker takes up most of the book – including a remarkable dinner at one of my own favorite restaurants, Warszawa in Santa Monica.
There’s a lot of death in Drive, but its saddest moment comes in a memory which Driver has of himself as a young boy, watching his addled, hard-pressed mother put together a table which she had ordered from a catalogue: “An ugly, cheap-looking, wobbly thing. The room, the world, got very quiet. Both stayed that way for a long time. ‘I just don’t understand,’ Mother said. She sat on the floor still, pliers and screwdrivers ranged about her. Tears streamed down her face. ‘It looked so pretty in the catalog. So pretty. Not at all like this.’ “
For more of the Sallis magic, I heartily recommend THE JAMES SALLIS READER, published last year in a handsome paperback by Point Blank Press. You can usually find a used copy for a fair price at (where I bought mine: NEWSFLASH! Reviewer Actually Buys A Book!). You should be sure to set your search requirements by lowest price first.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Robert Littell won this year's Los Angeles Times Best Mystery/Thriller Award for LEGENDS, now out in paperback. It's a surprisingly comic romp through the halls of espionage, with a female CIA executive who looks like Fred Astaire and a former top agent working as a downscale private eye from an office over a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. His name seems to be Martin Odum, but "Fred Astaire" calls him Dante, and he also goes by Lincoln Dittmann, the name of a Civil War enthusiast whose cartons of memorabilia sit unopened in Martin's office. Because he needs the work, Martin agrees to help an old Russian KGB agent find his Israeli daughter's husband and persuade the man to give her a divorce decree required by religious law. The husband has been pretending he's Jewish to cover up his link to a Russian criminal, and as the bodies of his friends and clients begin to pile up, Odum searches for answers about not only the missing husband but also himself.
Laurie R. King's latest Kate Martinelli hardcover THE ART OF DETECTION is in the stores, and her previous one, from her Mary Russell series

is just out in paperback. Here's some of what I said when it first appeared:
"His greying hair and coat-tails tossed wildly in the wind as he continued to scan the rocks, and Holmes found himself muttering under his breath: 'Hammett, it must be damned cold out on that exposed rock; this won't be doing your lungs a bit of good.' "
How does Laurie R. King keep her series about Mary Russell, a young American woman who meets and marries a much older Sherlock Holmes when the detective has ostensibly retired to the country to keep bees, so fresh and strong? Inventing wonderful moments like this one is part of the answer. Hammett is Dashiell, the tubercular ex-Pinkerton agent now pursuing his writing career in San Francisco, and Holmes has hired him to help look into an event that has shaped Russell's life and now haunts her dreams.
Recent books in the Mary Russell series seem to have been trying to improve on Conan Doyle's hopes of leaving Holmes behind on Baker Street while the author went on to wider adventures in the world in other books without his famous detective. Ironically, King now returns Russell to the obsessively personal world of the early Holmes stories, adding a depth of art and imagination Sir Arthur never exhibited.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine never had the literary cachet of its slicker rivals (Ellery Queen was the king) in the 1960s, but those of us with a taste for stories by writers with strong beliefs turned there often. Dennis Lynds, who died last year, wrote many stories for Mike Shayne under his Michael Collins pseudonym, and now Crippen & Landru, the publishing house named after two famous murderers, has collected 13 of his terrific stories about a private eye called Slot-Machine Kelly, a one-armed detective who Lynds later turned into the unforgettable Dan Fortune. None of these Kelly pieces have appeared in book form; as Robert Randisi says in his introduction, “they are pulp writing at its best, but they are also the early work of a man whose social conscience peers over his shoulder at every word he writes.”
Another tremendous blast from the out-of-print past by the impeccable folk at Felony & Mayhem is Carolyn Hougan’s shamefully neglected 1989 thriller THE ROMEO FLAG – a veritable Faberge egg (there’s a real one at the heart of the plot) full of treasures and delights that begins in Shanghai just as the Japanese are invading; sweeps along a tangled trail through Moscow and the upper reaches of the CIA; and winds up in the Maine home of an apparently perfectly ordinary teacher named Nicola Ward with a history that just won’t quit.
There's so much pleasure and bafflement to be derived from this thriller by novelist Chad Taylor that it seems like an afterthought to point out that it's also a fascinating portrait of life in modern-day New Zealand. Two men are discovered playing pool in an Auckland billiard parlor: property developer Rory Jones and narrator Mark Chamberlain, of no immediately obvious occupation. We soon learn that Chamberlain is a professional burglar, and (in a scene worthy of Hitchcock) the next night he breaks into Jones' apartment and steals everything in sight-including evidence that Jones is the father of Caroline May, a high school classmate of Chamberlain's who disappeared many years earlier Was Chamberlain involved in the disappearance? Who else knows enough about his secret life to leave ominous clues in his apartment? A fine read and an interesting look at unfamiliar terrain.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Robert Goddard is one of England’s best (and best-selling) writers of psychological thrillers, but his career has strangely languished in America. Now the quality paperback house Delta is giving some new life to many of his best books: including this first U.S, publication of a typically sly and mesmerizing story about an actor who discovers the hard way that “Reality doesn’t often intrude into the life of an actor. Pretence is all, off stage as well as on. For me, though, that had changed. Utterly.”
Toby Flood is a relatively successful stage actor whose most recent shot at stardom came when he was briefly considered to take over the role of James Bond after Roger Moore stepped down. Now he’s playing the lead in a recently-discovered play by the late Joe Orton (author of “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane”) which is trying out in Brighton. Toby’s life changes when he gets a call from his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jenny, who lives in Brighton. She is being stalked by a strange man who hangs around in the cafe opposite her hat shop, and she thinks Toby might be involved because the stalker had been seen with a video copy of one of his films. Toby, still very much in love with Jenny, agrees to help – and finds himself in a dangerous, baffling plot involving lies and hidden truths which might turn lethal at any moment.
Should crime fiction – written mostly for profit and entertainment – be expected to compete in the artistic arena, to strive for that abused but occasionally useful term “literature?” Probably not: the field is too skewed to make such comparisons fair. But every now and then a writer of thrillers or mysteries emerges who deserves to be compared with the best. The list of names is short, each tied to a territory or period: Charles McCarry, who has played the Cold War like a lute; Olen Steinhauer, who makes the Communist side of that war understandable; Sara Paretsky, who holds the rough, greedy heart of Chicago in her hand. You probably have one or two candidates.
To that list, I’d like to add the name of Edward Wright. Like previous novelists who wrestled with Los Angeles before and after WWII (John Fante of Ask the Dust and Horace McCoy of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? come to mind), Wright knows how to
capture the smell of something burning in the hot fields and streets of that 1940s city and turn it into the kind of art that both stirs up old memories and pierces the soul.
His books are about John Ray Horn, a former cowboy star of B-movies who played a character called Sierra Lane. The son of an unforgiving Arkansas preacher, Horn had his few moments in the film sun, before a very bad war in Italy and then a violent attack on the son of his studio owner -- which sent him to prison for two years and ended both his career and his marriage to the wrong woman. Now he lives in a shabby mountain cabin which he keeps up in lieu of rent, and earns food money collecting debts for Joseph Mad Crow, his former co-star who has started a gambling casino.
Wright’s first book about Horn CLEA'S MOON won a British award on the basis of a sample chapter and an outline. His second was published by Putnam here as WHILE I DISAPPEAR and as a paperback called “The Silver Face” in England. And RED SKY LAMENT--his best and most important political and social statement – appears to have no American publisher as yet.
Red Sky Lament starts off with a friend needing Horn’s help: Maggie O’Dare, the woman he should have married – a top stunt rider whose horse ranch high above the San Fernando Valley is a place of great comfort. Maggie wants John Ray to help a once-famous screenwriter, Owen Bruder, now unemployable and on his way to prison as an “Unfriendly Witness” before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee which is in full swing. Horn, with no particular sympathy for Communists, takes on the job of finding out who lied about the cold and unlikable Bruder to HUAC’s investigators because Maggie gives him convincing reasons.
What all of Wright’s books do is what the best fiction does: recreate a vanished world (even if the time passed is days rather than decades), then populate it with people we’d know anywhere.

Starting low and gradually raising the bar with each book is a good way to make sure that a writer will be around for awhile – especially if that low start disguises a shrewd sense of character and a formidable narrative engine.
Naomi Hirahara’s first book about Mas Arai, a 70-year widowed gardener who still keeps a few clients in and around the Torrance and Gardena sections of Southern Los Angeles mostly to pay for his gambling addiction, involved Mas – one of those people born in America of Japanese parents who returned to Japan (in Arai’s unfortunate case, to Hiroshima) because of the Great Depression – in a mystery that blended history and current events. In her second book, Mas’s not-so-much-estranged-as-distant daughter, Mari, who lives in New York, actually asked for his help.
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Mas is now drafted into a case closer to home: a shrewd lawyer named G. I. Hasuike who helped out Mari is about to be charged with the murder of a friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran who was sliced with a bayonet almost immediately after winning $500,000 on a Las Vegas slot machine.
Because G.I. has an Okinawan lady friend, a private detective, we learn a lot (but not too much) about that Japanese island and its unusual history. The “snakeskin shamisen” of the title is in fact an Okinawan musical instrument which plays an important plot role. We also absorb many details of the kind of Asian cuisine that is definitely not haute, from a celebration blowout at a Hawaiian eatery to Mas’s own taste for Spam sushi – “referred to as Spam musubi” -- as a midnight snack.
But most of all we realize that Hirahara knows Arais intimately, that the guise of a crotchety, not too sharp senior citizen is just a way of keeping the world at a distance. “Mas tried not to stretch his mind to connect the dots too early,” she writes. “His experience was once you thought you figured something out, you inevitably ended up surprised in the end.”

Friday, May 12, 2006

Julian Symons, who died in 1994, was not only the brother (and biographer) of the author of the amazing THE QUEST FOR CORVO but also a masterful mystery writer – winner of the Diamond Dagger planted in him by the Crime Writers Association, and a Grand Master kiss from the Mystery Writers of America. Toward the end of his career, he didn’t have much respect for short stories, but earlier – from 1950 to 1955 – he wrote a series of stories for the London Evening Standard about a private eye called Francis Quarles with an office in Trafalgar Square and a history of secret activities during World War II. The dedicated Crippen & Landru have put together 41 of these previously uncollected outings as part of their Lost Classics series, and each is a tasty morsel from a menu which no longer exists.