Thursday, February 27, 2020

19. Complicity by Iain Banks

I'm not sure what to make of this book.  I bought it at Chainon for $3 as I was looking for something readable after having slogged through a few duds in February.  Although I haven't loved all of his Iain Banks novels (Whit being the one standout), he is an excellent writer and the brief few lines of the inside cover blurb I read made me think the premise was compelling (and I am glad I only read the first few lines, because I went back and read the whole thing after I had finished the book and it basically gives away almost 80% of the story for fuck's sake).

It takes place in the early 90s.  The main character is a Scottish journalist in Edinburgh, political lefty, does a lot of drugs, plays a lot of videogames and is having an ongoing affair with a married woman while being friends with both her and her husband.  He is a good journalist, though, and works hard.  His main storyline is basically living his life, though getting these anonymous calls that seem to be providing hints to a big conspiracy.  While this story is going on, we get these nasty vignettes in the second person voice, where horrible "justice" is meted out to mostly white collar criminals: a judge who gives a rapist a lenient sentence is tied up and sodomized with a giant vibrator, an industrialist who allowed a factory accident to kill thousands is blown up in his home, etc. "You" do them all tactically, using cat burglary techniques, voice disguise and costumes.  They are pretty rough.  That's the thing about Banks, his sex and violence can be quite graphic. 

I won't go into any more about the storyline, though you can see the various ways these two storylines might start to converge.  It is well-written and the structure is excellently crafted.  Thematically, I couldn't quite get my head around it.  It is a thriller, with a mystery and action, but much of the emphasis is on the main character's backstory and his relationship with his childhood friends.  There is also a really strong theme of the justice of vigilante action against these kind of elites for their crimes.  So I enjoyed the story, but I just am not sure that any of those questions were really answered or explored in that much of an interesting way.  I guess also for the time the character was sort of novel in that he is doing speed and living a pretty dissolute life but this is presented as normal and okay.  I think it may have had more of an impact if you read it when the book came out (1993).  I felt that Banks was trying to make a point.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

18. Flight from a Firing Wall by Baynard Kendrick

I should have read the introduction.  Actually, it is probably for the better that I didn't.  I had two major problems with this book, one that I noticed right from the beginning but got used to and the other that I started to pick up on as I read and that got worse and worse until the end and basically made me decide I did not enjoy it.

It is the story of a Cuban expat doctor, Antonio Carillo in Miami in 1960, with his heart and his wife still back in Cuba.  He is part of an anti-Castro/Communism Cuban society that is also funded by the CIA and other agencies, though portrayed very neutrally as just an old guy with a pipe who is playing cloak and dagger (this neutrality should have set my alarm bells off).  Carillo gets a call from a beautiful Cuban woman who wants him to meet a boat to treat a sick passenger, whom Carillo guesses immediately is a Cuban refugee.  What he doesn't guess and is floored by is when he goes to the boat and discovers that the refugee is his father-in-law, high-ranking member of the secret police who betrayed Castillo and his daughter when they tried to flee.  Castillo escaped with two bullet holes but left his wife behind, not knowing if she was alive or dead.

The first problem that I encountered was the dialogue. Castillo's mother was American and he went to a prep school in Connecticut, so it was reasonable that he would be perfectly bilingual and speak colloquial english. The english he used just sounded totally wrong, a mix of John D. MacDonald-esque early 60s clever speak and cliched hard-boiled private eye wisecracks.  There was a lot of verbiage in general that made reading it slow-going and then so many metaphors and wise cracks that you felt disconnected.  Worse, though, two Cuban expats speaking a mix of Spanish and English spoke like a bunch of camp counsellors in upstate New York.  It just didn't sound realistic.  I've met and hunt out with several perfectly bilingual Cuban-Americans and they do not talk like that.

So back to the story.  In a somewhat convoluted way, Castillo decides to sneak back into Cuba, to both bring medicine to a sick leader of the underground resistance to Castro's regime and to find and rescue his wife, or at least die with her.  It is a nice setup and the details of the trip via boat to Cuba and sneaking back into such a controlled environment undercover and through the underground network was somewhat fun.  Now the second problem becomes apparent. This book was not written for the adventure or the pleasure of the fiction.  It was written to portray communist Cuba as a total nightmare place of atrocity and fear.  It is telling in the introduction, that all his research was done with government agencies and Cuban refugee groups.  Worse, he states that the descriptions of Cuba itself "are from the author's pleasant memories of many trips there dating back to 1954."

Weird that he only went there pre-revolution and somehow seems to that Cuba is a place of terror and privation.  I definitely do not think Cuba was some paradise and Kendrick himself is critical of Batista regime in the early part of the book, but this just feels like a propaganda job.  It is laid on so thick that by the end, I was totally disconnected and just wanted it to end.  Not an enjoyable ride, unfortunately.

One neat thing about this edition.  You will notice the "A Special Inner Sanctum Mystery" at the bottom of the front cover.  It turns out that Simon & Schuster originated the Inner Sanctum concept as an imprint for their favourite books.  At first it included several genres, but then they sponsored the Inner Sanctum radio show and focused it on suspense and mystery books.  Part of the deal of their sponsorship was that one of their books had to be promoted at the end of the show.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

17. Slam the Big Door by John D. MacDonald

I have a later 50 cent copy. The blurb reads
"From the best-selling author of THE DROWNER,
celebrated TRAVIS MCGEE series"
Another one in the Ed Gorman list of best non-Travis McGee JDM's, Slam the Big Door walks a line between being a crime novel and a drama at first and then veers entirely into the latter.  I was disappointed, hoping for more of the former but it nevertheless ended up being quite satisfying, with both the highs and lows of John D. MacDonald.

Mike Rodenska, reporter on leave, comes to his old army buddy Troy's place in an exclusive beach community in western Florida. His wife died recently of cancer and Troy and his new wife invited him down to just relax and heal.  We get all the great world-building and social critique that makes JDM so enjoyable. Here we have an enclave of long-time outsiders who now consider themselves local. They have their club and their cocktail parties and their gossip.  It takes a while, but we start to get hints that Troy and Mary's marriage is not doing that well and that Troy may be over his head in a big business deal.  There is a great setup here, when a group of local businessmen, including a super wealthy good ol' boy, meet and plan how to break up Troy's project and take it over for good.

At this point, I got quite excited, as I was expecting a story about a battle between Mike Rodenska, journalist with character from the North coming in to defend his friend, and these local semi-corrupt developers.  There was even some nice little investigating by Rodenska.  Then, all too quickly, he meets up with the good ol' boy, impresses him with his character and basically rescues the deal for his friend.  I was like, that was it?  Where is this book going to go?  Well it turned out to be much more a psychological study of the breakdown of his friend, who had cracked up once before.  There are some of the crazy period sexual politics, including the classic sexually irresistible temptation character (as seen in the great Clemmie), here personified by horsey-looking Jerranna.  When Troy gets with her, he either has to kill her or become a total alchoholic sex fiend and of course always chooses the latter, while she doesn't seem to care one way or the other as she is just in it for "the kicks".

So despite his friend coming down and saving his ass, it all goes to shit for Troy or rather he drives himself to shit, ultimately "Slamming the big door" on his own life. I guess ultimately this was about the damage the war did to him, but weirdly JDM seems to blame the women around him just as much.*  The trigger in the end that he uses to ultimately destroy his life is his flirtatious and amoral daughter-in-law.

Despite it not going the route I had hoped for, I did end up kind of enjoying it.  Yes, it meandered when it got into the weird relationship conversations and JDM moralizes a but much even for him about the youth of today with no morals, but it also had some great passages and awesome portrayals of sordid little places, like the depressing rental cabins.

*Below is the passage when Rodenska seeks out Jerranna after she shows up in Florida and Troy starts going back to here.  He finds her in a bar next to the seedy rental cabins.

She gulped the beer with automatic greed, her long thin throat working.  The years had coarsened her.  He had detected a certain sensitivity, a capacity for imagination, in the girl in New York.  But the years and the roads, the bars and the cars and the beds and the bottles --they all have flinty edges, and they are the cruel upholstery in the dark tunnel down which the soul rolls and tumbles until no more abrasion is possible, until the ultimate hardness is achieved.  So here she sat, having achieved the bland defensive heartiness of a ten-dollar whore. 
But there was more than that.  She had retained that unique sexual magnetism which had no basis in either face or figure.  It was a dark current generated in some unthinkably primitive source, a constant pressure which tugged the male mind into grubby yet shamefully enticing imaginings.  In the back alley of the mind of every man there is a small, black, greasy pool of evil, an unawakened capacity for foulness, a place of guilt.  She could walk through your house, past all your prides and glowing purposes, ignoring your display of awards for small victories, and take you out the back door and down the alley to the brink of the blackness you have learned to ignore, and point at it and smirk with an ancient wisdom and say, "See what we found?" 
If all men are alcoholics, she is the bottle.  If all men are compulsive gamblers, she is the gaming table.  If all men are suicides, she is the knife, the rope, the bullet.  In fair exchange for your soul, she offers self-disgust and avoidable repetition.

I mean it's half-nonsense, ultimately misogynist christian morality, but so much fun to read!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

16. The Suicide Murders by Howard Engel

My wife found this nice hardcover first edition from 1980 at Chainon.  I doubt it is worth much but it is in really good condition.  I have a faint memory of having read a Benny Cooperman mystery before.  My mom may have passed it down to me.  Anyways, it looked like one of those page-turning 80s mysteries and as a bonus it took place in Canada.

Benny Cooperman is a sort of sad sack Jewish private detective who is barely making two ends meet on the odd divorce case, except that he seems to stumble upon big interesting cases at least once a book.  He grew up in and now works in Grantham, Ontario, which I think is a real place along the Toronto-Windsor corridor.  In this first book, he is hired by an attractive upperclass woman who thinks her husband is having an affair.  Cooperman quickly learns that his lying and absences are actually visits to a therapist.  He believes the case closed and is about to deliver the news to his client, when he learns that the husband, a wealthy developer, has just blown his brains out.  The cops treat it as an open and shut suicide but Cooperman, who had followed the man to a sporting goods store where he had bought a new 10-speed bicycle is skeptical.  He keeps digging around and uncovers a lot of dirt in this medium-sized Ontario town: city hall shenanigans, blackmail, old boys with sordid pasts.  As he digs, there are more deaths.

It never explodes and the mystery is never intriguing enough that I was dying to find out what happened, but the investigating is steady and interesting.  The locations are well described and believable and he manages to make what is possibly the most neutral, boring place on earth, Ontario, actually sound like it could have a real mystery in it, no mean feat.  He has a funny relationship with his parents as well.  This was very much an 80s mystery, with lots of light wisecracking (a bit too much in the beginning but it found a nice rhythm by the end) and the detective himself being a big character in the proceedings.  Enjoyable!

Addendum: Here is a nice obituary of Howard Engel, who died in July of 2019.  Had a stroke in 2001 where he lost the ability to read but could still write!  Man, that would be brutal.  Seems like a good guy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

15. Odd Man Out by F. L. Green

I can't remember where I found this but it was cheap or free and has been sitting on the far right of my on-deck shelf for quite a while now, because of its small size.  I was expecting a terse, noir thriller, possibly dated.  Instead I got a florid, wordy asymptotical meditation on life, death and Belfast during the post-war Troubles.  (Asymptotical is my term for books that never seem to end, the pages on the right get thinner and thinner but the ending seems infinitely far away.)

The book starts out in medias res, though the text was already heavy and spilling over with excessive clauses, adjectives and adverbs.  Four men pull up outside of a laundry mill, ready to execute a well-planned heist of its payroll.  This was somewhat promising, but right away we go into the getaway driver's head.  Okay, fine, it is a stressful job.  But the thoughts in his head are beyond stress.  He is on the verge of completely freaking out: "...his mind would fracture and admit impulsive, hysterical factors which were already advancing from indefinable sources in his spirit"  And this is on page 3!  I thought that maybe the getaway driver was particularily nervous, but then we get to the ring leader, Johnny, we learn that he is along time member and leader of The Organization and this heist is to get funding for their political work (terrorism for some, liberation for others).  He is freaking out even more!  It's like he is on acid.  Seriously, everything is described like a bizarre dream and he completely loses touch with reality.  It's really weird because this guy is an experienced pro.  His state is attributed to him having been holed up in an apartment for months, but soon I realized that everyone is like this in the book.  One person saying something to another person launches some metaphorical, metaphysical reaction in that other person's brain.  It's really weird.  I don't know if this is just the way Irish people write thrillers because they are so tragic and poetic or something.  The whole book could have been about a third as long as it actually was.

Just to give you an example of how practically every description in the book spins off into excess, here is one sentence from a paragraph (of which there are many) describing the activity of patrons in a bar near the waterfront:
At corners, they broke into shrill chatter; and parting, they sped off to dart into deserted entrances or to pour wildly into the gutters or the dank foundations of walls oozing with slime and guarding a hollow silence into which the incessant breathing roar of the city dropped occasionally as the wind veered.

So because Johnny is tripping balls, the heist goes sour and he kills a cashier in a struggle.  The driver of the getaway car freaks out and drives too fast, spilling wounded Johnny off the running board. The first half of the book is then the story of the three other heisters making it back to their hideout, the recriminations, the getaway and tightening police cordon.  The second half of the book is Johnny, who is basically almost dead but somehow stumbling from place to place, person to person.  In this part, Johnny is really a vehicle for all these other characters to reveal themselves.  The neutral Protestant women who try and heal him until their husbands come home, the underworld barman freaking out because of Johnny's presence in his bar, the painter who wants to create a masterpiece by capturing the look in Johnny's dying eyes. Johnny is basically dragged around from Belfast locale to Belfast locale meeting a bunch of characters.  Call it Weekend at Belfast's.  It's not uninteresting but everything is so heavy and wrought.  It really was a slog to get through to the end, which was more or less predictable.  I really don't see how they could have made an entertaining movie out of this.

Speaking of movies, I did have a moment of amazing synchronicity.  My wife and I were watching the trailer for this documentary about New York bookstores called The Booksellers.  Though it looked annoyingly precious and utterly NY-centric (so typically navel-gazing New York, a city with probably the worst used bookstore scene in North America makes a documentary celebrating it), there was one very brief scene of the kind of used book table that excites me and others of my ilk.  I paused it to take a closer look.  Zoom in and you will see Odd Man Out, one of the more legible titles!  How crazy is that.  I was about a third of the way through the book at the time.

Friday, February 14, 2020

14. Gateway by Frederick Pohl

I found this in the ever-fruitful free shelf on St-Viateur.  It was in the nice old-school paperback that I like and my father is a huge fan of the Space Merchants.  I have so many books on my on-deck shelf that I am more picky now about what I take home, but this one made the cut.  Later on Twitter, a person whose taste I respect had a picture of it and when I mentioned that I had just found it, she said it was one of her favourites and she had read it three times.

So I had sort of high hopes, and I had just finished Appleby's Other Story, which I enjoyed but also found it left me a bit wanting.  Unfortunately, Gateway left me even more wanting.  I guess this is post-new age (was written in 1977), but it still feels like it comes out of that American masculine semi-nerdy, inner and out exploring period.  I just found it really boring.  The book has two storylines, both following Rob Broadhead.  In the first thread, he is later in life a very wealthy playboy in some future earth where Manhattan is under a dome and seeing a computer therapist named Sigfrid.  The second thread is his younger self, when he wins the lottery that frees him from a life of food-mining to take his chances in Gateway.  The stories come together as we slowly learn what his great trauma was that he is resisting facing in therapy and as it actually happens on Gateway.

The Gateway concept is cool.  An asteroid is discovered not too far out in the solar system that was once inhabited by some technologically superior race that humans call the Heechee.  They have left almost nothing except hundreds of pre-programmed spaceships that go far out to various spots in space and then come back again. The trick is that the tech is so advanced, nobody knows where they will go nor for how long until they actually launch them.  You could go, find yourself in the middle of nowhere and come back.  You could go and keep going far past the duration of your life support systems and die.  You could go and have a horrible accident.  In most cases, the ships return with the crew dead or alive.  In the best situations, you come to planet where you find a usable Heechee artifact.  If this happens and you return alive, the Gateway Corporation will pay you a big rewards.  So it is the ultimate high-risk high-reward gamble.

As I say, it is a really cool concept.  For me, the way it was put in to use was just utterly unentertaining.  I am really not into therapy sessions in fiction in general.  Here it was especially trying as the protagonist is fighting the computer therapist the whole time.  It just seemed stupid.  I don't know, maybe in the '70s this kind of childish resistance with you finally breaking down and realizing some deep thing about yourself was the norm.  Even worse, one of the big things he realized was that he had been sexually aroused by a man and had hooked up with one during one of the trips from Gateway.  It was just like, dude, really, this is what you go to therapy for?

And then on Gateway itself, the whole plot was about his fear to actually commit to going on a trip and his relationship with one woman.  It went on and one with Broadhead saving his money and avoiding for as long as he could actually going out on a trip.  I get it that it would be scary as hell, but his whole raison d'etre was to get out of his hardscrabble existence.  And it just was not fun or interesting to read about him being scared.  So we finally get a cool trip only at the very end of the book.  It just took way too long to get there and when we did, the payoff, while sort of neat conceptually, did not justify all the build-up.

Also, the guy freaks out at one point and beats the woman up, knocking a tooth out.  But then later, they realize they are really in love and the big tragedy is because they are separated at the end because of the big trauma that went down on their trip together.  That was just a rotten little cherry on the top that made me thoroughly dislike this book. Going to read up on what they hype was.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

13. Appleby's Other Story by Michael Innes

Michael Innes has been lurking around the periphery of my book reading for all my life, but I have never read him (nor have I read Hammond Innes, either for that matter).  I found this one on the free shelf up on St-Viateur (it's really been quite productive, that shelf).

I could see right away why his books are so ubiquitous.  He is an entertaining writer for fans of the educated British writing style.  It begins with Appleby, whom I guess is his detective in a long series of mysteries, driving with the local country Chief Constable to a country estate for a social visit.  The first few pages have references to classical poetry, latin quotations and deft observations of class and character, all in a rich vocabulary and indirect sentence structure.  There has to be a better word than indirect here.  This is the kind of book that you would not recommend to a reader for whom english was a second language.  Even for me, I had to reread many of the sentences to understand what he was trying to say.  It's fun, though, and quite clever.  There are a few really solid moments inside the ornate writing that are made even stronger because of the style of the writing.  Here, the detective is in the rather dingy pub where he initially had gotten surly service from the man at the bar.  After a fruitful conversation with one of the witnesses, he returns to the barman:
Appleby resolved to investigate.  He got to his feet and walked over to the bar.  A detached observer might have remarked in him a somewhat ominous gathering of authority as he moved.  The taciturn and discontented publican, who was disdainfully puddling glasses in an invisible sink of what was doubtless dirty water glanced at him with a new wariness as he approached.
I was a bit less pleased with the mystery itself.  The plot is that when they arrive, they find the lord of the manor shot dead in his study and a small house party of potential suspects, including a wayward son, a parasitical nephew, an over-efficient secretary, a dishonest London art dealer, a second wife and her lover, the murdered man's own mistress and finally a butler with a rough edge.  It's a nice setup but too much of the backstory is delayed simply because Appleby takes his time to talk to the witnesses.  It is a nice touch that he is retired and starts out trying to avoid getting involved and his expertise is thoroughly enjoyable.  The twist itself was also a bit convoluted, involving geography in the house that I never could have figured out through the reading (though this could have been my own lack of attention to detail).

Overall, though, I am glad to have read and been made aware of Innes' qualities.  I would like to find an earlier Appleby story when he was still on the force.

Friday, February 07, 2020

12. A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Charles Williams is quietly but strongly lauded by fans of the pulp genre as being one of the better if not the best of the Gold Key authors.  His books are very hard to find.  Of course, Dark Carnival had this Hard Case reprint as well as at least one (maybe two, I can't remember now) other reprint in a larger format.  I kind of wished I had bought it after having read this one.  I am not ready to say he is the best or anything, but this was a really solid, efficient read with a great ending.

It starts in medias res, the way I like it.  Lee Scarborough, looking to sell his car, accidentally meets a sunbathing beauty at the back of the apartment complex.  Coincidentally, she too is looking to buy a car.  Or is she?  In the first few pages, we learn the Lee is an ex-college football star whose bum knee kept him out of the pros and is now getting down to his last dollar.  He picks up quickly that she is feeling him out for some other reason.  After the fake test drive, she gets down to business.  She has inside info about a missing businessman and what may have happened to the $120,000 with which he disappeared.

What starts out for Lee as a simple break & enter gets messy quick and gets messier and messier right up to the disastrous end.  What I particularly enjoyed about this book was that while the storyline was simple, the actual plot underneath it was somewhat complex and keeps you guessing until the end. And—despite that complexity—it never loses steam.  There is a lot of action and you have a nice rhythm of straight up action and then tension and questioning.  The tension in the last act is almost unbearable, with Scarborough and a fantastic femme fatale character holed up together and hiding in his apartment as the dragnet tightens and each doesn't know where the other stands.  Good stuff.

I think I must have purchased some early publisher's version.  My copy looks exactly the same as the image above, except the tagline reads "It Began As ...AND END AS A NIGHT" which is just weird and wrong.  The inside back cover has what looks like promotional copy and info for a book store to order it, so maybe it is some kind of advanced copy.  Otherwise it all looked pretty legit.  I was just thrown by that bizarre tagline.

Here is a much better and fuller review, if you don't mind spoilers and want to get a better sense of what makes this book so great without actually reading it.

Monday, February 03, 2020

11. The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian

You know things are getting weird here at Olman's Fifty when not only am I reading two non-fiction books in a row, but one of them is actually a serious history book.  One of my best friends did his undergrad thesis on Iranian history and has an excellent shelf of Iranian history books. I've grown more and more interested in the mechanics of British colonialism as it comes up frequently in much of the fiction I read.  I was originally looking for a broad overview of Iranian history in the 19th and 20th centuries (and am still looking for one of Indian history), but when he handed me tome VI of the 7-part Cambridge History of Iran, that was a bit too daunting.  I went with this thinner, more focused book and I am glad I did.

I was completely ignorant of Iranian history leading up to the 1979 revolution.  This book deals specifically with an equally significant upheaval in Iran in the 20th century: the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq who was seen (and still is by many) as the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran.  Mossadeq was working to separate Iranian civil government from the monarchy and more significantly negotiating to wrest control of Iran's oil production from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and to nationalize it.  The US and UK worked with various internal oppositions (worked with being a very loose term here) to organize a coup against Mossadeq and return power to the shah. 

Abrahamian has a very specific thesis, that this coup was not motivated by a fear of communist takeover of Iran by the Soviets, as was the accepted conventional wisdom (and the propaganda line of the US, UK and the oil companies) but rather by the motivation to maintain control of oil production in Iran.  He argues this very convincingly.  A side affect of this argument is also to contradict the media portrayals of Mossadeq as being an crazed ideologue whose inflexibility to any negotiating offers other than nationalizing oil was the real reason for the coup.  From the beginning, Abrahamian argues, the UK and AOIC would never accept total nationalization (meaning loss of control of oil production in Iran).  The U.S. was more flexible at first, but soon changed their mind over fears that Iranian nationalization would then encourage other countries being exploited at the time to follow suit.

At the very end of the book, Abrahamian also lays out how the coup set the stage for the Islamic revolution of 1979. By basically destroying any republican, secular opposition to the shah the only outlet for a very unsatisfied and exploited people (who had once looked to Mossadeq as their saviour) was to their spiritual leaders.

The biggest takeaway for me from this book was how deep and effective was the propaganda in the large media outlets.  Though I have a deep contempt for the New York Times, I always assumed they more or less tried to post some form of objective truth, while always couching it in the editorial safety that would never truly criticize.  At least in the case of the coup, they just printed outright lies, straight from the CIA.  As did the CBC, the Herald-Tribune and pretty much every other mainstream journalistic outlet  Utterly fabricated and racist interpretations of Iran's quest to control its own oil were standard fodder for editorials and articles. The hatred of Iran and its use as a scapegoat by the west has been going on for a long time.  Fake news, indeed.