Sunday, February 28, 2010

17. The Engagement by Simenon

Buzby has been pushing the Romans Durs of Simenon on me for a long time (he actually lent me this book as well as Tropic Moon) and I am finally starting to see the light. The Engagement started out a bit slow for me and I was worried that it was going to have a lack of narrative and be more about a mood or a feeling than a real story. Instead, it subtly enveloped me into its world until by the end it absorbed me completely. Simenon paints a rich, dark and exposing portrait of lower middle-class outer Paris in the 30s so thoroughly that you feel that it is still existing in your mind's eye even after you close the book. At the same time, he delivers the life story of a single individual, a pathetic man, who is caught up in things beyond his ability to handle them.

A woman is brutally murdered and her body found in a vacant lot. The mean, frightened concierge tells the police that she suspects it is one of the tenants in her building, monsieur Hire, a fat loner who has always creeped her out. Once this is established, the reader enters into his world and though there is some doubt, you are basically quite sure he is totally innocent. The majority of the story is him going about his humble, slightly seedy existence (he sells paint by numbers kits through mail order based on "work from home" ads) trying to deal with the fact that everyone in his neighbourhood thinks he's a killer. The cops follow him and keep a man posted outside of his door. He's not a very likable person, but he is innocent and sympathetic, almost a naif and there is one moment which reveals his tough past as the son of a poor, Jewish tailor and the only fat kid, which is heart breaking.

And that's what is so amazing about this book. Almost the entire thing is physical, external observation. Simenon writes about what everyone does. Only in one moment does he go into m. Hire's thoughts and that is just a brief reflection of his past (in reflexive reaction to the way a police interrogator portrays his father as a petty criminal money-lender). Otherwise, the reader is more like a fly on the wall, watching everything go down. And somehow, through that, he creates a deeply human connection to the protagonist.

Behind this is this little street corner in some outer quartier in Paris. You go back and forth with M. Hire and some of the other characters, taking the tram, buying groceries and wood for the stove, dealing with the excessive rain, the cold. I don't have a big fascination and in fact feel a bit cold towards Paris, but this book really gave me a sense of the romantic version of that city that appealed to so many pseudo-intellectual North Americans.

And Simenon was 30 when he wrote this. He must have seen some shit or just had the natural soul of an old man, because The Engagement is unsparing, unsentimental. Makes Raymond Chandler look like Jude Deveraux. Maybe the best book I've read so far this year.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

16. The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker

I'm always hunting for Wilson Tucker's elusive "Wild Talent" which is considered one of the early if not first esp-empowered man novels. The Lincoln Hunters was a light and enjoyable read, but didn't blow my socks off. It takes place in a bland future where prolonged unemployment means a mandatory banishment to a work colony and early death. A monopoly controls time travel and goes back in the distant (and largely forgotten) past to pick up memorabilia or record events, mainly for business or entertainment reasons. The agents who go back in time are special people who don't quite fit in with the rest of society. It's a fun premise, but I never felt connected to the protagonist and so ultimately didn't care too much about his troubles. He goes back in time to attempt to record a famous lost speech by Lincoln and through some screw-up by the engineers and a wayward colleague, ends up racing to avoid a time paradox.

Part of my separation from the characters was again because of an excessive use of that late 50's early 60s slang. In this case, the agents were always quoting from Shakespeare it all just seemed forced and kind of annoying. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as Venus Plus X, but it was in a similar vein. I'm sure every period has its argot, but it should be used in the appropriate place, where there is a reason for it. Layering your very era-specific colloquial mode of speaking on a future society just seems like an obviously bad choice. I may have to take a break from science fiction for a while, until I can find some authors who know how to write dialogue a bit more naturally.

15. Wild Jack by John Christopher

Wild Jack is one of John Christopher's young adult novels, a rare stand-alone (most of his works in this genre are trilogies, including the tripods and the Sword of the Spirits series). It's the story of a post-apocalyptic world that has been rebuilt into walled city-states, generic and hierarchical, where young aristocrats live protected lives and fear the bogeymen of the wilderness on the other side of the walls (Wild Jack being the best known one outside London).

The young hero is highly ranked (his father is one of the leading city councilmen) and doesn't question the status quo. He is actually quite happy with things, as he got a new boat and is smitten with his hot cousin who has come to stay with him. He does overhear some rabble-rousing words by an older boy at a party, who defends the dignity of an older servant. At first this seems to be just a teaching moment for the protagonist, but it suddenly takes on a much more ominous light when he is pulled from his classroom and interrogated about it by some frightening investigators a type of which he'd never encountered before.

As the interrogation continues, and the hero starts to lose his insouciant superiority, they accuse him of being the speaker of the treasonous words. Before he can get in touch with his connected father, he is whisked off to an airship and sent to a prison island, a brutal place, led by cruel guards and populated with other boys who had committed actual crimes against the society. He begins to doubt all that is good in his world and adventure ensues.

It's a good, quick read, a rollicking adventure that I'm quite sure most boys of the appropriate age will enjoy. My only complaint was that the foundation of the story is complicated enough that this could have easily merited a trilogy as well. It feels all wrapped up a bit too quickly. Look at me, complaining about a book not being a trilogy!

It's interesting to posit John Christopher's young adult novels to his earlier adult ones. He seems to have dropped entirely the self-doubt and sexual ambiguity of the latter. Here, the boy is confident and young romance seems to blossom without too many internal or psychological problems. There is a lot of conflict between the boys, though, that I seem to remember from the Tripods as well. I think it wouldn't be too inaccurate or dismissive to say that Christopher had found a rough formula that worked at a large popular level where his earlier adult novels never did. Perhaps the male conflict, basically a rivalry but one that has serious consequences for the protagonist, is less fraught for the reader than intra-gender conflict, which always seemed so fraught with self-doubt for Christopher. Boys don't want to know about that stuff. I was sort of holding off on looking for Christopher's young adult fantasy double trilogy, The Sword of the Spirit series, but now I'm much more interested in checking it out.

Friday, February 26, 2010

14. Thanksgiving by Michael Dibdin

It's been a while since I read Michael Dibdin. His Aurelio Zen books are required reading for any contemporary mystery fans as he is one of the better writers in this genre in the last 20 years. Sadly, he passed away quite suddenly and too early at the age of 60 in 2007.

Thanksgiving isn't really a crime novel, but more like actual literature (gasp!). It's about a guy whose wife dies. He goes back to pick up some of the missing pieces of her past, ostensibly to deal with her estate, but as the book moves forward you see that he is more just driven by his grief and kind of moving around randomly. There is a death in the book, with which the protagonist is tangentially involved and suspected, but it's secondary (almost a distraction, I'd say) and is wiped off the slate in the last part of the book. It's here that I realized that once again I'd found another book that doesn't really have a story. It's much more a study of one man's grief and all the ways it affects him. It's actually quite touching and interesting and seemed very realistic, but I thirsted for story! He is such a good writer, that his portrayal of the various characters and especially the interesting locations (a desert trailer, a Marin county bar, a french country chalet in winter) are excellent and kept me engaged. A very good book if you like this sort of thing.

13. Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

Venus Plus X reminded me of my mixed feelings for science fiction. As a geek in most cultural areas, I should like it more, but I never really could dive into it the way I can with mysteries and action novels. I think the problem for me is that a lot of sci fi is too close to non-fiction. The story is often secondary to the author's big ideas and ideas just aren't as interesting to me as narrative. This book is an excellent example of that and it kind of blindsided me, because the other Sturgeon book that I read was a great story. Here, he wants to share his idea of a future, evolved species that takes over earth after humans wipe themselves out. What is special about them is that they only have a single gender.

The book is told from the perspective of a human from the '50s, Charlie Johns, who was pulled from his time to the future to give the Ledoms an objective look on their society (they are all about constantly questioning themselves). Instead of actually looking at their smug uni-gender society objectively, Sturgeon really seems to want to tell us what is wrong with our bi-gendered society. He does so by interspersing the Ledom explaining to Charlie Johns how their society works, with brief snippets from the lives of some "normal" middle-class Americans from the late '50s. Each snippet demonstrates some powerful gender coding or how the people of that time dealt with the growing independence of the American woman. I've read many books from this period and there is an annoying tendency to talk in this weird, extra-clever slang. You see it a lot with John D. Macdonald. But in Venus Plus X it is way over the top, so much that it was intensely annoying. The characters all worked in advertising and PR, so I guess the inability to speak plainly is especially pronounced.

In the end, there is an interesting twist that possibly undermines all the arguments set up in the rest of the book and if I gave a shit about gender studies, his arguments are probably worth taking into consideration, but I really don't, so it was kind of a slog for me. It did make me think about nerds and how they are able to conceive of all these idealized social states, and think beyond the rigid sexual mores of our society, but at the same time they really struggled to even get laid. Perhaps you should at least master the basic concepts of the given situation before trying to create theories critical of it and positing superior situations.

Also, I swear I remember in some underground comic an explicit discussion of Theodore Sturgeon. I feel like it may even have been Gilbert Shelton. Anybody remember where I may have seen this?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

12. The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars

Turns out there is a neat little english used bookstore in Quito, Ecuador, called Confederate Books. I was quite excited to go there as you can often find a gold mine of old British mysteries and thrillers in some of these post-colonial countries. Unfortunately, Confederate books was very much like a North American used bookstore. A very nice store, actually, but not the gold mine I had been hoping for. Ecuador was never under British control, and it is in the Americas, so you probably don't get the same stream of publishing houses coming through there via travelers and expats. The owner was very friendly and we discussed John Wyndham (he recommended the original movie version of The Day of the Triffids, arguing for the effectiveness of its lack of special effects, an argument that convinced me to seek it out). He goes to the States on buying trips, purchases used books from travelers and occasionally finds treasures from peoples basements in town. He also gave us some helpful streetwise advice for the mean streets of Quito. So if you should ever be travelling in Ecuador, do stop at Confederate Books and pick yourself up some good used reading material. I got the book I shall review today and a nice hardback of Donald Westlake's High Adventure.

I had never heard of Elizabath Ferrars, but the concept and the cover looked appealing. It's the story of a young woman who is invited to go on a luxury trip around the world with a couple friend of hers whose baby was recently kidnapped and never recovered. They are at the point where they really need to decide to get on with their lives, but the mother (who is the closer friend of the protagonist, though she originally dated the father, who is now a successful author and can thus afford the trip) is still barely coping psychologically. At first, there is a lot of awkwardness and general tension, as the marriage is under considerable strain. The wife believes that the husband blames her for the kidnapping (she had left her child in the pram outside a supermarket). The husband thinks the wife won't allow him to forgive her. It's an unpleasant mess and the burden of her role as mediator starts to wear on the heroine. But things get really weird, when the wife starts to tell her that she thinks the husband is trying to kill her. There are a couple of incidents while traveling that could be interpreted either way. It's bizarre, because he appears to have no real motive and nor does she appear to have any real motive to lie.

It's juicy stuff and starts to get more complicated as they conclude their trip at a friend's winery in Australia where the husband had visited years ago. More and more backstory starts to bubble to the surface. I was able to guess most of the mystery about two-thirds of the way in and the denouement lacked a bit of punch (there turns out to be some fairly unlikable characters and while they get their comeuppance, as the reader you wanted it to be with a bit more satisfying vengeful vigour). All in all, a very enjoyable read, a tricky little story of selfish people and the complicated trouble they can get themselves and the innocent people around them in. I left it on the boat where I was travelling and hope someone else can find it and enjoy it.

Addendum: after doing a bit of research, I discovered that Elizabeth Ferrars was quite a succesful and prolific author for her time and one of the founding members of the British Crime Writers Association. You can read about her more in this obituary in the Independent. I'll keep an eye out for her stuff.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

11. The Mourner by Richard Stark

The Mourner is the fourth in Richard Stark's Parker series and where the books really start to take their classical structure. There is one small link that connects The Mourner with previous books: a thrill-seeking woman that Parker bedded managed to steal a gun he used in a job and he needs to get it back. He becomes involved in a scheme to steal a rare statue ("the Mourner") from an eastern european diplomat but things get very complicated when it turns out that said diplomat has been double-dipping from his employers when making espionage payments. They've sent a spy out to punish him for this error of judgment (with the ultimate punishment) who has then naively engaged the mob to help him also recover the stolen money. So clearly, things are quite complicated and as usual Stark drops us right into the middle of this mess, with Parker waking up in his DC hotel room to two guys loudly climbing up the fire escape to his window.

First line of the book (from memory): "When the guy with asthma came in through the window, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away."

So good. How can you not want to continue reading.

I remember The Mourner as being one of my favorites and it definitely lived up to my memory on this my third or fourth reading. However, I did go through an interesting development of my opinion as I was reading it. The Mourner is a slight departure from the books so far (and many of the other series), in that it features a non-American character. August Menlo is the fat and wily interior intelligence officer, who, due to his history of loyalty to the regime, is sent to America for the first time. He's a great character and his story arguably the central narrative to the book. His story is also the structural element that is an integral part of the Parker series. A side character makes an appearance in the first part, as the heist is being established, then when things go wrong in the second part, we stop and backtrack into the story of this secondary character. These stories are usually much more colourful than those of Parker and his crew and add significant depth to the book. The ending of their story often coincides with the resolution of the heist's disaster.

And here is where my slight dissatisfaction arose and then was dispelled. Every now and then in the series Richard Stark's firm grasp on the pen falter and Donald Westlake takes over. I am a huge Westlake fan as well (go check out his Dortmunder books for instance), but I do not welcome these brief intrusions. I call them "fruity" and they tend to be something slightly comic or goofy or just too colourful. The one that really stands out for me is the naive Africans in the Black Ice Score who are constantly grinning. They bring me out of the world of work and men and tools that is so integral to the series (and it strikes me, considering that they take place in the height of the '60s that the books are aesthetically quite conservative). The Menlo character at first just struck me as being just a bit too fruity. His character, combined with the rich history of the Mourner itself, set off some alarm bells and I was worried that The Mourner may lack the true heart of granite that is necessary for a good Parker novel.

Fortunately, once I delved deeper into Menlo's story and as it plays itself out, things get pretty rough pretty quickly and I realized that the fruitiness was just a small part of what is a really rich and layered narrative, with several great storylines going on (the heist, Menlo's plans and Parker trying to wrap up loose ends) and it all comes together in an extremely satsifying conclusion. Actually, this book is so good that I'd even recommend it for people who aren't necessarily interested in the genre.

Westlake is a master of metaphors and the Mourner contains two absolute gems that I feel I must share with you:

"and Handy, sprawled over there like a dummy dumped off a cliff, was an even worse mess."

Enough said. It works even better in the context of the paragraph, but it's too much of a spoiler to include it all.

"The somebody came up the fire escape about as quiet as the Second World War but trying to be quieter and stopped at Parker's floor."

I really wonder if Westlake just banged that sentence out, or spent time crafting it. The base metaphor is hilariously brilliant in its exaggeration and wry criticism. But the qualifying clause "but trying to be quieter" subtly encapsulates the utter incompetence of the act and the person doing it. You can just see Parker sitting up in his bed hearing this noisy amateur trying to sneak up on him. [Reading sentences like this turn me into a total gushing fan boy.] Fuck, you're a genius, Westlake! A master craftsman! Wherever you are in heaven, please take some small satisfaction with your life for that sentence alone. I thank you for bringing it into the world. [Okay, I'm closing the fanboy tap now. My apologies. I get excited at times.]

Finally, there is a paragraph that I believe really captures the overall theme of the Parker series. Menlo is following Parker and Handy while they prepare to steal the statue, trying to learn from them:

Menlo smiled with a touch of sadness. "I must say you remove the romance most utterly from all this. I had been seeing myself in quite dramatic terms. The defecting policeman, meting out poetic justice to the embezzler by depriving him of his ill-gotten gains, then disappearing again, quite forever, an enigma to all who seek him. But now I find I am merely a participant in a dreary and pedestrian series of quite normal activities--opening doors, driving automobiles, sitting in motel rooms." He shrugged and spread his hands.

He's exactly right and that's what make the Parker series so great. Go get this book and read it right now.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

10. The Law at Randado by Elmore Leonard

(Note: I just came back from a 10-day vacation with lots of reading time during which I completed 9 novels, so expect a rush of reviews over the next couple of days. I'm going to be backdating them to the day that I read them, so they may not show up at the top of your blog reader.)

Another gripping, intense and satisfying western from Elmore Leonard's earlier days. I really got into this one. It's the classic young deputy going up against the more powerful, but morally weaker, men of the town. Leonard takes the theme and draws it out, playing around with it for a bit. It makes for a rich read, where you are really wanting the satisfying ass-kicking, but get drawn into a cool back story on the young deputy and where he gets his skills and mettle from (partly from hanging out with other young Indians, a recurring theme with Leonard).

The story here is that instead of waiting for the visiting judge from the larger city to the north, the wealthier citizens of Randado decide to form their own justice committee and hang two Mexican cattle thievers while the deputy sherrif is out of town. They are pressured by a young and out-of-control cattle baron (inherited from his better, but dying, father, of course). When the deputy comes back, he decides to arrest the members of the committee and the confrontation builds. It's not just a contest of strength, but also one of politics, as he must win the confidence of the townspeople as well.

A great read. Pick it up if you find and it and need to be reminded what it means to be a man.

(Unfortunately, the image above is not the one from the actual version of the book I read. I purposely left my copy in the common bookshelf in a hotel in Quito and was quite pleased to see that someone had taken it a couple days later. Except I had forgotten to take a picture of it! It was one of those classic photographed late '70s covers with a picture of a gun and a badge. Not as cool as the vintage illustration pictured here.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

9. Freaked Out Strangler by Patrick Morgan (Operation Hang Ten #10)

This is the third in the demographically precise and highly collectible Operation Hang Ten series that I've read. They star surfing freelance agent Bill Cartwright, with his sweet ride and trailer set-up (he has a "computer" in the trailer that mixes the perfect drink for him). It's number ten in the series and I was getting a bit weary of his schtick through the first through chapters. I guess it went over well for its audience in the day, but the main protagonist is really full of himself and spends a lot of time telling the reader how good he is at everything and how great his life is, thanks to being so good at everything. But he does it in that weird '60s way, using arbitrarily big vocab words and talking around things in a kind of faux beat poetry style. I called it "watered down John D. MacDonald" in a previous review. This time, it seemed almost condensed, thickened, as if it had been left on the stove too long.

This time, Cartwright is following up on a lead from a woman who wants to meet him at a pier because she has info on someone trading secrets from a sattelite manufacturing plant. When he gets to the Santa Monica pier, she is being strangled by a guy in a scuba outfit (the titular Freaked Out Strangler). Another convoluted plot ensues, but my enjoyment of it increased significantly as Morgan brings in some really depraved individuals and a few serious instances of brutality. You've got a low-rent Hugh Hefner type who lives in a penthouse, grows tulips and sleeps with a different paid high class prostitute each day of the week. There is a bitter loser with a terrible birthmark on his face, obsessed by the sexual teasings of his older sister (awesome talc on back rubbing scene) and the fruity manipulator who provides the loser with drugs and women (and his own sexual favours once he gets him high). Some good seedy stuff that makes for a quick and enjoyable read, marred a bit by the excessive masculine fairytale built up around the protagonist and a poor plot structure. Still, he's a surfing detective, for crissake's, what do you want?

Another interesting element that I am starting to glean in these later novels is that he is actually a pretty conservative character. I am getting the sense that Bill Cartwright is not meant to be a counter-culture figure for young male readers of the period at all, but rather an establishment proxy for older figures who don't really like the values of the 60s, but have grudgingly accepted them. He allows them to participate in this new topsy-turvy world, get all the fruits that men deserve in any age: the sweet car and mobile bachelor home, the adventure and above all the willing, subservient chicks who always end up making him breakfast or bringing him food (in return they get the best sex ever; Cartwright makes the hero of the Wolf's Hour seem positively flaccid in comparison). He mocks the idealistic ecological notions of an ex-flame he meets at the trailer park (with a smug, passing reference to the superior emissions standards of his custom-made german engine). He really doesn't take any political stance and almost all the bad guys are pulled from some deviant milieu (homosexuals, hippies). They are rarely the typical enemies of the left, big businessmen, politicans and so on. I'll keep an eye on how this trend continues as I get future episodes in this series.

Note to self: use the term "jive" more.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

8. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon

I've had this, one of Simenon's first Romans durs, sitting on my shelf for over a year. Buzby (whose book reviewing has been subsumed by two new little ones), who is a huge fan, lent it to me and I finally cracked it open. Buzby's review gives an excellent and much more detailed synopsis, so hop over there if you really want to know what happens. It's about a young upper middle-class french man who goes to colonial Gabon in the interwar period in the hopes of running a logging concession. Though he doesn't tell anybody this, the real reason he goes is because he has no real financial prospects back in France and like so many of the Europeans who went out to the colonies, he had the chance to maintain the aristocratic fantasy that was no longer possible at home. However, in this case, things go really bad for him.

This is an excellent book. An amazing portrayal of the utter degradation that was colonial Africa (focused particularly on the colonialists themselves, but with enough side glances at the natives and their treatment to evoke horror in the reader) as well as a spot-on portrayal of the ignorance, inexperience and emotional maturity of the male in his twenties. The character is so out of his league, so inexperienced and so utterly unable to control his emotions, that you almost feel pity for him. Usually, with a character like this, I'm tearing my hair out with frustration. But while I was certainly not very sympathetic with him, Simenon does such a good job of making it seem very real and understandable, that it's a fascinating and compelling read and you want to see how far it is going to go. Young males in their early twenties, for the most part, are perhaps at the least competent, most inept period of their lives. It makes sense that we try to keep them sequestered in university or send them off as soldiers. Simenon wrote this when he was 30, which is an astounding testimony to his writing. I'd say it is arguable that Tropic Moon addresses the themes of colonialism as well as Conrad in Heart of Darkness, but does it in a way more efficient and perhaps devastating way. Great book.

Monday, February 01, 2010

7. The Book Stops Here by Ian Ransom

I got this from my parents the xmas before last and finally cracked it open. [Why am I reading so much in January, you may well be asking. It's a combo of my usual January surge combined with our friggin' wireless router being on the fritz. You want to read 50 books in a year? Lose your internet connection and it's a cinch.] It's the story of a young man from London who has ended up in Northern Ireland working in a mobile library who gets involved in adventures. A neat premise (and this is the third in a series) but at least judging by this book, it seems to be more about the his own inner turmoil and the wacky people around him than any real misadventures.

In The Book Stops Here, he and his gruff, Irish partner Ted head back down to England to go to a mobile librarian's convention to look at getting a new van. Ted who has cared for the funky old van does not want to give it up and has never left Northern Ireland. Israel, the protagonist has an opportunity to visit his family and his girlfriend, whom it's quite clear to the reader is no longer really his girlfriend.

This sort of un-formed, loser male in his mid to late 20's seems to be the rage in England these days. The protagonist of this book seemed like the Simon Pegg character in Spaced (a series you should check out) or Shaun of the Dead, except way worse. At least the Simon Pegg characters are more or less happy with their lot except they can't get the girl. Israel just complains and seems bummed out and incapable of really doing anything. After a while, it gets a bit tiring. The only real development he made was to finally realize that his girlfriend had broken up with him. It was kind of depressing.

There is also a lot of quick back and forth dialogue with various colourful characters that most of the time (the new age hippy caravaners being one exception) didn't come off as funny to me. Maybe if you understand the regional distinctions better, but even then it was all very broad (like the seedy bar owner cousin who turns out to be gay) and not in aid of anything so you are kind of reading these long back and forths with lots of interruptions wondering what the point of it all is.

Not a terrible read and I did learn a little bit about the Northern Ireland character(at least that they consider themselves very distinct from Ireland proper) and the world of mobile libraries in Britain. I admit to being vaguely curious about the first two in the series, but I'll need to be convinced that the protagonist is at least somewhat effective before I'll pick them up. Too much competition out there.