Thursday, December 16, 2010


Snagged off a bookstore shelf yesterday: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has begun reprinting non-Lew Archer titles by Ross MacDonald for the first time.
A perfect last-minute gift or two for the fan with a complete shelf of Lew Archer...

but hopefully they'll get around to The Dark Tunnel, his first novel, written while MacDonald was a teaching assistant at the University of Michigan in the forties. The setting is a fictionalized Ann Arbor, the hero a professor battling Nazi agents on campus!
A reprint of this title would make happy at last several U of M grad students and PhD candidates I've known, who confessed, after a few pints, to an obsession with the novels of Ross MacDonald of such a degree that they could no longer, in good conscience, write him off as a guilty pleasure; this book would seem to be their lodestone...
And yes, that's all I have, after these many months...for now...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Double Feature

Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film, Mother, begins with a lovely medium shot of the title character dancing a strange dance by herself in an empty field. Given what follows, I was grateful to him for allowing the character a reprieve right up front. The writer/director was also behind Memories of Murder and The Host, and all three films pull off a neat trick: the characters are a constant surprise but do not derail the story. See all three. They are among the best movies of the past decade.

I used to find the private lives and public misdeeds of artists fascinating. Then, I grew up. A lot of the writers, musicians and filmmakers whose work I admired were miserable jerks who ruined the lives of people around them. Who cares? I can still enjoy the work. The private lives and public misdeeds of people with genuine power, on the other hand, are far more pertinent to the quality of innumerable lives, and fairer game. To get to the point: Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is fantastic, and if you stay away, the loss is yours.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

McBain Successor Found!

No word yet on whether they'll only be available as e-books...

The author Richard Price (“Clockers,” “Lush Life”) has signed a deal with Henry Holt & Company for a new series of detective thrillers set in New York, according to the blog Galleycat at The first book in the series, as yet untitled, about a 40-year-old New York City police detective turned night-watch sergeant whose career was ruined after a controversial shooting, will be released in the fall of 2011 under Mr. Price’s pen name Jay Morris.


Monday, July 19, 2010


Here's a passage from Kahawa, by Donald Westlake, to chill your blood in the middle of this nationwide heatwave:

Juba and the major were dumped by the first two (corpses). Then Chase said, “Give me your coat, Captain.”
“Oh, sir,” the captain said. “I did what you wished. Let me go home now. Far away from here, not even Uganda. Near Adi, sir,” he said, naming a Zairian town just a few miles from both the Ugandan and Sudanese borders. “I go there, sir, I never come back.”
“Give me your coat.”
“All my family is there, sir. I go live with them, I never bother you again, sir.”
In the end, Chase had to strip the coat off the body himself.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Double Feature: Unfilmable Edition

Once the clues have begun to accumulate, and you understand that a novel’s narrator is unreliable, you have to combine your readerly pleasures with other, more writerly duties: You have to pick through the details he offers (“All women find me attractive”) and decide which ones to believe (um, not that one.)

When a film gets made of this type of narrative, though, a genre that’s pretty nimble on the page gets hamstrung in the visual medium, and James Mason or Jeremy Irons wind up cast as Humbert Humbert -- a narrator who, three separate times, tells the reader that he is considered quite handsome; striking, even.

I’ve never believed him, and I never believed Lou Ford, narrator of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, when he insists that the women he beats up enjoy it, but the new film version (which gets the setting and the bit players just right) takes him at his word, and so trips right out of the gate.


Patricia Highsmith’s sociopaths are more childlike than Jim Thompson’s, more likely to kill someone and then pretend it didn’t happen, until they’ve convinced themselves it didn’t and move on to other things, if the world will let them, which it won’t.

Given that description, you can guess that her novels depend on a lot of interior monologue, but the recent film of The Cry of the Owl works pretty well without any voiceover narrative. It veers close to a Lifetime Network production at times, but the inherent strangeness of the material, and a good, weird performance by Julia Stiles, keeps it on track. Best of all, nobody pounds Jessica Alba’s face into hamburger.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bought | Reading


Memory, Donald E. Westlake
I Was Looking For A Street, Charles Willeford
A Long Line of Dead Men, Lawrence Block
Eye of the Beholder, Marc Behm
Safer, Sean Doolittle
The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst
The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
The Turnaround, George Pelecanos


I wondered -- briefly, long ago -- what one’s life would be like if John Walsh were one’s neighbor. And here it is.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Quick Nod

Begin your tale with your hero being dragooned into a job -- one for which he, at first glance, appears perilously outmatched -- and this reader is on your side, if not already won over.

The narrator’s voice in Roger Zelazney’s The Dead Man’s Brother is kinda florid for my taste, but it doesn’t matter: Thirty pages in, the confident pull of the narrative completed the job of winning me over.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Double Feature: Adaptations

I’m no great fan of voice-over narration, but how else to adapt a novel for the screen if its greatest strengths are ruminative? If you’re Jason Reitman, you add a new character, or two, and have the protagonist hector them with his formerly-interior monologues. In Thank You for Smoking, he conjured up a child to travel with the hero, so the hero could explain the job of a lobbyist to (by extension) us dumb hick moviegoers, and he conjures up another youth to tag after George Clooney in Up in the Air.
In the novel, our hero is in deep denial, and fashions a weirdly-enticing alternate reality out of his business-travel existence as he heads for a breakdown; in the film, Clooney plays a cool guy whose priorities are out of whack. His job is firing people, and the painful scenes of people being terminated from their jobs arrive with the regularity of the murders in a slasher flick, but to what end? So that Clooney and his apprentice can learn some small thing about themselves, yawn. If you don’t want the camera to follow J.K. Simmons when he leaves that office, and stick with him for at least five minutes, if not the remainder of the movie, I don’t know what to tell you. As it stands, Reitman has no idea how to end the movie. I wonder if he knows why he made it.

Watching Edmond, on the other hand, it’s easy to feel that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it, and why they wanted to. Directed by Stuart Gordon (maker of some of the most entertaining horror films of the past thirty years, and of the recent Zero-Sum World favorite, Stuck) from a script by David Mamet (adapting his own play) and featuring Mamet players Bill Macy, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Joe Mantegna, Edmond is simply the best Mamet on film thus far. More importantly, for readers of this blog, it is a very pure example of the One-Way Ticket to Hell story, bracingly fearless, with as devastating an ending as any film I can remember recommending wholeheartedly to my loved ones! Seek it out! (Currently offered as a Free Movie on Comcast OnDemand in the Detroit area.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Read | Re-read | Reading

The Hot Kid, Elmore Leonard
Echo Park, Michael Connelly
The Ask, Sam Lipsyte

If You Can’t Be Good, Ross Thomas

When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, Lawrence Block
Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Follow-up | The Letdown

Criminal Paradise, Michael Connelly, Justified

I stand by my assessment of Criminal Paradise, but want to note I wrote it before I finished the book -- before the author throws his careful build-up out the window, and resolves things in pedestrian ‘80s -action-movie fashion. (One late chapter even ends with someone racking a shotgun and saying, “It’s showtime.”)

I read a second Harry Bosch novel, Trunk Music, directly after finishing Angels Flight. (Reverse chronological order. Unintentional, but I do have a problem with series.) It was also fantastic. Then I decided to try a non-series book by Connelly. Chose Void Moon. A thriller, a cat-and-mouse story, well-drawn Vegas setting, interesting villain. Also, unfortunately, “surprising” twists created by withholding information from the reader for an unconscionable amount of time. I think I’ll stick to the Bosch novels.

The drop-off in quality between the pilot of Justified and the first episode was stunning. Did the producers throw some work to hard-up friends they met back on “Jake and the Fatman”? Raylan Givens deserves better.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Akashic Noir Event!

This Friday Afternoon in Ann Arbor, on the University of Michigan Campus:

Hirsh Sawhney
A Reading and Conversation
Friday, April 2, 4:00pm
1636 School of Social Work Building
Free and Open to the Public

Hirsh Sawhney is an editor and contributor to Delhi Noir, a critically-acclaimed anthology of brand-new fiction published by Akashic Books and HarperCollins India.
While based in Delhi, Sawhney wrote for publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Outlook, the Indian Express, and Helsinki's Vihrea Lanka. Sawhney currently lives in New York, where he is working on his first novel. He is an Associate Editor at Wasafiri Magazine, a Contributing Editor for The Brooklyn Rail, and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York.

Praise for Delhi Noir:
"For those whose view of India is shaped by The Jewel in the Crown, conversations with a call-in center or even Slumdog Millionaire, this anthology in Akashic's noir series will register simultaneously as a shock, an education and entertainment. All 14 stories are briskly paced, beautifully written and populated by vivid, original characters... Few books can alter one's perception about the state of society, but this does, while delivering noir that's first class in any light." -- Publishers Weekly

Kitabmandal (South Asia Reading Group) is an interdisciplinary group open to faculty, students, and members of the public that meets for critical discussions of work that furthers our understanding of South Asian cultures and societies in the past and present. Please visit our website at for more information.


Thursday, March 25, 2010


Favorite scene in the premier of Justified: a lowlife halfwit in short pants, sporting the worst mullet to ever appear on television, walks through the front door of the house of a woman he means to kidnap: he calls out her name, then notices U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, excellent) standing in the front hall. You don’t walk into a person’s house uninvited, Raylan tells him. Now go back out on the porch and knock. If Ava wants to see you, I’ll let you in.

I’ll go out, the halfwit says. But I’m comin’ back in.

He runs the length of the long front walk to his car. Raylan follows, watches him fumble a pistol-grip shotgun out of the car and start pushing in shells. Raylan continues to walk straight at him.

What are you doin? I got a scattergun pointed straight at you!

Think you can rack it before I put a hole in you? Raylan asks.

And we see the halfwit try to think about it. He’s still frozen there when Raylan grabs the barrel of the shotgun and pushes, popping him in the nose with the stock. Bloodied and thrown up against the car, the halfwit protests, his voice breaking and betraying a lifetime worth of frustration and humiliation: “I don’t git you!”


Friday, March 19, 2010

Long Island Sound, 1962

Hard Case Crime publishes Memory, a trunk novel from Donald E.Westlake, in a few short days. It’s likely the last “new” Westlake book we’ll see in a bookstore.

Much as I enjoy and admire the Parker books, I wish he had published more hardboiled stuff under the Westlake name. I’m re-reading 361, first published in 1962; here’s a place and a time, in a few short sentences:

The last mile and a half was private road, blacktop. McArdle shared it with two other millionaires, and his place was last of the three, where the road made a hangman’s knot. There was a birdbath inside the loop, and a Negro with a power mower....He never quite looked at us, and he never quite looked away.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Last One In

Michael Connelly’s books were first recommended to me in 1996, when The Poet was published, but I didn’t read him for years because a) in 1996 I was a bookseller, and the recommendations all came from customers, and I’d decided by that point that customers were always wrong about everything; b) I couldn’t even keep up with recommendations from my co-workers, and they knew what they were talking about when they recommended a book; c) no co-worker ever recommended Michael Connelly to me; d) The Poet was about a serial killer, and I didn’t care if I never read another serial killer novel; e) the rest of his books were about some cop, and I tended to agree with Hitchcock’s dismissal of policemen as “dull”; and f) there was something off-putting about several customer’s insistence that this guy was the only mystery writer worth reading at the moment -- an understandable sentiment, in a way, what with Patricia Cornwell and Tom Clancy dominating the bestseller lists, but still: Pronouncements like that grabbed me when I was sixteen, and The Clash was The Only Band That Matters, but I was older now, and more than a little embarrassed to hear middle-aged men (the customer was always a middle-aged man) carrying on so.

It only took me, um, fourteen years to overcome this poor first impression, but I finally read one of the Harry Bosch series, Angels Flight. It’s a terrific book.

I started Angels Flight just after finishing The Watchman, by Robert Crais. It was a great relief to open the Connelly book and see paragraphs longer than one sentence.

(I haven’t read much Robert Crais, either; I read The Two-Minute Rule a couple years ago and found it to be just about everything I could ask for from what I think of as a commercial thriller. I don’t know what happened between that book and The Watchman, but Crais seems to have fallen under the spell of Business Management English, never using a plain-old verb when he can stretch for (or invent) one that sounds more Action-y --- a practice that perhaps reaches its nadir with this sentence, during an interrogation scene: “Cole worked to relax the young man.” Um, what’s wrong with “tried”?)

Connelly’s prose has a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other quality that’s pleasing, comforting, and eventually thrilling, and that only rarely coughs up a sentence like this one: “It was locked and he knocked.” The reader is sometimes tempted to skip ahead; the reader won’t, because the writer won’t. That’s called suspense.

Or the reader might: It’s a reader’s right to barnstorm. When the writer barnstorms, it just seems lazy. Excite me -- or work to excite me, if you must. Don’t get excited on my behalf.

I've owned the first dozen or so of Michael Connelly's books for six or seven years now, and I think it might be a little while before I read anything by anyone else. My apologies to my customers of 1996.


Friday, February 26, 2010


I went through the banker’s boxes that hold most of my personal library, these past few years, picked out a few books that caught my eye, and stacked them on an end table. A few days later, I looked through them, deciding what to read next.

I re-read Francine Prose’s forward to the NYRB edition of A High Wind in Jamaica, then set the book aside, without re-reading it, in favor of Ross MacDonald’s The Instant Enemy -- and A High Wind in Jamaica shows up in the early pages of that book, when Archer notices a copy in the bedroom of a missing teenage girl.

I finished The Instant Enemy a few days later, and picked up the next book in the stack: The Watchman by Robert Crais -- and the author note identifies Crais as a winner of the Ross MacDonald Literary Award.

Signs and portents everywhere. I was beginning to feel like the protagonist of a Paul Auster novel -- and the next book in the stack?
The Brooklyn Follies.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Criminal Paradise

A blurb from Ken Bruen cites Elmore Leonard, but I think Steven M. Thomas’s Criminal Paradise has a greater resemblance to, and many of the virtues of, John D. MacDonald’s writing, particularly in the way the action is fixed to its setting: in this case, the sunny, palmy, moneyed neighborhoods along the coast of southern California.

The narrator is one of the rats that live in the palms -- a smart, but hardly ruthless, career criminal. As the story commences, he sees his careful existence quickly unravel, thanks, in equal measures, to his own basic decency and his impulsive lust for swag.

More of the old virtues: the book starts with a robbery in progress -- you have to start in the middle of the action these days; that’s the rule -- but the real menace builds slowly, at the periphery, in a manner similar to what John D. used to do: fix the scoundrel Travis McGee was chasing in the reader’s mind as the Devil in Flesh, before he even made an appearance.

It’s a real pleasure to choose a book off the bookstore shelf, with no knowledge of it beforehand, and find you’ve chosen a solid, immersive read. I’m glad to know, at the start of a new decade, that it’s still possible.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

RIP Robert B. Parker

I can’t think of many books that've meant as much to me as “Mortal Stakes” did the summer I read and re-read it, when I was 11 or 12 years old.

Same goes for “A Catskill Eagle,” read a decade or so later, during three days in bed with the flu.

I’ve only read half a dozen of the Spenser books, so I can’t say I’ve kept up with Robert B. Parker. But, Christ, who did?

And I was never as fond of Spenser as Parker kept nudging me to be -- but I can say the same thing about John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, and I’ve never let Travis McGee stand in the way of my enjoyment in reading John D. MacDonald.

I started reading “The Judas Goat” last night. I’ve got to cut this short, so I can get back to it. You know that feeling.

Godspeed, man.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Reread/Reading (Auld Lang Syne Edition)

I used to like to start a new year with a doorstop.

It’s comforting, during a cold snap, to know there’s 600 pages of story remaining, and I’ve spent some fine Januarys in the company of Nazis, Cold War spies, and vampires.

Currently, though, I have less time to read than ever before, and I’m trying to put a bad year, during which I wrote nothing whatsoever, behind me.

Reading a doorstop makes me want to keep reading that doorstop; reading a potboiler makes me want to write a potboiler.

And so, even though the likes of Mason & Dixon and The Count of Monte Cristo glare at me from the shelf, their still-uncreased spines a reproach, I said goodbye to 2009 and hello to 2010 like so:

Split Images, Elmore Leonard
Cat Chaser, Elmore Leonard
Out On The Rim, Ross Thomas

The Bounty Hunters, Elmore Leonard


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Favorites of 2009

Bury Me Deep, by Megan Abbott;
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers;
Honey In His Mouth, by Lester Dent

Inglorious Basterds,
The House of the Devil,
A Perfect Getaway

Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! -- Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears;
Brain Cycles -- Radio Moscow;
This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 -- Henry Threadgill & Zooid

Cliff Lee, in Game 1 of the World Series;
Tilda Swinton, in the movie Julia;
Dick Cheney, ongoing