Friday, February 18, 2011

Last Car

Last Car To Elysian Fields, James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke’s admirable Dave Robicheaux series, set in and around New Orleans, always does a convincing job with those moments when Southern charm reaches its limit and the natural temperament of crooked folk living in extreme humidity comes to the fore.

As with many genre series, though, the impact has been lessened, I think, as publishers have insisted on higher word counts. Read an early book in any long-running series of the past couple decades and you will find a tighter, tenser piece of work than a more-recent entry.

There’s often an almost-Biblical quality to the violence threatened in a Robicheaux story, but as altercation after altercation ends in a draw (because we have hundreds of pages to go!), a reader can begin to feel like an onlooker at a schoolyard fight -- one of the jerks (speaking for myself) egging on the combatants when it looks like both are, sensibly, going to back down.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Time Out

He left the hotel and walked to a cinema where She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was playing. He had already seen it but that made no difference – he had probably seen every Western ever made. The afternoon was the worst part of the day and a movie swallowed up a good part of it in one gulp. At the same time he didn’t want to spend the afternoon in the dark watching movies set at night, gangster movies or horror films. In Westerns it was always afternoon, so he was able to avoid the afternoon and get a nice helping of it at the same time. He liked to get high and let the images float before his eyes like the nonsense they were…He couldn’t have made it through the day without Westerns but all the time he was watching them he was eager for them to end, impatient for the whole charade of settled scores to be over with so that he could emerge into the fading daylight.

(from But Beautiful: a book about jazz, by Geoff Dyer)


Monday, February 14, 2011

The Heckler

The Heckler, Ed McBain

I’ve enjoyed a couple 87th Precinct novels, but more often I don’t finish them.

This entry in the series, which introduces the arch-nemesis The Deaf Man, purported criminal genius, felt like one of the odder books I’ve read lately, with a couple of very diffuse storylines and way too much badly-aged (Borscht Belt?) humor. Both these elements are pretty standard in the series, and largely the reason I seldom finish one of the books.

I have a banker’s box filled with 87th Precinct novels, though, so odds are I’ll keep trying ‘em....


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Night Gardener

I read all my George Pelecanos a decade ago, in one binge, from The Big Blowdown through Hell To Pay. In recent years, I tried his earliest books, the Nick Stefanos series, but couldn’t get into them: All the weaknesses of the later books I had read -- the cataloguing of music played and substances abused; character revealed through preference for this or that vintage soul tune (which the reader might or might not have knowledge of/access to); the strain to be hip, I think, when what he was really writing, urban westerns, could not help but be, at heart, pretty square -- were too much out in front of any story he had to tell in his youth.

He’s all grown up in The Night Gardener, and if I confess to missing a certain energy that may have come from the same place as the worries over hipness, he has nevertheless embraced his own squareness, which makes for a better novel.

Still, when I want to turn a friend on to his stuff, I’ve got to admit: I’ll hand over a copy of The Sweet Forever, or Right As Rain.


Thursday, February 10, 2011


E Is For Evidence, Sue Grafton

I’ve meant to try a female private eye novel for a long time now, and I decided far in advance that when I did I’d try Sue Grafton first, because I’ve read such good notices for her work all these years.

(I have no solid reasoning for passing on the female private eye novel all this time-- I’ve often been attracted, in life, to women who were hard-bitten, hard-drinking loners – but I suspect the last decade-plus of Janet Evanovich might have caused me some additional hesitation, even though I would not mistake those novels for the work of Grafton or any other of the female PI originators of the ‘80s.)

I enjoyed E Is For Evidence. Kinsey Millhone works in the oceanside southern California hamlet where she grew up, not one of the rich inhabitants, before becoming a cop for a time. Well-acquainted with local mores and local family histories, she has something of the small-town sheriff about her, and leverages her life-long knowledge of the people in the course of her investigation.

This is the type of mystery novel where milieu and character dominate, and Grafton does a very good job on both counts; I’ll have to try another book in the series….


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Life's Work

Life’s Work, Jonathan Valin

I read one or two of Valin’s mysteries featuring Cincinnati PI Harry Stoner back in the eighties. Stoner wasn’t enough of a wiseass for me, at the time, and I settled on Amos Walker and Thomas Kyd for my contemporary-PI fix (and on Travis McGee, for escape from the Michigan winters.)

I’m glad I second-guessed myself decades later and picked up Life’s Work. The only thing wrong with Valin was this twenty-something reader.

First thing about Stoner: He’s on the job from Page One, meaning there’s no time for any nonsense about his office locale, or his wacky uncle, or his colorful friends. Whatever the reader will divine about the character will come from Stoner’s interactions with the people he meets on the case.

Second thing about Stoner, and this is one I really like: He’s in it for the trouble. He likes trouble. In Life’s Work he binge drinks with professional football players and sleeps with a prostitute and drives a Pinto.

Trouble diverts the mind from thoughts of failure, and failure haunts this story and its characters.(The plot involves steroid abuse in professional sports…in 1986, the year the book was published. Nothing has changed.)