Monday, June 09, 2008

Down These Lonely Streets

Here's my latest BOOK BEAT column for "Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence," the magazine of the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference. If you want to read more of my book reviews, check out my attempt to read 50 books in 2008 here.

BLONDE FAITH by Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mystery series is one of my favorites, and I always grab up the next one as soon as it hits the shelves. Rawlins is a sort-of private detective whose cases are set against the backdrop of real events, starting in post-war Los Angeles to the current entry, Los Angeles shortly after the Watts riots (which featured heavily in his last work). With his hardboiled plots and socio-political backdrops of a time and place, I find Mosley's work an engaging mix of Ross Macdonald and Chester B. Himes.This crackling story has Rawlins fighting a war on two fronts, trying to free his loyal friend (and genial sociopath) Mouse from a police frame-up while also finding out what happened to a new friend, Vietnam vet Christmas Black, who brought a lot of baggage (and a Vietnamese orphan) back with him. Steady readers of the series will get updates on all of the usual characters as well as a few new ones, including the mysterious Blonde Faith of the title.I have nothing but praise for this notable series and look forward to what's next.

I have been burrowing through stacks of morose Scandinavian mysteries lately, so I thought surely I should tackled The Redbreast, voted the best Norwegian crime novel of all time. And, falling in line with my Norwegian brethren, I would recommend it highly.The unfortunately named Harry Hole is a hard drinking, rule-busting Oslo cop whose bosses generally turn a blind eye because of his knack for solving crimes. He reminds me favorably of one of my favorite series characters, Michael Connelly's similiarly-named Harry Bosch. Unlike the more somber Scandinavian writers, Jo Nesbo infuses Hole with a fair amount of sardonic humor, a welcome relief from the somewhat navel-gazing detectives that populate these works.The Redbreast is intricate but fast-moving, hard-nosed but philosophical, sprawling but intimate. The story jumps from a case involving modern Neo-Nazis to the Eastern Front of World War II, where Norwegians fought alongside Nazis against the Russians, and the terrible ties that bind these events. I enjoyed the plotting and characters and learned a lot about Norway's history during this time period.Nesbo has been very popular overseas, and I hope this overture to English-reading audiences brings more translations of his work here.

A former low-level street tough gets tortured to death at Christmastime, setting the gloomy detectives of the Uppsala (Sweden) police force in motion to catch a killer. Meanwhile, the dead man's criminal brother starts a parallel investigation.Kjell Eriksson's first novel translated into English is called an Ann Lindell mystery, though detective Lindell is on maternity leave during most of the action, leaving the police work to her partner Ola Haver. But Haver really isn't the main character either; with a big cast of interesting police officers the book feels most like a Swedish 87th Precinct (which Eriksson makes a nod to himself when somebody tells Haver that he is "no Carella," a reference to Ed McBain's lead detective).I have been enjoying this boom in Scandinavian mysteries lately just for a change of pace; as opposed to hardboiled American mysteries, when a fellow policeman is abruptly killed, Haver cries and helps lead the squadroom in a discussion of changes in social and democratic trends in Sweden. Even the hardened beat cop is introspective in Uppsala. But I probably would be too, based on the casual discussions of thirty below weather and snow so deep it threatens to crack building roofs (actually a critical plot point).Eriksson's mystery starts off a bit ruminative but soon snaps awake to a crackling conclusion. I ended up enjoying the read quite a bit and will be seeking out the next book in the series.

KISS HER GOODBYE by Allan Guthrie
Most of the great line of Hard Case Crime paperbacks are lost American noir classics reissued with great period covers, but Kiss Her Goodbye is a rare, but welcome, exception; it is a modern crime novel that takes place in Scotland.Joe Hope is an Edinburgh legbreaker who has done a lot of bad things; but is not responsible for the murders of his wife and daughter, though the local constables are eager to put him in the nick. Joe ends up having to rely on a novice attorney, a hardened hooker, and a guy who runs a writer's colony (!) to clear his somewhat tarnished name.Guthrie writes in a tough, sardonic style with bursts of brutal action. I enjoyed this modern novel greatly and think it stands in good company with its classic counterparts.

LUCKY AT CARDS by Lawrence Block
A card sharp gets into a friendly game between gigs, but soon sets his sights on the wife of one of the players; and when that happens in a Hard Case Crime novel, look out.Lucky at Cards is an early hard-boiled novel from Lawrence Block, whose Matthew Scudder detective series I have followed for many years (with When the Sacred Ginmill Closes being one of my favorite mysteries of all time); but this is a reprint from Block's peanut-butter days, with one of those memorable Hard Case Crime covers. Hard Case Crime also reprinted Block's Grifter's Game, a decidedly downbeat slice of noir with similiar themes of luckless joes and man-hungry frails.But Lucky at Cards is a bit more upbeat, and rockets along at an alarming clip as our tarnished hero first gets himself into a scheme to frame the husband and take his money, then finds himself in a frame that is pretty hard to get out of in return. Tension cranks up, and up, right to the end. This was definitely a pulp classic worth rediscovering, and welcome for fans of Lawrence Block.

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