Tuesday, October 25, 2022

55. Murder in the Madhouse by Jonathan Latimer

This is the second book by Jonathan Latimer that I have picked up in search of the coveted Solomon's Vineyard, which ranked high in Paperback Warrior's top ten one year, I think even number 1.  The opening is fantastic, with detective (though you don't know it at the time) William Crane, handcuffed in the back of an ambulance being driven to a fancy asylum for the wealthy.  The driver and the orderly are passing a bottle of homemade applejack (I really want to try this one day) back and forth and getting drunker and drunker.  It gets even more fun, as Crane almost immediately starts causing trouble when he does get checked in, busting the stuffy (and clearly suspect) head doctor of messing around with the nurse and then kicking another doctor in the head before the orderlies can get him into the detention room.  It's quite satisfying and fun right away.

He has been sent to investigate the theft of Mrs. Van Sant's metal box with $400,000 of bonds and a key to a safety deposit box with even more money.  Quite soon after Crane's arrival, the murders happen.  Latimer has a sparse writing style which is constantly moving forward, sometimes even skipping over details that you have to pick up on your own.  It's quite enjoyable to read.  Furthermore, there is no false modesty or bourgeois sensibilities covering up the behaviour of the characters.  They are direct and like to party.  Crane seems to drink as often as possible, often passing out in the middle of the day.  The men are hitting on the women and the women are no saying no.  I think this must be that depression-era prohibition culture and that Latimer hits the notes often because that's what people wanted to read.  Unfortunately, he also hits the murder and sleuthing notes often, to the point where it gets kind of absurd.  After the first body, two more are killed in fairly quick succession.  An idiotic sheriff comes with his deputies (one of whom is his son) and is absolutely clueless and arbitrary.  As it says on the back cover, it gets "daffy".  I still had a lot of fun reading this and will definitely pick up more of his books.  I just need to go in not expecting a whole lot in the execution of the plot and to remember that the tone is both hard-boiled and comic.

Note: the image above is not mine but it is the edition I found.  It's from Library of Crime Classics line by International Polygonics ltd. New York City.  Quite the amateur layout, but it captures all the key elements: a madhouse, a fountain (crucial to the plot in a not clever way) and boobs!

Monday, October 24, 2022

54. Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

Beware the trade paperback hyped by mainstream newspapers!  I exaggerate for effect.  I have been keeping an eye out for the Jean-Claude Izzo Marseilles trilogy for a while. I can't remember where I first heard it recommended but judging by the pull quotes on the copy I did find at Pegaus books, the hype reached a fever pitch amongst the literati.  Everybody was saying how hard-boiled his work was.  It's tough and there is some pretty harsh stuff here (unfortunately some of it the tired victimized women to motivate lone wolf male hero who can't make love work troope), but this is not what I call hard-boiled.  From the intro, I guess it is an evolution of the french neo-polar such as Manchette, where the world of crime is also intensely political.  There is a lot of poetic prose, which works okay in english and probably quite better in french as well as many very specific food and wine references.  It's all too flowery to make this book be hard-boiled, no matter the bleakness of the content.

Stripping away the hype and the mislabelling, this was a decent modern crime/mystery novel.  It begins with a man Ugo, returning from 20 years (in jail we presume though it is never explicitly mentioned) to avenge the murder of his criminal buddy, Manu.  An older criminal figure who is well connected points him to a high-ranking crime lawyer, whom Ugo shoots down. He is then gunned down by the police.  This is really just the inroduction to the main story and protagonist, sidelined cop Fabio who was the third friend.  His unofficial investigation into his friend's murder quickly dovetails into several other investigations (including the rape and murder of Leila an Algerian immigrant's daughter with whom he almost had a relationship) which then lead into the complex politics of the Marseilles underworld.

The descriptions of day-to-day life in Marseilles are juxtaposed with more expository (but brief) explanations of the tangled criminal networks in this central port city.  The latter is quite cool, but also often told rather than shown and at such a high scale that I sort of got lost and a bit disconnected.  It all does come together a bit quickly at the end and a bit too satisfyingly.  I accept that I am contradicting myself here, generally wanting a satisfying ending but not too satisfying.  This almost felt pat and a bit too easy after the convincing portrayal of the flexible power of the corruption between organized crime, business and politics in Marseille.

So I am glad that I have read the first book, but I do not feel a strong urge to continue with the trilogy.  I also am happy that Mediterranean Noir is supposedly a thing now and would be interested in other examples.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

53. Ora:Cle by Kevin O'Donnell, Jr.

Ora:Cle was recommended by a colleague who is an old school nerd with some interesting and intelligent perspectives, so I thought I would take him up on it.  It was an interesting read, hampered for me somewhat for being the kind of theoretical sci-fi that prefers ideas over narrative, but ultimately sticking the landing.  It takes place roughly 200 years in the future when everybody is forced to stay inside in order to protect what little organic life remains in order to maintain the C02 levels.  Further keeping people inside, a fleet of pteradactyl like aliens, the Dac, hover near the moon, sending down ships of who appear to simply be trophy-hunting humans.  Any attempt at fighting back has led in the past to massive retaliation by the Dac such as destroying an entire city.

Our hero Ale Elatey makes his money as a Seeley, basically part of an online group of researchers who will answer any question in their field of knowledge.  Their "internet" is Ora:Cle.  There is lots of fun tech in this future world, remotely-controlled repair bots, medics and police.  Everything is brought in to the homes via matter transmitter.  It's funny to have such advanced technology next to artifacts from the period it was written (1984) such as a box of floppy disks.  Also, the general size of the data is still so small (measured in megabytes) compared to the scale of digital junk we are hoarding in the cloud today.  Sadly, the gender politics are also as archaic.  Ale's wife is smart and tough and hard-working but also represents the shrill, overly-emotional foil who wants Ale to not take any risks that would upset their domestic peace.

The big idea or ideas here are who controls the information and whether it should be controlled or not.  Because all the action takes place in Ale's apartment, we have a lot of world-wide power struggles going on  via a telescreen, which felt unrealistic and took me out of the narrative.  There is a global security group called the Coalition that first came in place in response to the environmental crisis but now stays in place to deal with the Dacs.  The main conflict in the book is about them trying to kill Ale and gain control over Ora:Cle to control the dissemination of news to the world.  There are some prescient and interesting ideas that are relevant to today's challenges but it's only at the very end when a big secret is revealed that they coalesce into something interesting.  Is it acceptable to censor information from the public if that information would put the world at risk if it were available to the public?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

52. The Furies by Niven Busch

My friend who was clearing out some of his old DVDs gave me this Criterion DVD and book set because he thought I might be interested in the book.  I was expecting a western noir.  From the beginning, the richness of the prose and the slowness of the pacing made me realize I was in for something more baroque.  I guess you could call it a western melodrama maybe?  The story centers around the Jessup family and particularly the relation between uber-patriarch and cattle baron T.C. and his daughter Vance.  She is a great character, right from the beginning.  You have this feeling that she is going to get screwed, as she is already sleeping with a Mexican cowboy (with a good but unrecognized lineage).  Instead, she is pretty kickass right from the beginning.  Her flaw is not one of weakness but rather she is too like her hardass father.  A lot goes on in the book with her character, ultimately revolving around her relationship with her father.  It's extremely Freudian and epic.  I appreciated that while she suffers a lot, none of it is in the cliched vein of the victimized woman.  Rather, it is the result of her power struggles with her father.  Everyone in this book turns out to be the person others are warned about.  The warning for T.C. is that he will use anybody to his own ends and this is indeed the case.  Despite that and the terrible things he does, in his limited way he loves and respects his daughter.  He is just a driven, self-centered son of a bitch.

It's an enjoyable, rich read.  The prose style is too baroque for my tastes, but you get a great sense of the plains and mountains, of the people and the cattle on these western lands.  It doesn't feel entirely authentic and I was not too surprised to learn that Busch was a wealthy new englander, well-connected to get a starting job at Time magazine and then plumb screenwriting connections with Walter O. Seznick's son.  He even married Teresa Wright!  Nevertheless, he is a good writer and this is a sprawling page turner.  I am looking forward to watching the movie.

Monday, October 17, 2022

51. Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh

Okay, it took this book to finally nail home my lesson about Ngaio Marsh.  Her books are not relaxing, escapist fare!  I brought this with me on a work trip, thinking I could use it in my free moments and on the plane to kill time.  Instead I struggled with the opening, barely able to get through a page, sometimes even a paragraph before I got distracted or nodded off.  This shit requires serious focus.  You spend the whole opening on trying to understand the layout of a New Zealand sheep farm and manor (impossible for me to visualize and no map provided) and once you have given up on that, it's page after page of who went where among 6 different characters (at least there was a cast of characters, though only with their formal names and not all the different nicknames and titles that are used in the book and no relationship map which was also needed; which nephew!?) while they were looking for a lost brooch.  What really made all this sleuthing nerdery even more difficult to follow is that none of the relationships or the setting and situation are established, so you have no context for any of it.  For front-loading the mystery minutiae at the beginning I am going to have to blame the author.  In general, though I just have to remember that Ngaoi Marsh's books though also including fun characters studies and interesting situations are still ultimately whodunnits of the highest order and require a level of concentration that I cannot bring to a book.

So basically, this set me back almost two weeks of reading.  I finally got hooked in once I got back from my trip and actually finished it on another plane flight.  There was some good here, the portrayal of the New Zealand mountains and the sheep farm (and the process and locations for the shearing) were really interesting and kept the pages turning.  The slow revelation of the victim, the farm matriarch and local MP, who goes from strong, inspiring woman to quite nasty, even abusive manipulator is well done.  It gets particularly dark with the story of the local lad with musical talent that she took under her wing.  The murder is gruesome, or rather the disposal of the body, which is stuffed into a bale of wool and then compressed.  In the end, the revelation, though, left me a bit cold.  I think I am done with Ngaoi Marsh for a while.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

50. The White South by Hammond Innes

Look at this beauty!
For some reason, I had never read anything by Hammond Innes before this.  Somewhere online (Paperback Warrior?), somebody recommended him and gave a list of his best works.  I also can not remember where I found this copy, which is right in my perfect nostalgia period of Fontana paperbacks.  I grew up on the Desmond Bagley's with the white background and great realistic illustrations.  This one was in great condition, possibly never even read.  I felt bad opening it up.  I spoke with my dad who was the one who turned me on to this genre and he too had never read any Hammond Innes.  Odd, feels like an error on our part now that I have finished The White South.

It's not a mastperiece, so I'll get some of the minor flaws out of the way first.  The antagonist is great in concept, the sociopathic failson who wants to take full control of his father's whaling business.  In execution, however, he is just so extreme and his threat so obvious and the protagonist so dumb and stubborn to not deal with him earlier, that reader frustration deflates a lot of the potential conflict and excitement.  Fortunately, the situation itself, being trapped on an ice floe in Antarctica, is the real conflict.  The descriptions of the ice and the environment are incredibly well-written. I've read the Shackleton book which is bonkers.  Innes really amps it up here.  As a reader, you get these incredible combinations of human  stamina and will confronting the craziest ice and winter phenomena.  I will resist sharing any specifics because that really is the fun of the read.  Suffice it to say that it goes far beyond just having to survive in the cold.   There is some great action against the elements here.  I don't know how much research Innes did, because some of it is so wild it almost seems fantastic, but never unbelievable.

Another great element, which keeps the beginning moving forward, is the detailed description of the horrible enterprise of industrial whaling.  I somehow had it in my naive head that whaling was still just one ship with a harpoon.  Of course, humans with technology will always invent the most extreme and efficient way to destroy the planet and here we have a fleet with explosive-headed harpoons that then drag the whales to what is basically a floating processing factory.  It is fascinatingly horrific to read about, both for the individual horror of murdering a fellow (and basically superior) species on this planet and the collective horror of seeing how efficiently we killed them in entire pods.  Innes describes it all clearly and almost matter-of-factly (he doesn't impose the moral outrage I do here).  Likewise, he does a good job of portraying the labour relations, though in the best colonial practice, the bosses here also do get their hands dirty.

Definitely going to keep an eye out for more of these early Hammond Innes.