Friday, August 25, 2017

22. Brooding Mansion by Paulette Warren

This is the sub-genre where I hope to distinguish myself, modern gothic romance, but I suspect that is just the privileged white male in me being arrogantly ignorant of the wealth of thought by many women fans of the genre that have already been written.  And really I'm just a beginner in this area and grabbing books as they appear before my eyes, such as this one.

The cover really is pretty classic gothic romance, but the book itself falls a bit short to be totally in that genre.  It takes place in Manhattan, for one, albeit in a giant gloomy gothic house/manor.  The gloomy atmosphere and mystery get swept up very early in the book when the entire situation is basically explained (though everything in the book is accelerated as it is very short page-wise and a lot has to go down).  A young and competent Registered Nurse gets a job to serve an old wealthy man in his mansion but when she gets there, she finds that it is actually his out-of-control son that she is taking care of.  It was a bait and switch by the family's doctor, at first for truly medical reasons (he does have a badly broken leg from a car accident) but then as the plot thickens, we learn there was a more nefarious, criminal reason.

I won't go into the details of the plot too much as it is all kind of arbitrary and patched together (old man is actually a neo-nazi holding meetings in his ballroom, the doctor is trying to steal all the family money and the brother and sister are decadent but with good souls who need guidance).  What is interesting is how the book started with the heroine showing real promise. She is competent and smart and in control of herself, but unlike male protagonists, everything she does has to be justified and legitimized by a male.  So there is a really interesting crossplay between her being a cool character and the reactive need to constantly undermine that or block it.  All the men in the book are losers. It's when the romance plot takes over that everything sort of breaks down.  It's one of those pre-pre-marital sex worlds where people fall in love in a day and have those weird conversations about each other that have no meaning and make no sense but they are in love.  The main conflict in the second half of the book is whether the lame son will finally stand up to his dad and be a man.  It is entirely up to the protagonist to help him do this and she is basically constantly disappointed until the very end when he finally does something slightly independent and now she knows she made the right choice.  It's pretty depressing and annoying but at that point the plot has come so fast that you don't really care anyhow.

There is something here, though, and I suspect better writers (or ones who had more time) can take this female competence in a sexist world to a much more interesting place.  So I continue to seek out other examples of the gothic romance genre.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

21. Stop this Man! by Peter Rabe

Always pick up a used Rabe if you find it, is a good general rule.  Original paperbacks of his are getting pretty hard to find, but Westlake's posthumous literary respect has resurrected Rabe's career tangentially and we are seeing more of his stuff getting reprinted.  This version was from Hard Case Crime, whom I know little about except that they seem to be doing exceptional work in putting out great new and old crime fiction. 

I struggle somewhat with trying to understand Westlake's love of Rabe.  It's not that I don't like it, on the contrary.  It's just that Rabe's books always seem somewhat meandering.  They lack the diamond structure of a Stark novel.  I think reading Stop this Man! helped me to better appreciate Rabe and understand why Westlake loved him so much.  That and the wisdom of age.  To appreciate influence, one has to also appreciate the cultural context of the time.  My father loves Godard while I have always been a bit mystified and sometimes annoyed by what looks to me today like french intellectual masturbation.  I realize, though, that my father was growing up in a cultural wasteland when it came to movies and so much of the irreverance and absurdity that is commonplace in cinema today is because of Godard. For a young person seeking something original in the late 50s, Godard must have come as such a welcome change.  I suspect this was similar for Westlake and Rabe.  The characters in Rabe's books just do.  Often, they are not good people. It's nihilistic at times.  Even the darkest noirs of the 50s and 60s had a lot of moralizing and hand-wringing in them.  With Rabe, and especially in Stop this Man! there is none of that.

The "hero" is an older jugger (safecracker) who has just got out of his third run in jail and gets signed up to a too-perfect job, steal a bar of gold from a laboratory.  The story starts after the heist, which went perfectly, except we learn that the gold bar is irradiated and basically poisonous to anybody who is near it for any length of time. This sets off a chase as the jugger tries to convert the gold into cash and the FBI try to find him by the trail of radiated bodies he leaves behind.  The jugger is a real carpe diem type of guy. He claims that he wants this to be his last job (he's 50 and one of the sub-themes is how he is behind the times crime-wise) but he is a pretty carpe diem kind of guy for somebody in his 50s, basically taking the ladies he wants and going aggressive against anybody who is getting in his way, including the syndicate smoothies (this theme of the modern, organized syndicate replacing and slowly eliminating space for freelance criminals is a theme we have seen somewhere before, no?).

It's dark and nasty and relentless right up until the end.  Reminded me a lot of The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Lawrnece Tierney could definitely have played the jugger.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

20. Wolf and Iron by Gordon R. Dickson

I have been looking for this book for years.  I can't even remember how it came to be added to my list, but I know that Dickson is prolific and you can always find his books at used bookstores. There is usually a good length of shelf with just his books and they always gave me hope.  Time and after time, I would have a flash of hope seeing his name (most of the books on my list you can't even find the author) and then another confirmation that no Wolf and Iron was not there.  I finally did find it in Victoria earlier this summer.  I still don't get why it is so hard to find, it's one of those late 80s early 90s paperbacks that they usually printed a ton of. 

Once I read the blurb to remind myself of why I was interested in it, I knew that the reasons were still valid for it to be on my list. It's the story of a lone man, a social scientist who predicted the global chaos that came (but badly underestimated the speed and severity of it), fled from his university town and now travelling across America to get to his brother's Ranch in the Rockies.  The apocalypse in this case is purely social.  Some minor bank collapses trigger a global run which then causes all of modern society to fall apart and humans to devolve into a survivalist mode.  America is a bit like the wild west, except degenerating and more violent and xenophobic.  Other humans are the greatest danger, in a landscape with many other basic dangers.

Early on, Jeebee encounters a wolf and they flee together from a trading encounter gone bad.  He and the wolf slowly develop a relationship as he makes his way across the country and slowly transforms himself from thinking, civilized man to instinctive, survivalist man.  This book is a nerd's dream.  It's all about how using your brains, developing skills and organizing and gaining equipment.  It's funny because the book is ostensibly about him trying to figure out how to be a partner with this wolf, but the real challenge is other humans.  The details and execution of his transformation are really quite enjoyable, almost delicious to PA nerds like myself.  The last quarter devolves into a survivalist domestic nerd fantasy which though a bit pat, does nothing to weaken the pleasure of the first three quarters.  This one is staying on my shelves and it should be included in any list of significant post-apocalyptic fiction.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

19. The Cut by George Pelecanos

The design on this trade paperback is really cool.
The Cut was really great.  It's got all of Pelecanos usual good stuff, the detailed locales of Washington DC and area, the rich characters of young, flawed men, many of them tough and competent, some kind of semi-complex but mostly realistic crime effort.  I suspect the Pelecanos was trying to do a bit of an hommage to Richard Stark here, because it feels sparser and tighter than his other novels.  There are also several references to Parker, some subtle (more like easter eggs for us Parker nerds) and some explicit.

The protagonist, Spero Lucas, is a Desert Storm vet who now works as an investigator for a criminal defense lawyer.  The lawyer for whom he works refers him to one of his clients whose in jail for dealing marijuana at the wholesale level.  The guy, who claims to deal only pot and not use violence, has two young henchmen still working on the street.  Their role is to pick up the weed that gets mailed to various people's houses who are not at home on the day and the distribute those packages out to the lower level dealers.  Somebody seems to have discovered their drops and has been stealing their weed and the big boss sends.  Spero gets sent to work with them and figure out what is going on.  Shit gets messy and the two henchmen get executed.  Spero goes on his own to figure out what went down and to sort of avenge their murders.

It's not pure Stark by any means, as Lucas' brother is a public school teacher and there are young African-American men with potential and complex family issues.  When it digs into the main storyline, which is basically the last third and where the book really gets going, it's just a gang of colurful scumbags as American as apple pie.  The whole criminal enterprise is mundane and realistic and fundamentally integrated into the DC/Baltimore urban landscape.  Really entertaining.

At this point, it's pretty clear for my tastes that Pelecanos is superior to Lehane.

Friday, August 18, 2017

18. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

Hey, it rhymes (Lehane... Rain, anyhow).

Quick review here as I am running out the door to start a week's vacation (and hopefully some major reading).

I had one more Dennis Lehane book from the drunken stumble haul and decided for completion's sake to give him another chance after my displeasure with my last read of his (Darkness, Take my Hand).  At the halfway point of Prayers for Rain, I was glad I did.  Here we have much more of what I was looking for, a complex investigation with interesting characters and the protagonist investigating.  There is a slight dusting of dark observation on the state of the world and his own mindset, but not pages and pages of mooning. Unfortunately, at about the halfway point, most of the mystery is revealed and once again the antagonist is a highly-skilled total psycho.  He wasn't quite as ridiculous as the one in Darkness, but after a while can we just not have flawed, broken characters who do a crime than over the top conspirators whose sole goal in life is to inflict creative torture and cruelty on good people?  So this one was okay, sort of satisfying, definitely not 100% redemption, but not closing the door altogether either.  I wonder if as the Kenzie-Gennaro novels advance, he matures more and more, gets away from the simplistic stuff and allows the good writer that he is to tell a story that doesn't have to impress you with its excess.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

17. Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

I've been lamenting my drunken stumbling into a pile of free books because it added an unwanted burden to my already overflowing on-deck shelf.  And yet, since that incident, I have been on a tear, completing 4 of the 7 books in just over two weeks. Is it because they are all sort of new and I don't care about wrecking them so I can carry them with me?  Is it the summer?  Just a coincidence?  I don't know but I am going to ride this wave for as long as I can and try and recapture a teeny bit of the 50 books ground I lost since becoming a father.

Frameshift starts out slowly and a bit blandly.  I find Sawyer's style here generic and it took a while for the story to reveal its depths.  I did like that the main character was a Quebecois and mostly accurate (except when he said "morceau de merde").  It also takes place in the Bay Area with lots of locations I know well.  So that kept me going.  About halfway through the book, though, things get quite interesting and there is a lot going on and from there, it becomes quite a page-turner.

Pierre Tardivel is an associate professor who has Huntington's disease.  He is working at Lawrence Lab in Berkeley and he meets another professor, Molly Bond, and they fall in love.  At the beginning of the book, he is attacked by a neo-nazi mugger, though he and Molly for reasons I won't reveal know that it was actually a planned attack.  This starts him on his own investigation and we get into a story of unethical behaviour of private health insurance companies, hidden nazis, genetic manipulation and murder.  Really, the fun is in figuring out what is going on, so I will be even more spoil-sensitive and leave it at that.  It's an enjoyable summer read.

It does rip into the evil that is private health care, and rightly so.  It focuses specifically on the practice of not ensuring people with pre-existing conditions and what that will mean when we have sophisticated genetic identification technology.  Given the insanity of the times in America today and the incredible indoctrination and self-delusion of many of its citizens towards universal health care, this book, written in 1997, was surprisingly relevant.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

16. Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson

This was the lone outlier (non-Pelecanos, non-Lehane, non-sci-fi) of the drunken stumble giveaway pile of books I found this August in my neighbourhood.  The cover looked cool and I saw it was an A&E series.  It seemed potentially inoffensive to my overly-sensitive genre fiction aesthetic. 

The protagonist is Walt Longmire, a big tough sheriff in Wyoming, in a region dominated by native communities.  This is the 7th in the series and you don't get a strong sense of his connection to the society because the entire book is a chase up a mountain.  I suspect in other books, those relationships are developed much more deeply.  In Hell is Empty, it's pretty much action and a lot of soul-searching/spiritual quest stuff.  The action part was great.  Longmire is part of a team overseeing a prisoner transfer.  There are 5 of them and they are all nasty, but one is one of these superhero serial killers.  His skills were limited to violence, outdoor survival and psychological manipulation, so at least we had some limitations to keep it somewhat realistic.  But still, "he's a genius." says one of the characters who was manipulated into helping him escape.

The prisoners do escape and head up Bighorn mountain just as a major blizzard is moving in.  Longmire is in a position to either wait the storm out, because there really was no exit off the mountain, or go in after them, which he does because they have hostages.  Or at least that's his excuse to himself.

The pursuit up the mountain is tight, creative and entertaining.  It's not just him following them on a trail, a bunch of cool stuff goes down that I won't go into.  As the pursuit narrows and it becomes (of course) Longmire vs the psycho, we get into a more internal narrative, as Longmire struggles to figure out what is motivating the psycho as well as struggle with his own demons.  This was actually kind of cool too, but sort of dragged on a bit at the end, for my tastes.

Still, pretty enjoyable stuff.  I want to read one that deals more specifically with the native communities to see if it is handled realistically and with depth, because that could be quite good as well.  What I'd really love to find is a badass crime writer who writes about the First Nations milieu but who actually is a First Nations person him or herself.  Any recommendations?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

15. A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos

I used to mix up Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.  I discovered both of them because of The Wire and they are both known as contemporary detective fiction authors with a strong sense of place (Lehane being Boston and Pelecanos DC).  I've read the DC quartet and quite enjoyed it and always kept Pelecanos on my list as a potentially good read, but easy to find so no rush.  Dennis Lehane was also on this list until I read Darkness, Take my Hand and now he has one more chance. 

I approached A Firing Offense with some trepidation, fearing that it might suffer some of the same flaws of Lehane.  The protagonist and the set-up of Pelecanos' NIck Sefanos and Lehane's Patrick Kenzie.  Both are from white working class neighbourhoods in their respective cities with one foot in their rough past and another in the more gentrified present.  Quite quickly, though, Pelecanos stayed out of the kind of trouble that Lehane gets into.  Pelecanos dishes out melancholy and jaded self-reflection sparingly and in small doses.  The scope of the action remains local and much more realistic.  Half of A Firing Offense is more about Stefanos and his buddies just being a bunch of young fuck-ups at their job, with the actual mystery only getting going until later.  It's really an origin story.  While it strays somewhat too far into the white bourgeois fantasy of being a ghetto badass at the end, it mostly remains grounded in the reality Pelecanos constructs.  It's gritty and enjoyable and I am looking forward to stumbling upon another Nick Stefanos novel on the street.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

14. Darkness, Take my Hand by Dennis Lehane

[I stumbled upon this book while walking home late one night. It was among a pile of contemporary mysteries and some sci-fi somebody was giving away.  I got a Pelecanos, 3 Lehanes, a Longmire mystery and a CJ Cherryh book.  I really didn't need more books on my on-deck shelf at this point, but I was drunk and my guard was down.  Do not drink and walk through neighbourhoods where readers with good taste and small library space live!]

Hmmm, I may be out on Dennis Lehane.  I was never a huge fan, but really enjoyed Shutter Island and respected him in general.  Unfortunately, Darkness, Take my Hand undermined a lot of that feeling. First of all, I do not accept serial killers as plot devices for any kind of detective fiction.  They are played out and were never that interesting in the first place.  You get a new one every week now on Criminal Minds and that is about the level of audience they are written for.  Even worse is the phenomenon of the, what I am coining, "superhero serial killer". These are the serial killers that aren't just ruthless psychos but also hyper-intelligent, elite fighters (in hand-to-hand and gun combat) and highly skilled ninjas with elite security and surveillance knowledge.  I guess The Silence of the Lambs started it and it was sort of okay in that over-rated movie.  Now, can we just put to bed this super-villain that if you even go visit him in jail you risk your entire family being raped and tortured before your eyes because you accidently left one of your eyelashes on his leather wrist manacle.  It's fucking stupid.

 My understanding was that Lehane was a slightly higher grade of writer than that, because of his deep understanding of the Boston milieu and the human cost of crime.  That's how he got his gig on The Wire, right?  Things started okay in this book, although even before you learn the plot is centered around a serial killer there are elements that really start to weigh in on this simple reader.  I get that we are painting a dark picture of the world, but is it necessary to have the detective waxing melancholy every single time he runs into another character or goes into a new neighbourhood?  I am not a huge proponent of "show don't tell" but there is a lot of telling here where a little bit of showing would be just as effective and less intrusive.

I have one more of these Kenzie-Genarro novels on deck.  I am debating whether to just give it away or to see if he can do a better novel that deals with a more realistic level of crime.


The serial killer here is actually almost worse in the context of Lehane's style. His plots are so far deeply connected to the protagonist's background and the milieu of poor, south Boston.  This is a rich milieu filled with crime potential.  Sticking a superhero serial killer here is incongruous and made worse when it is all actually profoundly connected to the detective's own childhood.