Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Beat

My latest column for POMP AND CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE, the magazine for the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference:

Low-level thug fresh from jail lands a handyman job (of sorts) with a fading stage actress and her mysterious butler in Ken Bruen's London Boulevard.
Ken Bruen is a hard-boiled Irish crime writer whose novels about quasi-detective Jack Taylor I have enjoyed for a while; but they are so relentlessly cold-blooded I usually like to leave a little space between reading them.
In perhaps Bruen's only nod to whimsy (that I'm aware of), this stand-alone novel is based on one of my favorite films, Sunset Boulevard, recast for the hard-bitten underworld.
Strange as it sounds, it works, and allows Bruen to riff on other pop culture references from books, movies, and music, giving this noir a looser feel.
A good entry point to Ken Bruen and an enjoyable read overall.

9 DRAGONS by Michael Connelly
L.A. police detective Harry Bosch investigates a convenience store robbery that seems to have triad connections in Michael Connelly's latest thriller 9 Dragons.
I have been a longtime Connelly fan and find his Harry Bosch series one of the best contemporary mystery series (along with Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins stories). After a bit of a lull, his last several novels have come back strong.
This one is a real change of pace, as Bosch's ex-wife and daughter, now living in Hong Kong, get caught up in the action when the daughter goes missing. Bosch immediately takes off for Hong Kong and ends up on a nightmarish journey as the clock ticks and the bodies pile up.
9 Dragons is especially high octane, and I have always enjoyed Connelly's clipped journalistic prose. A good jumping on point for thriller readers, but more rewarding for longtime fans.

THE LONG FALL by Walter Mosley
Extremely tarnished P.I. Leonid McGill tries to go straight (or at least less crooked) when he gets wrapped up in multiple revenge plots in Walter Mosley's The Long Fall.
Mosley is one of my favorite contemporary mystery authors, and I have found his Easy Rawlins novels consistently good. In that series, Mosley traces the adventures of an L.A.-based quasi-detective from the end of World War II through the Red Scare and to the Watts riots and beyond. The political and social milieu of the Rawlins series adds much to the storytelling.
Here McGill is a contemporary detective, on the other side of the country in New York. And where the Rawlins series is shot through with hints of Chester Himes and Ross Macdonald McGill is much more Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Mosley's writing is equally admirable here and I thought this was a great start for what I hope is a new series.

NEMESIS by Jo Nesbo
Oslo's crumpled cop Harry Hole is back in Jo Nesbo's Nemesis, in which our troubled hero tries to get out of the frame for an ex-girlfriend's murder while tracking a murderous serial bank robber.
Nesbo's first Scandinavian thriller translated into English, The Redbreast, was one of my favorite books of the last year or so. The Redbreast dealt with the emotional and political repercussions of Norway's Nazi involvement in World War II. This new one picks up a lot of themes and characters from his previous novel but, lacking the historical context, doesn't have quite the dramatic resonance of the prior outing.
That being said, Nemesis is a crackling good thriller with a great protagonist that reminds me favorably of Michael Connelly's notable series detective Harry Bosch. I like moody Scandinavian thrillers as a change of pace from American writers, but find that Nesbo has more the stylings of his U.S. counterparts with breakneck storytelling, linear action, and sardonic humor.
Recommended, with the caveat that you should read The Redbreast first. I am looking forward to Harry Hole's next adventure.

ROAD DOGS by Elmore Leonard
A paroled bank robber readily slips into his old life with a fake psychic and her crime lord boyfriend even as the police have him in their sights in Elmore Leonard's easygoing crime novel Road Dogs.
I have been a longtime fan of Leonard, but in the latter part of his career he has been a bit hit and miss. This is a good novel for longtime fans, though, as it features a handful of characters from previous novels (including the George Clooney character from Out of Sight). However, for three quarters of the novel they stand around and assess each other's coolness and tell stories; only during the last bit of the novel does the story come to life with double and triple crosses and bursts of violence.
Overall an enjoyable tale, though again not at the top of Leonard's admirable bibliography.

Frank Minna is a former minor criminal trying to become a major private eye in Jonathan Lethem's detective novel Motherless Brooklyn. But Lethem always bends genres and upends expectations, so Minna is dispatched in the early going, leaving his sidekick, an orphan suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, to find Minna's killer.
Very fine, offbeat novel from Lethem, paying homage to Raymond Chandler the way some of his other novels are nods to greats like Philip Dick (Gun, with Occasional Music), Steve Gerber (Fortress of Solitude), and so on. I enjoy how Lethem always writes a fully-realized worldview featuring Brooklyn past and present, which adds a lot to his work.
I am a big fan of Lethem and liked this novel about as well as I thought I would. Recommended.

CITIZEN VINCE by Jess Walter
On the eve of the 1980 presidential election, a semi-reformed criminal in the Witness Protection Program makes one last attempt to bury his past in Jess Walter's darkly comic crime novel Citizen Vince.
With its engaging characters, spot-on dialogue, and sense of time and place (early 80s Spokane) Walter brings to mind some of the best work of Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Ed McBain.
Really fine writing--especially in creating a parallel story between our protagonist's troubles and the Reagan/Carter race--gives Citizen Vince a more literary bent.

A broke but noble activist and therapist decides he's sick of both titles when he sees a chance to steal a priceless work of art from an unstable patient in Robert Ward's riveting modern noir Four Kinds of Rain.
I haven't found a lot of noir that I liked since the great Gold Medal era of pulp writing, but Ward's novel belongs on the list of contemporary classics. It compares favorably to another modern favorite of mine, Scott Smith's A Simple Plan, which features literary writing with genre trappings.
And Jim Thompson himself couldn't frown upon the unreliable narrator depicted here, whose vast narcissism and cold rationalization of his actions cause the events to unravel in the bloody final chapters.

HOUSE DICK by E. Howard Hunt
The house detective in a big Washington hotel helps a damsel in distress and ends up in the middle of robbery, extortion, and murder in E. Howard Hunt's muscular noir House Dick.
I am a fan of the Hard Case Crime line, which brings back forgotten pulps with lurid new covers, the perfect place for this story of the lost world of house detectives, hat-check girls, newsies, and lunch counter short-order cooks.
In the stranger than fiction category, this one comes from the pen of E. Howard Hunt, Watergate conspirator and very competent and prolific genre writer (under a number of pseudonyms). I have picked him up wherever I come across him and have always found his writing solid.