Saturday, July 29, 2006
If you’re left a bit dazed and baffled when you try to get a grip on the current London film, music and journalism mileux, Cathi Unsworth is your ideal guide. Her first mystery, The Not Knowing, swerves jauntily across these environments, as she tells her story while a lively sountrack ranging from rockabilly to new bands from Northern England plays in the background. A hot film director is found murdered in a scene straight out of his latest picture; journalist Diana Kemp – who dated the director when he was unknown – and her colleagues at the new magazine Lux are especially interested in the killing because they have in hand the director’s last interview. Unsworth dedicates her book to Derek Raymond, a mad radical writer of the 1960s and 70s now happily coming back into favor, and to Ken Bruen, the Irish roustabout novelist whose latest effort is reviewed below. It’s an impressive outing: read it on the plane to London.
“Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World” says a note on the Akashic catalogue, and it especially catches the spirit of their city-centered short story collections. I'll be reviewing the latest, LONDON NOIR, in my column. As for Dublin Noir, editor Ken Bruen seems to be one of the few Irish-based writer on hand: his story, “Black Stuff,” has as deep roots in the Dublin soil as his novels . As for the best of the rest – Olen Steinhauer’s “The Piss-Stained Czech;” Sarah Weinman’s “Hen Night;” Gary Phillips’s “The Man for the Job” – they deliberately tell what it’s like to be from outside Dublin, looking in
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Where would crime fiction be without World War II to provide an invaluable distorting lens that lets writers show how badly private people can behave in a world gone mad? That admirable British television series Foyle’s War was a fine example, as are the books of J. Robert Janes and many others.
Carlo Lucarelli seems ready to join them, on the basis of this first novel of a trilogy set in Italy in 1945. As Mussolini’s reign and life are about to end, Commissario De Luca, a Roman police officer, gets involved in investigating the stabbing murder of a man with connections all the way to the top of the Fascist food chain. Welcome to the club, Commissario De Luca; have a seat right next to Chief Inspector Foyle…
Saturday, July 22, 2006
I admit it: I probably expected too much from naval historian Joan Druett’s mystery A Watery Grave, which had the presumption to sail over the same territory as the justly revered – and recently dead – Patrick O’Brian. But both of us seem to have acquired wisdom in the interim, and I’m glad to report that her second book set on the infamous U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 (which ended in disaster, only two of the original six ships returning to New York in 1842) is a much more interesting and considerably less irritating outing.
For one thing, her central character – Wiki Coffin, the son of a Polynesian mother and whose American father made sure he got a college education – doesn’t spend all his time swimming from vessel to vessel as he did in the first book. Wiki, officially the expedition’s linguist but also its chief crime solver, gets to exercise his brain more than his breaststroke in Shark Island, as he and his friend George Rochester, captain of the Swallow (a fictional seventh vessel which Druett added to the enterprise) investigate a sealing ship foundering off the coast of Brazil, abandoned by its crew. When the captain of the wrecked ship is murdered, the leading suspect turns out to be the ambitious and vindictive officer who made Rochester’s and Coffin’s lives such a misery in A Watery Grave. Druett replaces the flood of too-convenient coincidences which almost sank her first book with sharp psychological portraits and stirring, sea-swept descriptive passages that might remind you of – dare I say it? – Patrick O’Brian.
Shark Island isn't out in paperback yet (maybe it will be by Sept., when Druett's latest appears), but a lot of used copies are available on Amazon and ABE. And there's also a new 796-page novel called To the Edge of the World by Harry Thompson, which I'll be reviewing in the Chicago Tribune shortly. It's about real people -- Charles Darwin and Capt. Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle -- who might just remind you of another seafaring pair.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Nobody writes with more eerie precision about the lizard-infested undergrowth of the independent film business than Terrill Lee Lankford. In Dan Tana’s pleasantly non-trendy Hollywood steakhouse, a would-be film magnate offers money to writer/director Clyde McCoy for a piece of his upcoming cheapo thriller, Blonde Lightning – but there’s a catch about some foreign rights: “I need Benelux, Italy and Germany,” the investor insists.
“ ‘Germany?’ Clyde was horrified. ‘We can’t give you Germany. Germany is huge.’
“ ‘I need it. Or I can’t put up the money. Germany is the main reason I want to be involved with this film. I need to fulfill a contract there… I’m not as interested in the revenues as I am in being able to deliver Germany. It’s the key to completion funds on my two other films. They want three pictures or nothing.’”
Clyde saves the day, and the deal, by suggesting that the investor can have Germany – as long as McCoy and his producer/star, a once semi-famous film and TV actor, get a piece of the action. Mark Hayes, the ambitious but soft-headed hero of Lankford’s EARTHQUAKE WEATHER (where he and McCoy met after the 1994 Northridge quake cracked open their San Fernando Valley apartment building) watches the scene and takes notes. If all goes well, he’ll be hired as associate producer on Blonde Lightning, and maybe some day he’ll be talking about Germany himself.
Of course, all doesn’t go well. Clyde has (along with a serious drinking problem) a ladyfriend, Emily, a successful stunt woman and martial arts expert who has managed to earn the hatred of a very nasty piece of Hollywood flotsam. When a suspicious accident almost kills Emily, Clyde and Mark strike back in a violent gesture that threatens to send them both to jail or the graveyard. There’s not much glamour in Lankford’s version of the movie industry, but there is a truckload of suspense, anger, frustration and sadness – as well as enough eating and drinking to make you break any diet.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
We first meet ex-policeman Bernie Gunther in 1936, in March Violets (a term of derision which original Nazis used to describe late converts.) The Olympic Games are about to start; some of Bernie's Jewish friends are beginning to realize that they should have left while they could; and Gunther himself has been hired to look into two murders that reach high into the Nazi Party. In The Pale Criminal, it's 1938, and Gunther has been blackmailed into rejoining the police by Heydrich himself. And in A German Requiem, the saddest and most disturbing of the three books, it's 1947 as Gunther stumbles across a nightmare landscape that conceals even more death than he imagines.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
John Straley was the first mystery writer I ever read who made Alaska his natural canvas: his investigator, Cecil Younger, seemed to understand the people and the environment, and he blended the oddities of their lives and deaths with liberal dashes of humor and explosive action. Here’s a good place to start if you’ve never read Straley (or if you’d like to resume an old acquaintance), as Younger goes to great lengths to work on the case of a client even after she turns up dead.
A surprising number of my friends and relatives love the Monk TV series so much that they ask me to get them signed copies of Lee Goldberg’s books based on it. Judging by this latest outing, where the weird cop follows his assistant, Natalie, on holiday, they’re on to a good thing. Goldberg makes Adrian Monk much more interesting than the TV version: the twitches are less obvious, the outcomes much less predictable. Even (or especially) the secondary characters are more interesting and have sharper dialogue.
Was it really 50 years ago that noted science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon first gave us his dark vision of the vampire myth? Sturgeon, who died in 1985, has had as much influence on other writers and artists as the currently trendy Philip K. Dick, and this frightening and eventually heartbreaking story of a soldier whose desperate search for a normal life is exposed when he assaults a superior officer – beautifully published by another new paperback house -- shows why.
Monday, July 17, 2006
While we all wait with high hopes for LIBERATION MOVEMENTS, Olen Steinhauer's latest in his stunning series of political thrillers about policemen at work in an unnamed Eastern European country, here's what I said about its immediate predecessor, just out in paperback:
The series began with a setting in 1948 for The Bridge of Sighs, in which an idealistic young recruit named Emil Brod had to deal with the problem of proving to his colleagues that he wasn't a spy for the new, pro-Russian regime. Then came The Confession, set in 1956--the story of another homicide detective, Ferenc Kolyeszar, a talented novelist at work on a book about the fate of artists in the Soviet-dominated satellite countries.
36 Yalta Boulevard, the third entry in Steinhauer's fascinating and original series, begins in 1966 and has as its central character a man at first glance much less colorful than Brod or Kolyeszar. At 50, Brano Sev has achieved the rank of major in the country's state security office. He lives alone, has a limited social life and sexual history, and is famous for his loyalty and devotion to his superiors at 36 Yalta Blvd., in the country's capital city. But when an operation to eliminate a traitor goes bad in Vienna, Sev is sent home in disgrace, booted out of the security service and given a lowly, tedious factory job. He accepts the demotion without complaint, believing he will be reinstated eventually.
His chance at redemption comes when he is ordered to return to Bobrka, his native village in the north of the country, to track a possible defector. Sev hasn't been home for years, but it holds a large part of his history, including sending his father out of the country rather than risk the inevitable imprisonment the former farmer would face because of his forced collaboration with Nazi occupiers:
"It seemed that everything was already known to him in this town of less than four hundred; everything was tactile. The lit windows with their rough lace curtains, the tire-mangled road, the sharp grass springing up in his headlights, the fogged windows of the village's one bar and the old man shivering outside in the cold with a beer in his hand, watching Brano's Trabant roll past."
One reviewer of The Confession compared Steinhauer to Graham Greene, but his latest is more in the Eric Ambler tradition of people in unwilling exile. Brano's tortuous journey out of Bobrka takes him back to Vienna, where among the dangers and temptations are a much-younger Yugoslavian woman who apparently loves him, as well as an anti-communist group of religious fundamentalists, funded by the U.S. government, who offer another kind of freedom.
After much physical and mental suffering, Sev is following a suspicious character in Vienna. Steinhauer says late in the book:
"This was a young man's job, creeping around a metropolis, tracking people while remaining invisible. Decades ago, Brano had found the minutiae interesting, sometimes exciting, but he no longer remembered why. All the older Brano found himself desiring . . . was a life that looked a lot like retirement."
Sev might think this at the time, but in the end he makes a decision that at first seem surprising but really is inevitable.
That undersung British master of irony, Bill James (who once wrote a biography of Anthony Powell), has a hardcover -- WOLVES OF MEMORY -- just out. While you wait for that one, here's a new paperback treat. This is what I wrote when it first appeared:
Desmond Iles is in trouble, and that's enough to give a new jolt of energy to James's long-running series about the dapper, devious, demented Assistant Chief Constable of an unnamed British Midlands city and his colleague and primary antagonist, Chief of Detectives Colin Harpur. Here Iles faces two challenges: a tough new chief constable may replace his well-meaning but clueless boss Chief Constable Mark Lane and crush Iles like a bug; and one of the city's three top drug magnates is rumored to want Iles dead.
The titular young woman with the shapely rear is the 18-year-old daughter of a recently deceased "grass," or informer. Fascinated by teenage girls, Iles naturally finds himself attracted to her -- until she begins to respond favorably to his advances. Once again, it's James's darkly ironic writing that makes this series worth the padding and occasional plodding.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Who will finally replace Ruth Rendell and P.D. James as icons of the British crime novel when those two worthy Dames (of the British Empire, I mean) finally call it quits? Denise Mina and Morag Joss are certainly likely candidates. Less likely but equally deserving is Pip Granger, whose books are set in London’s working class neighborhoods in the 1950s, when the city and its inhabitants were still trying to find a way to reconcile a blasted past and an uncertain future. If you read Not All Tarts Are Apple, The Widow Ginger or last year’s Trouble In Paradise, you’ll know what a rich and yeasty brew Granger has distilled from an array of characters who range from the flamboyant to the bizarre.
No Peace For The Wicked is set in 1956, in the burgeoning sex and art center of Soho where the narrator/heroine Lizzy lives above a pub very much like the one on Old Compton St. where Granger herself lived as a child, and also contains a fascinating portrait of the Chinese dockside district known as Limehouse – a once seedy and dangerous place now gentrified beyond all recognition. A 16-year-old part-Chinese girl named Peace who comes to live with Lizzy’s family disappears, which sets in motion the Limehouse visit and other mysteries and adventures. Granger’s greatest strength is making all sorts of human behavior seem as normal as sliced bread.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Reggie Nadelson's Russian-born NYPD detective Artie Cohen is one of the most interesting and complicated crime solvers to join the genre since S.J.Rozan's Lydia Chin. Like Rozan, Nadelson deliberately makes her prime character an outsider, living and working the nastier streets of New York but with a part of his soul still planted in the old USSR.
During an unusually fierce blizzard in the winter of 2003, Artie is called in to investigate a pile of bloody children's clothing found on a beach in Brooklyn, near the territory where Russian expatriates from gangsters to shopkeepers have settled into a colony. Cohen's search becomes personal in more ways than one: is he more Russian than American despite all his efforts to fit in? And is one of the dead or missing children his own godson? As the city still struggles to absorb the psychic damage of 9/11, Artie has to deal with his own demons. Nadelson's excellent series about him - this is book five - deserves much wider attention.
One of the eye-opening delights of Bangkok 8, John Burdett's hilarious and mordant first book about a Royal Thai police detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, was the way Sonchai managed to be both an observant Buddhist and a shrewd cop. When a drug-crazed cobra killed his partner, the only other Buddhist in the Thai police force, Sonchai seemed to be honestly torn between religion and revenge; he managed to walk that delicate literary tightrope until the book's end.
In Sonchai's second outing, both of those important elements have been played down. Sonchai is still a Buddhist, but either his devotion hs been channeled into other pursuits or our fascination with his moral dilemma hashad the edge taken off it. Bangkok Tattoo is still an original, imaginative thriller, full of irony and social comment, but we don't get to see Sonchai on that tightrope very often.
Never mind. Burdett, who has soaked up enough Thai culture to fuel several more books, writes like a dark angel. His descriptions of the country villages kept alive and thriving on the money sent home by Bangkok's so-called exploited sex slaves is convincing; his breakfast menu bought from street vendors for $1.50 makes you want to fly to Bangkok for other pleasures.
And best of all are those increasingly rare but most welcome moments on the old tightrope. “Believe it or not, I don't spend any of the money,” Sonchai tells us about his partnership in the club owned by his mother and his boss. "Vikorn's accountant wires my modest ten percent share of the profits into my account with the Thai Farmer's Bank every quarter, and I let it stack up, preferring to live on my cop's salary in my hovel by the river when I'm not sleeping at the Club. To be honest, I've promised the Buddha that when I get the chance I'll do something useful with it… When I tried to take some money out of the account to buy a fantastic pair of shoes by Baker-Benje on sale in the Emporium (only $500), I was prevented by some mystic force.”
One of the many pleasures delivered by Barbara Cleverly’s books about Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands, who is enjoying a long stay in India after being wounded in World War I, is the way they bring back memories of favorite books and films. Her third effort in this excellent series begins in the cool and stately mountain resort of Simla made famous in The Jewel in the Crown and then moves into a dangerous environment of high adventure where wild animals attack at will.
A tiger with a taste for humans is frightening the mango chutney out of the inhabitants of the princely state of Ranipur, so Joe and an experienced hunter named Edgar Troop are asked to join a party tracking it down. Sandilands begins to suspect there’s more to the invitation when he’s offered not only a fine hunting rifle but also a pistol much more suited to shooting humans.
Ranipur turns out to be a mysterious and dangerous place: the old Maharajah is dying, and his oldest son has been killed by a panther. Then a second son dies violently, and it’s up to Joe and his companion to protect the remaining 12-year-old heir from other ambitious denizens of the palace and an untrustworthy chief of police.
Cleverly’s research brings even the most exotic places and people to full credibility, and she balances her ingredients – including a steamy dose of romance -- with the skill and imagination of a master chef.
I’ve raved at length about Scottish writer Denise Mina, whose books have led some to anoint her as the latest heir to the Ruth Rendell/Minette Walters/P.D. James crown. Now we have another contender, Morag Joss, whose mysteries about cellist Sara Selkirk, set in the lovely Regency city of Bath, have been extremely readable without breaking any genre boundaries.
Joss’s latest in paperback, which won one of those silver daggers which the British Crime Writers Assocation hands out so stylishly, moves her up a couple of rungs on the ladder. Like Rendell’s books about dysfunctional people who feed off of each other, Half Broken Things slowly creates an atmosphere of absolute terror. As three very odd people – a 64-year-old professional housesitter working on her last job; an unsuccessful thief; an abused and pregnant young woman – come together in a country house whose owners are away for nine months, Joss lets us watch as the three become a family.
But what starts as the happy home life which the characters have been sorely missing becomes an exercise in psychological suspense worthy of any of the writers I’ve mentioned. In the end, the question of how far they will go to keep their house and family turns into a matter of life and unnatural death.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Natsuo Kirino has been one of Japan's top mystery writers for a dozen years; amazingly, Out, translated by Stephen Snyder, is her first appearance in English. With the heartbreaking inevitability of a Russian novel, it tells the story of a collective crime: the murder of an abusive husband and the disposal of his body by four women who work together on the night shift at a Tokyo factory that produces cheap, tasty, possibly even nutritious boxed lunches. The women are bound together in a friendship made up of financial need and a deep understanding of revenge.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Continuing their praiseworthy crusade of bringing worthy but so-far ignored European crime fiction to a wider audience, the sweet folk at Bitter Lemon Press give us this first novel – a prize-winning bestseller in Italy -- by a man who knows all about danger: he was an anti-Mafia judge in the seaport of Bari, responsible for many indictments. His fiction debut is a sad and sharply-edged legal thriller, smoothly translated by Patrick Creagh, about a top defense lawyer whose collapsing conscience is saved by taking on the case of an illegal immigrant from Senegal accused of murdering a nine-year-old boy.
Monday, July 10, 2006
A sizeable benefit of reading (and reviewing) crime fiction is the chance to meet strong, smart women solving puzzles while moving through a freshly-researched historical period. Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs hit the ground of 1920s England running, and in her third book is keeping up that admirable pace while widening her range.
Maisie's diverse background energizes the series: daughter of a greengrocer, hired as a housemaid and then sent to Cambridge by a wealthy woman employer who spotted her intellect and a leading psychologist who sharpened her perceptions about people, Dobbs served as a nurse at some of World War One's bloodiest battlefields, then returned to London to open a detective agency where humanity and understanding are the specialities of the house.
Two unusual but possibly-linked investigations into the fates of men missing in action and declared dead occupy most of Maisie's time in Pardonable Lies (the title comes from a poem by Sophocles which would almost certainly have been part of the education of a young woman at Cambridge's Girton College): a man who is honoring a deathbed promise to his wife to find out what happened to their aviator son, and an old college friend wanting to know more about her brother's end. Dobbs also tries to prove the innocence of a 13-year-old country girl (the same age as Maisie was when she went into service) who became a prostitute and is now charged with murder.
As in her first two books about Maisie, Winspear shows us how everything she knows and has learned in her various roles influences her work. Spiritualism, which ran rampant in England after World War One - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became an advocate after the loss of a son -- is examined in all its shapes and degrees of honesty, through the eyes of a woman both sharpened by the skepticism of science and softened by a vast compassion for all of those people who, like herself, have seen the worst of what the world has to offer.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
I am even more full of admiration for Jim Kelly's second mystery about British journalist Philip Dryden than I was for his impressive debut, The Water Clock.
Kelly could have easily coasted on the qualities that made his first book so distinctive: the landscape (the mysterious oozing fens surrounding the old East Anglia cathedral town of Ely, where he and Dryden live); the fascinating secondary characters (an about-to- retire cop who trades crime tips for birdwatching news, a minicab driver almost as large as his vehicle, which has become Dryden's sole means of transport); the absolute sadness of Dryden's private life, as his much-beloved wife, Laura, remains hospitalized in a coma after a car accident. Instead, Kelly keeps those ingredients and pushes the envelope they came in. Laura has amazingly begun to make progress, communicating (heartbreakingly slowly and painfully) by pressing Dryden's hand through the alphabet, stopping at letters that seem to make words. She is trying to tell him about a confession she heard from someone who thought she was completely comatose, concerning a murder Dryden is covering for his local newspaper, the Crow. Maggie Beck, the woman in the other bed in Laura's hospital room, is the lone survivor of a fiery crash of a U.S. Air Force bomber that plowed into her farm after a dust cloud ripped apart its jet engines in 1977. The fire baby of the book's title is Maggie's love child, burned to death in the disaster. But now Maggie, dying of cancer, is stirring the ashes of that painful past and seems ready to disclose some important information.You may never choose to visit the fens--especially in the summer, which sounds particularly toxic--but the area will come alive from the very first page because of Kelly's extraordinary art and imagination.
Friday, July 07, 2006
LEMONS NEVER LIE, by Richard Stark, is a long out-of-print delight by Donald E. Westlake, who under his real name and his Stark alias has been making heroes out of criminals all his writing life. Unreformed thief Alan Grofield runs a live theater in Indiana, but gets involved with a lunatic who wants his help in robbing a brewery – and just won’t take Grofield’s refusal as anything but a reason to explode.
STRAIGHT CUT, by Madison Smartt Bell, is another treasure: the only straight mystery (published originally in 1986) by one of our leading novelists. Freelance film editor Tracy Bateman, who is having trouble staying sober since his wife Lauren left him, takes a suspiciously high-paying job in Rome offered by his former best friend Kevin, a semi-successful film producer. Not only is Kevin the man for whom Lauren left Tracy; he has also been known to smuggle drugs in sizeable quantities – both of which cause Tracy a large portion of angst and danger.
WITNESS TO MYSELF, by Seymour Shubin, is an amazing story -- not to mention a great mystery. What’s the opposite of a burned out writer? Shubin burst into the mystery world in 1953 with his best-selling first novel, Anyone’s My Name; his career continued up through 1982, with the memorable Edgar nominee The Captain; now he has a brand new example of classic noir – about a 15-year-old crime suddenly resurfacing to change a man’s life -- out. Once again, the pleasure is enhanced by a piece of original cover art (this one by Larry Schwinger) which catches the period perfectly.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Even the title is a good laugh. Mickey Haller is the kind of lawyer who takes out ads in the yellow pages, carefully skirting Bar Association rules about promising clients too much. He runs his business mostly by cell phone from the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car, chauffered by a former client working off his debt to Haller at ten bucks an hour (the other ten comes out of Haller’s pocket and/or expense account.)
“There was nothing about the law that I cherished anymore… Every case I took on was a house built on a foundation poured by overworked and underpaid laborers. They cut corners. They made mistakes. And then they painted over the mistakes with lies. My job was to peel away the paint and find the cracks. To work my fingers and tools into those cracks and widen them. To make them so big that either the house fell down or, failing that, my client slipped through.”
Connelly is so good that we believe Mickey when he says that. We also understand his financial problems well enough to sympathize with his desire for just one “franchise” case – a long-running affair for which he can bill a rich client $300 an hour and set himself up for life. So when a bail bondsman tells him about Louis Roulet, a wealthy Beverly Hills real estate agent accused of the rape and beating of a prostitute, Haller thinks he’s found his franchise.
But as his ex-cop investigator Raul Levin starts to dig into Roulet’s past, The Lincoln Lawyer opens up into a whole other kind of quest. It gets into a case of a client who Mickey now is sure was innocent but who was convicted and sent to San Quentin for life. “I was always worried that I might not recognize innocence,” Haller says. “The possibility of it in my job was so rare that I operated with the fear that I wouldn’t be ready for it when it came. That I would miss it.”
A smashing conclusion, with echoes of Presumed Innocent and Witness For the Prosecution, gives The Lincoln Lawyer stature and suspense. Connelly has stepped up to the plate in the overflowing ballpark of legal thrillers and blasted a grand slam his first time at bat.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
For his 17th book, Seymour takes on Al Qaeda--in the person of Caleb, an apparently harmless cab driver from Kabul, Afghanistan, who spent two years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay because he looked suspicious and now wants only to get back to his family. But Caleb is really a powerful Al Qaeda agent known as the Outsider, a type of character often flat or ludicrous in other thrillers but believably riveting here. A series of plot twists show that the Outsider's terrorist skills are impressively efficient. But equally impressive are the actions of the team of American and British counterterrorists who search for him, using hard-won intelligence and ultramodern technology. Their job is to keep the Outsider from delivering to his "family"--Al Qaeda's leaders--a small, deadly weapon that would make real-life terrorist scenarios pale by comparison.
What Seyour does so well in "The Unknown Soldier," as he has done so many times before, is take an already frightening world and make it even more terrifying. It isn't the least bit comforting, but it certainly gets your attention.
Amazingly, this is just the second of Miyuki Miyabe's 36 mystery novels to be translated into English; the other was the best-selling and critically acclaimed All She Was Worth which in 1992 received Japan's equivalent of the National Book Award for fiction. Imagine the reverse happening to Ruth Rendell--just two of her dozens of books being available in Japanese.
The Rendell comparison is particularly apt: Shadow Family starts like one of her Inspector Wexford police stories and then slides gradually into the kind of dark psychological mystery she often writes, especially under her Barbara Vine pen name.
Etsuro Takegami is a not-very-distinguished Tokyo police detective sergeant who inherits a high-profile, double-murder case when his superior is hospitalized. A 48-year-old food-company executive named Ryosuke Tokoroda is found stabbed to death in his comfortable house in a farming district being turned into homes. His murder is soon linked by forensic evidence to the strangling death a few days before of a young woman, a college student and karaoke-club employee who was Tokoroda's lover.
On this familiar foundation, Miyabe begins to build a bizarre structure. Takegami and his sharply drawn team discover that the murdered man had created a fantasy life on the Internet: a subtle, frighteningly detailed fictional family where he was the perfect father, unlike the cold and frustrated man he was with his own wife and daughter. Tokorada was also a serial philanderer, so when a stalker begins to threaten his daughter, the police suspect this might be connected with the murders.
Miyabe blends her two styles with impressive ease as the answers and villains are revealed. Of special interest is a portrait of a part of Tokyo--a long way from the sleek electronic metropolis depicted in films like Lost in Translation--where ordinary people live, work and play out their dark fantasies.
Wallace Stroby's first book about ex-New Jersey State Trooper Harry Rane, The Barbed-Wire Kiss, found some tough, sharp new things to say about the often-cliched character of cop gone wrong. Stroby's second Rane storm is even better, as he gets involved with a dancer named Nikki Ellis who used to work at the scuzzy Heartbreak Lounge in Asbury Park.
Ellis' husband has been released from prison in Florida, and she thinks he's coming back to South Jersey to settle some scores--with her for putting their son up for adoption, with some treacherous former gangster colleagues and most of all with Rane, who once again lets himself be sucked into a mess of danger by doing a favor for a friend.
Here's what I wrote about Till the Cows Come Home:
You might learn more than you want to know about some of the nastier aspects of running a small dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania in this pungent, promising first mystery: In the opening pages, there's a messy calf-birthing scene as well as an overflowing manure pit. But Judy Clemens gives us in return an absolutely original lead character: Stella Crown, who runs her old family farm with the help of a veteran hired hand and an eager young neighbor, fighting off the developers who want to turn the remaining local dairies into housing estates. Crown takes great pleasure from her 1988 Harley-Davidson Low Rider, which she rebuilt from a wreck, and from sexual encounters with a hunky, itinerant barn painter she can't really afford to hire.
On Crown's 29th birthday, which she'd prefer to forget but which a giant clan of family friends insists on marking, it becomes obvious that something worse than ordinary hard times or bad luck is going on. A mysterious, flulike disease has struck the area, especially its children, and someone is devoting a lot of time to subtly attacking Crown's farm and its inhabitants.
Clemens' plotting is solid and unexpected, and all her characters--the desperate farmers, their frustrated families, even the local biker fraternity--come quickly to life. Especially Crown, who confesses that she keeps her hair short "to show off the cow skull tattooed at the base of my neck" but who so far has resisted suggestions to have "Got milk?" engraved somewhere on her body.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
"I had grown up convinced that the slow procession of the postwar years, a world of stillness, poverty, and hidden resentment, was as natural as tap water, that the mute sadness that seeped from the walls of the wounded city was the real face of its soul," remembers Daniel Sempere of his native Barcelona in 1945, when he turned 11. That's the year his widowed bookseller father takes him to an ancient repository called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is allowed to choose one volume from the shelves to own and protect. The book Daniel picks is "The Shadow of the Wind," a novel written in 1935 by Julian Carax.
Little is known of Carax, whose few novels never sold many copies but who seems to have stirred up enough anger in at least one reader to make him or her intent on acquiring and burning every last copy. Over the next 20 years, Daniel's fate will be linked with Carax's in many ways--some obviously melodramatic, in the best tradition of writers like Dickens and Dumas, such as the stranger with the burned face who tries to buy or steal Daniel's copy of the book, or the vicious police inspector who dogs everyone's heels; others more subtle, including the way the book teaches Daniel about sex, trust and life in a repressive country.
Small wonder that The Shadow of the Wind has already been a huge best seller in Spain and other European countries. Ruiz Zafon has captured the magic of books as objects of love and as cultural icons, and has managed to combine our fascination with them (Why else are we writing and reading this?) with a story of tremendous scope and precise focus.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Maurice Valentine is a slick operator, an equal mixture of talent and compromise, a former World War II flying hero and Menninger Clinic mental patient who at 40 is ready to sell--and resell--his soul. He's also a hugely successful architect: a surprising occupation for the lead player in a superb crime novel.
Valentine, born Maurizio Viglioni, has traded more than his birth name for the money and fame of being one of the design elite of Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1956: He is married to the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Joseph Kennedy Sr. figure who is a U.S. senator from Nevada and wants his son-in-law to be the state's other senator. It's a move approved of and probably even engineered by Valentine's wife.
One of Valentine's pork-barrel government jobs is designing and building the fake houses used in atom-bomb tests in the desert. As a crowd of celebrities, power brokers and high rollers gathers on the top-floor lounge of his Las Vegas icon hotel, El Sheik, to watch a test, shots are fired. Wounded, Valentine gets more involved than he should by digging into the past lives and crimes of the leading players--uncovering all sorts of ghosts.
As everyone from Thomas Harris, begetter of Hannibal Lector, to Dan Brown can attest, creating a believable villain is the hardest work in the artistic world. How many recent thrillers have been spoiled--or almost derailed--by a character who won't come alive on the page, or who immediately goes over the top into the credibility gap?
All of which makes Neil McMahon's success with one of the main characters in his fourth book about Dr. Carroll Monks--a doctor who just can't stay out of trouble--so stunning. McMahon pulls off the virtually unthinkable here: He creates a terrorist so authentically motivated that he quickly becomes touchingly real.
Freeboot, as the leader of a band of drugged-out, deranged outlaws who live on an isolated tract of land deep in the mountains of Northern California calls himself, is a true lunatic of epic dimensions, a "macho speed freak who dominat-ed his followers, made allusions to Machiavelli, and hinted at the grandiose importance that he would enjoy in the eyes of history." These things are necessary but not sufficient to explain the immediate fascination we have with Freeboot, nor the unmistakable shiver of sympathy we feel wen we hear him speak.
In McMahon's assured hands, the duel between the rational, scientific doctor and the fascinating, frightening Freeboot--who fizzes with rampant electricity like a short circuit--is an absolutely riveting read.
Don Winslow uses a quote from Psalms to give his powerful new thriller a title: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my love from the power of the dog.” It's an extremely apt frame for this heartbreaking chronicle of the drug wars between the U.S. and Mexico: Biblical in its dramatic scope and the classic beauty of its prose, which rumbles in the background like heavenly thunder. (Readers might remember feeling the same emotions when they began Mario Puzo's The Godfather.)
Choosing to tell a story that takes place over 25 years in the present tense is an act of considerable courage, but Winslow has created a lead character who can carry it off: a DEA agent named Art Keller who is a walking monument to the dedication and futility of those people who spend their lives fighting drugs. As a rookie posted to Culican, Keller makes friends with the Barrera brothers - who turn out to be related to Mexico's leading drug dealer. One of the brothers, Adan, takes over the family business: both he and Keller are contenders for the favors of Nora Hayden, a call girl with a heart of pure cocaine. And a hired killer named Sean Callan is the official ambassador of the American Mafia to the Latin American narcotics scene.
Using these four main characters, Winslow (whose 1998 thriller THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z is one of the classics of the crime genre) manages to cram into over 500 pages enough new information about how and why the drug wars have gone so badly that we want more - especially the explosive poetry of his writing.
How does Donna Leon do it? She has become the Tintoretto of the crime novel, using the vision of Venice imprinted on our minds and hearts as her canvas to create a world of crime, family, history and inevitable governmental weakness and corruption.
In this her 14th novel (three of which have never been printed in America), the basically pragmatic but occasionally optimistic Commissario Guido Brunetti is called to the scene on a cold night just before Christmas after a Senegalese street vendor, one of a band of African immigrants who sell knockoffs of expensive handbags to tourists, has been shot five times by two professional killers. The head cop is quickly forced to examine his own mixed feelings about the illegal immigrants, then try to understand why his own teenage daughter seems so contemptuous of them – even in the face of her professor mother’s indignation over her attitude.
A laborious investigation by one of the Commissario’s colleagues who scored some points when he dived into a canal to rescue another Senegalese turns up the murdered man’s shabby sleeping place – and also a cache of uncut diamonds. Almost immediately, Brunetti’s superiors transfer the case to higher governmental agencies.
But Guido, who loves Venice for its heady mixture of history, beauty and the stains of past public and private crimes on the walls of its museums and churches, refuses to give it up without a struggle. Helped by the resourceful Signorina Elettra, one of whose jobs is to deflect the worst antics of their mutual boss, he comes up with evidence linking the murder to the war in Angola and a powerful Italian corporation.
So we get to go along as the Commissario does his dredging in the city of canals. We also get to share, vicariously, the marvelous food of the Brunetti household – including a “pasticcio made of layers of polenta, ragu, and parmigiano. To follow,” Leon apologizes, “there was only roasted radicchio smothered in stracchino.”