This is the best of the three Harlem Cycle novels I've read to date: Johhny Perry is a tragic hero, and Dulcy is a complex femme fatale. Even the star...moreThis is the best of the three Harlem Cycle novels I've read to date: Johhny Perry is a tragic hero, and Dulcy is a complex femme fatale. Even the starring detectives--Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, come across here with greater nuance than in the preceding two novels. All of Himes's novels move fast and his stories take sharp, deadpan turns, but this is one contains the most intricate stories of the Cycle thus far.(less)
Robert Ashley's primary gig is as an opera composer. Not operas like you would see at the Met, like Turandot or Don Giovanni. Ashley's operas consist...moreRobert Ashley's primary gig is as an opera composer. Not operas like you would see at the Met, like Turandot or Don Giovanni. Ashley's operas consist mainly of rambling monologues, mostly intoned by Ashley himself with his dry Michigan accent, over atmospheric music. It might sound ridiculous but it actually works very well. His most famous opera, Perfect Lives, is the story of a very avante garde bank heist, but the text is only peripherally related to the story. Instead, it's as if Ashley taps into some subterranean river of words that courses somewhere deep in the unconscious mind and siphons up thoughts and associations and insights that only see the conscious light of day when we're on the verge of sleep. It's not that the story isn't important, it's more like the text exists under the story, and we're following the story from inside the characters' unconscious minds. It's part poetry, part theater, and part spiritual tract.
Quicksand is Ashley's attempt at a straightforward novel. An obsessive fan of mystery novels, he decided to make his first novel a mystery. What he ended up with is more of a cool-headed political thriller that, despite having the rough contours of a thriller, has none of the conventional tension of the genre. The unnamed protagonist, who bears a strong resemblance to Ashley, is a secret agent for the US government, and during an overseas assignment, in an unnamed nation resembling Burma, he gets sucked into a coup plot. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that the coup goes down without a hitch, and the protagonist at the end of the novel is barely any different than he was at the beginning. He encounters no serious obstacles along the way. There really is no drama to the plot.
This seems to be entirely intentional. In his forward to the novel, Ashley has this to say about "plot":
A few critics have remarked that my operas have no plot. That’s not entirely true, but I wasn’t surprised. Many contemporary operas have no plot, because our idea of what a plot means has changed a lot since the Italian composers of the nineteenth century used plot to express political ideas. So, the no-plot criticism is valid—though perhaps not particularly important. Almost all of my operas were composed without any thought of the need for a linear plot.
Contemporary opera—my work in particular, but, that of a lot of other composers, too—is usually a gathering of characters with stories to tell. The why-the-characters-are-together has replaced the notion of plot.
Instead of plot, voice is the main attraction. I'm pretty sure that a good deal of my enjoyment of this novel came from hearing Ashley's voice in my head as I was reading it. His voice is airy, very high in the throat and somewhat scratchy, very laid back. Here's a link to the iconic opening scene of Perfect Lives, which will give you a taste of Ashley's style:
Simenon's Inspector Maigret reads to me like a character with one foot on the crisp, well-lighted terra firma of Holmes and Auguste Dupin and the othe...moreSimenon's Inspector Maigret reads to me like a character with one foot on the crisp, well-lighted terra firma of Holmes and Auguste Dupin and the other foot in the foggy hardboiled netherworld of Philip Marlow and Sam Spade. This novel is one of over seventy Inspector Maigret mysteries that Simenon penned over his hyper-prolfiic career. It is a fairly conventional story, hewing closely to the beats of the traditional sleuth story (a murder occurs, the sleuth gathers information, some of it contradictory and strange, all the while leaving the reader in the dark until the ultimate scene when the inspector lights his pipe and explains away the mystery step by step, pacing the floor like a math professor).
The window dressing, however, has a distinct pre-noir flavor--Maigret does his work in the coffee shops of Paris, smoking and drinking with all manner of strange characters from all walks of life; he wanders the foggy streets around the Seine and encounters more than a few hard luck cases. Such moments provided the most interesting reading in this novel, particularly since I don't much go in for the traditional puzzle-master sleuth stories, and the quality of the puzzle in this novel was a tad underwhelming anyway.(less)
It doesn't seem quite right to shelve this short novel under the mystery category, though it is perhaps a distant cousin of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe...moreIt doesn't seem quite right to shelve this short novel under the mystery category, though it is perhaps a distant cousin of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe novels in the sense that the mystery at the core of the story--in this case, Rhee's missing father--provides the impetus for the protagonist's journey through a dark and occulted world, and the experience of following her through this world is such an intense and fascinating one that it makes the ultimate outcome of the central mystery almost irrelevant. In that sense, Heart of Darkness is a better candidate for this novel's ancestry than anything that came out of noir.
The world Woodrell creates here is a distillation of the Missouri Ozarks slow filtered through prose that oscillates unsteadily between Flanery O'Connor and the Book of Job. The effect of such prose is somewhat similar to stage lighting that casts giant shadows on the background and hides actor's faces in semi-silhouette, which can exaggerate the human form into something monstrous. And Woodrell conjures up a few pretty convincing monsters here, particularly Thump Milton, the Mr. Kurtz of this particular heart of darkness.
But I think what I really got from this novel wasn't the monster story so much as a vivid depiction of a closed and ancient society that exists within but very much apart from maintream society. I had seen the movie before picking up the book, and it's the ancient part of the Ozark culture that surprised me the most in this book, the various digressions in which Rhee recounts the ancestors of her people, and their founding mythology and frontier spirituality. Winter's Bone is at heart, I think, a guided tour through a world that may very well exist within our own, that resembles mainstream society only in the most superficial of ways but which functions by codes and mores that can be quite alien to those of us on the outside.(less)
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject g...moreTomorrow a whisper may destroy you.
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject gives me a sense of confusion I haven't felt since high school algebra classes--but Josephine Tey manages to recast one of the most infamous scandals of of that era as a kind of detective story, and it works remarkably. Once I found out what this novel's schitck was I was ready to bounce, but I'm glad I didn't.
Inspector Grant is laid up in a hospital bed recovering from a bad fall, and a friend brings him a portrait of Richard III. Grant, who doesn't recognize him as Richard III at first and who has a talent for reading faces, at first places him "on the bench" instead of "in the docks", and he is surprised when he learns that it is the face of one of England's most notorious royal murderers.
Because he's bored out of his skull sitting in a hospital bed, he starts to "investigate" further, trying to figure out how his impression of the portrait could have been wrong. Virtually immobile, he is assisted in this by a visiting US scholar, Brent Caradine, and the bulk of the novel consists of dialogue between Grant and Carradine, recounting historical events. For a novel where the main characters sit around and talk about centuries-old events, it manages to be both engaging and suspenseful. Tey gets in a lot of good digs at history and those who write it (history, it turns out, isn't just written by the victors, but by the victor's lackeys), and mints a term, Tonnypandy (in reference to the Tonnypandy Riots) to refer to false events that are provably false that people go on believing are part of actual history anyway.
It's a pretty incredible thing for a mystery novel to work with no on-page murder, corpses, chase scenes, or sex, but the historical intrigue carries the story quite well.(less)
Benjamin Black is the pseudonym for Booker-prize winning author John Banville, and this novel reads very much like a practitioner of high literary fic...moreBenjamin Black is the pseudonym for Booker-prize winning author John Banville, and this novel reads very much like a practitioner of high literary fiction swapped his tweed blazer for a trench coat. And yet Banville does not seem able to match the concomitant gait and attitude of the trench-coat wearing type.
First, there's the dense, mellifluous prose, which was very enjoyable to read on the one hand, but as the action got underway it began to bog the story down. I'm all for delayed gratification and readerly tension, but there were frequent long, rangy paragraphs of scenery description plunked down in the middle of otherwise well-paced and sharp-eared dialogue, and overlong otherwise lovely passages of internality that proved to be distractions from the action. Still, the narrative is written in an elegant and confident free indirect style that constantly reminds you that this Banville guy really knows what he's doing when it comes to putting words down on the page. But the more crime novels I read the more I develop a bias in favor of those slim 200- to 250-page novels that are all story with only minimal scenery.
And then there is the plot, which I will not go into in detail lest I have to hide behind a spoiler alert, save to say that although the story does indeed develop into a pleasing, somewhat tense rolling boil after a while, the central mystery--which is really more of a conspiracy--at the heart of the novel amounts to very little in the end. Indeed, it seems like the most interesting part of the story is set to occur after the novel ends.
Finally, I found myself getting irked at some of the protagonist's characteristics that, had I not recently glutted myself on crime fiction, would perhaps not bother me so much. But when you read a lot of noir, post-noir, and wanna-be-noir fiction, it's hard not to notice an obvious, problematic pattern among protagonists: namely, they are all male, they are loners living alone with no spouse or children, they drink to excess on a daily basis and--most mysterious of all--are frequently objects of sexual desire to attractive women. It's hard not to feel that the entire genre is at root a male wish-fulfillment fantasy, wherein perpetually inebriated man children spend their permanent bachelorhood wading through back alleys and subterranean pool halls in pursuit of the TRUTH, all while fending off the advances of hot women with varying degrees of success and nursing some elusive, oblique man pain.
It's almost as if this particular brand of crime novel is less concerned with the crime than with soothing the fears of aging men by giving them a hero just like them, but who can still pick up women and solve crime while drinking to intervention-levels of excess on a daily basis. Now that I write that, I wonder just why it is that I've been reading so many of these books lately. But anyway....
I raise this all because Quirke, the sardonic scamp occupying the lead role of this novel, checks all these boxes: lone wolf alcoholic, develops an unhealthy involvement in a case for no clear reason beyond a sense of righteousness and because of some passing resonance to an old personal tragedy that pains him to this day. Quirke is pretty textbook in this regard. And despite the competence with which Banville/Black render his character--or perhaps because Quirke is drawn so well--these stereotypical noir hero vices seem to limit his character in important ways. It was hard not to feel that a dogmatic adherence to the noir prototype kept Quirke confined to the purgatory of two dimensional protagonists throughout this novel, much to his--and the novel's--detriment.(less)