Jay Gatsby, you poor doomed bastard. You were ahead of your time. If you would have pulled your scam after the invention of reality TV, you would have...moreJay Gatsby, you poor doomed bastard. You were ahead of your time. If you would have pulled your scam after the invention of reality TV, you would have been a huge star on a show like The Bachelor and a dozen shameless Daisy-types would have thrown themselves at you.
Mass media and modern fame would have embraced the way you tried to push your way into a social circle you didn’t belong to in an effort to fulfill a fool’s dream as your entire existence became a lie and you desperately sought to rewrite history to an ending you wanted. You had a talent for it, Jay, but a modern PR expert would have made you bigger than Kate Gosselin. Your knack for self-promotion and over the top displays of wealth to try and buy respectability would have fit right in these days. I can just about see you on a red carpet with Paris Hilton.
And the ending would have been different. No aftermath for rich folks these days. Lawyers and pay-off money would have quietly settled the matter. No harm, no foul. But then you’d have realized how worthless Daisy really was at some point. I’m sure you couldn’t have dealt with that. So maybe it is better that your story happened in the Jazz Age where you could keep your illusions intact to the bitter end.
The greatest American novel? I don’t know if there is such an animal. But I think you'd have to include this one in the conversation.(less)
James Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like t...moreJames Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like the idea that I’ve been personally mock-insulted by one of my favorite authors. This is his best novel, and my love for it is pretty much unconditional.
As proof of my devotion: My internet alias is from a character in it, and I’ve got an autographed copy of it sitting on my shelf along with an signed copy of the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand. The trilogy completes with the release of Blood's A Rover next week so I’m going back through the first two books, and it’d been a few years since I’d read American Tabloid. It was even better than I remembered.
This is Ellroy’s freaky take on American history from the late ‘50s through the JFK assassination, and it features Jack and Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s got the Mafia and the CIA, Cuba and Cuban exiles, the 1960 presidential election, the Bay of Pigs, the civil rights movement, and some heroin trade, just for laughs.
Ellroy uses one of his unholy main character trinities of Bad White Men doing Bad Things, but instead of limiting the action to post-war Los Angeles like he did with the LA Quartet of crime stories, he uses his three fictional characters chasing their own twisted obsessions and ambitions to probe the darker moments of a particularly juicy slice of American history.
Kemper Boyd is ex-FBI, who begins spying on the Kennedy’s for J. Edgar Hoover, and ends up devoted to Jack, even as he is moonlighting for both the CIA and the Mafia. He wants all his masters to unite in a play to oust Castro so that his behind-the-scenes schemes will make him wealthy enough to be just like a Kennedy, but he has to make sure to keep his loyalties compartmentalized.
Ward Littell is Kemper’s former partner and friend, and is still with the FBI. He hates the Mob and wants nothing more to go to work for Bobby Kennedy to get away from J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with persecuting harmless leftist groups. Even though he’s considered weak and cowardly, he shocks himself and everyone around him with the lengths he goes to fulfill his dream of being a Mob buster for RFK.
Big Pete Bondurant is a former LA cop and works as a criminal handyman for Howard Hughes. He runs blackmail divorce shakedowns and does the odd contract killing for the likes of Jimmy Hoffa in his spare time. Once arrested by Kemper and Ward, he likes Kemper’s style but hates Ward with a passion. Pete thinks he can ride shotgun to history by becoming Kemper’s partner in his various Cuban schemes, and he likes the sound of that rather than being Howard Hughes’s errand boy.
As all three of these men scheme and plot and commit horrible crimes to become more like the powerful men they are beholden to, they keep rubbing up against big events and desperately try to shape them to their will. What they all find out the hard way is that the people they’re dealing with didn’t become who they are by getting fooled by the men they regard as useful but inferior.
One of the things I absolutely love is Ellroy’s complete lack of buy-in to the JFK/Camelot bullshit. The myth goes that JFK was a glorious leader who was cut down because he stood up to the Bad Men in the country who wanted to take us into Vietnam. (An odd story considering that JFK is the one who started committing troops to Vietnam.) Ellroy brilliantly points out that the reality is that JFK was the son of a rich and corrupt man, and in one of the weirdest twists every, probably owed his presidency to the very people that he then let his zealot brother prosecute. (In all likelihood, the Mafia helped JFK take Illinois because of promises from guys like Frank Sinatra that JFK was reasonable.) RFK hated the Mob but turned a blind eye to the CIA recruiting Mafia contacts for trying to kill Fidel Casto. The Cuban exiles felt terribly betrayed when not only did JFK not fully commit to the Bay of Pigs invasion, he turned on them in the aftermath by having the Feds bust their training camps in the South.
If you believe in a conspiracy about JFK’s death, Ellroy points out that the guy might have brought it on himself by betraying so many people. And if there was a conspiracy, it probably wasn’t some Oliver Stone paranoid fantasy about some all-powerful military-industrial complex, it was probably a group of these type of guys, motivated by general JFK hatred that knew that all the embarrassing entanglements of JFK’s legacy would keep a real investigation from ever being done. (I personally don’t think there was a conspiracy, but JFK surely pissed off a lot of dangerous people by having his cake and eating it too and it makes for a great story.)
This is Ellroy at his best. Fully in control of his crazy staccato-brilliant-writer-with-ADD- style, and wildly spinning plots and counter plots with over the top violence and history as the backdrop.
Fair warning for those who haven’t read, there’s a lot of ethnic slurs in Ellroy’s work and he’s taken some heat for this over the years. He defends this by pointing out that he’s writing about evil white guys doing horrible things 50 years ago. They wouldn’t have been politically correct. He’s got a point, but it is pretty jarring reading in this day and age.
You know what’s really scary? Getting sick while you’re reading the first part of The Stand. Just try running a fever, going through a box of tissues...moreYou know what’s really scary? Getting sick while you’re reading the first part of The Stand. Just try running a fever, going through a box of tissues and guzzling the better part of a bottle of Theraflu while Stephen King describes the grisly deaths of almost every one on Earth from a superflu. On top of feeling like crap, you'll be terrified. Bonus!
After a bio-engineered virus that acts like a revved up cold escapes from a U.S. government lab, it takes only weeks for almost all of humanity to succumb to the disease. A handful of survivors are mysteriously immune and begin having strange dreams, some of which are about a very old woman called Mother Abigail asking them to come see her. More disturbing are nightmares about a mysterious figure named Randall Flagg also known as the Dark Man or the Walkin’ Dude.
As they being making their way through an America almost entirely devoid of people, the survivors begin to unite and realize that the flu was just the beginning of their problems. While some are drawn to the saintly Mother Abigail in Boulder Colorado who tells them that they have been chosen by God, others have flocked to Flagg in Las Vegas who is determined to annihilate all those who refuse to pledge their allegiance to him.
If King would have just written a book about a world destroyed by plague and a small number of people struggling in the aftermath, it probably would have been a compelling story. What sets this one apart is the supernatural element. Flagg is the embodiment of evil and chaos. He's a mysterious figure who has been giving the wrong people the push needed for them to make things worse for everyone, and he sees the plague as his chance to fulfill his own destiny as a wrecker of humanity.
And on the other side, we have God. Yep, that God. The Big Cheese himself. But this isn’t some kindly figure in a white robe with a white beard or George Burns or Morgan Freeman. This is the Old Testament God who demands obedience and worship while usually rewarding his most faithful servants with gruesome deaths.
King calls this a tale of dark Christianity in his forward, and one of the things I love about this book is that it does feel like a Biblical story, complete with contradictions and a moves-mysterious-ways factor. Stories don’t get much more epic than this, and King does a great job of depicting the meltdown of the world through the stories of a variety of relateable characters. (Larry Underwood remains among my favorite King creations.)
One of my few complaints is that this features a lot of King’s anti-technology themes that he’d use in several books like Cell or The Dark Tower series. We’re told repeatedly that the ‘old ways’ like trying to get the power back on in Boulder are a ‘death trip’. The good guys gather in the Rocky Mountains, but if they try to get the juice going so they won’t freeze to death in the winter, they’re somehow acting in defiance of God’s will and returning to the bad habits? Not all tech is bad tech, Mr. King. Nature is a bitch and will kill your ass quicker than the superflu.
Here’s another thing I’m not wild about. When this was published in the late ‘70s, the bean counters at King’s publishers had decided that the book as written would be too pricey in hardback and no one would pay a whopping $13 for a Stephen King hardback. So King cut about three hundred pages.
Around 1990 after it had become apparent that King could publish his shopping list as a best seller, he put those pages back in and released the uncut version. Which I’m fine with. The original stuff was cut for a financial reason, not an editorial one, and there’s some very nice bits of story added in. If King would have stopped there, we would have had a great definitive final version as originally created by the author.
Unfortunately, he seemed to catch a case of Lucasitis and decided to update the story a bit and change its original time frame from 1980 to 1990. I’m not sure why that seemed necessary to him. Yes, the book was a bit dated by then, but it was of its time. He didn’t rewrite the text (Which I’m grateful for.), but just stuck in some references to Madonna and Ronald Reagan and Spuds McKenzie.
This led to a whole bunch of anachronisms. Would students in 1990 call soldiers ’war pigs’? Someone in New York picks up a phone book to look up the number to call an ambulance instead of dialing 911? A song called Baby, Can You Dig Your Man is a huge hit? None of it quite fits together. There's also a layer of male chauvinism and lack of diversity that you can overlook in a book written in the late '70s, but seems out of place for a book set and updated for 1990.
The things that irritate me are still far outweighed by one of my favorite stories of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil.
I’m also glad to get a long overdue audio edition of this book. Great narration and 40+ hours of end of the world horror make for a damn fine listening experience.(less)
*sniff* Oh, you surprised me. Is it time for the review? Just a second. What? Crying? Me? Don’t be ridiculous. I was just ….uh…chopping some onions….....more*sniff* Oh, you surprised me. Is it time for the review? Just a second. What? Crying? Me? Don’t be ridiculous. I was just ….uh…chopping some onions…..and I’ve got a cold….then somebody broke into my kitchen and pepper sprayed me….I certainly wouldn’t be shedding a few manly tears over a Stephen King novel, would I? Oh, fine. You spend almost twenty years reading this series and tell me you got through the conclusion without a lump in your throat. Liar.
Roland and his posse of gunslingers have to wrap up their business on Earth so they can get back to Mid-World. In our world, they’ll have to safeguard the rose in New York by founding a corporation dedicated to its protection, some of them will have to battle a very nasty nest of vampires and low men, and Susannah has to give birth to something that is supposed to be the end of all of them. The ones who can make it back to Mid-World will have to launch a desperate attack against overwhelming odds to stop the Crimson King’s breakers from destroying one of the last Beams holding the Tower and all of reality in place, and if they survive that, there’s a Very Important Person who still needs saving.
The Dark Tower series was written in fits and starts by King from the time he was in college to wrapping up the whole thing in a three book burst following his close encounter with a minivan. He didn’t always know where it was going, he littered many of his other books with DT tie-in stories, and he famously claimed for years not to know how it would end. So the series as whole isn’t the most tightly plotted thing you’ll ever read, and at the end King focused on delivering on the emotional journey rather than trying to wrap up every loose end he had hanging out there.
He chose wisely.
I consider this King’s flawed masterpiece. Some have focused on the ‘flawed’ part of that. I chose to dwell on the ‘masterpiece’ side of the equation. I’ll go a little more in depth on that in this spoiler section, but for any newbies not reading that, I’ll just say that all the years waiting between books turned out to be worth it.
The biggest let down to me in this was that the whole Modred thing was so anti-climatic. His birth was a huge focus in the final three books, yet in the end all he managed to do was send poor Oy to a grisly death.
In fact, there’s precious little satisfaction to be found in any the endings of the major villains. Modred was dying of food poisoning anyhow. Oy spoils his attack and Roland dispatches him with ease. The Crimson King is just crazy old man on a balcony throwing bombs around, and he gets taken out by a pencil eraser wielded by a kid with no tongue.
Maybe worst of all was the ending of Randall Flagg a/k/a Walter a/k/a Martin. This one was especially galling because not only had he been Roland’s nemesis, he’d been a boogeyman in King’s books for years. Yet he gets eaten by Modred the baby. That sucked.
I’m still not sure about King writing himself into the story either. I don’t think he did it out of ego because he made himself look pretty awful overall, but at some point after his accident, I think he couldn’t separate what he’d gone through from the story it inspired him to finally finish. It didn’t ruin the series for me, but I kind of wish he’d come up with something else.
Having gotten that out of my system, let’s proceed to:
I loved the whole concept of the Tet Corporation, and I continue to hope that someday King will give us a book detailing its war against N. Central Positronics and Sombra. I could have read several more chapters regarding that piece.
The character deaths were incredibly well done and still painful the third time through this. We’ve known since Roland let Jake fall into the abyss in The Gunslinger that this quest to find the Dark Tower would cost Roland dearly, but I was not prepared for how high the price turned out to be.
Which brings us to my favorite part, the ending. The idea that Roland has been stuck in an endless cycle of climbing the Tower only to find himself back at the beginning of the series seems kind of obvious in retrospect, but caught me completely by surprise. As King noted in the afterword, it’s not a happy ending, but it’s the right ending. I agree with that. Roland’s ultimate damanation wasn’t that he sacrificed his friends to get to the Tower, it’s that he risked the Tower again by pressing on to satisfy his own obsession to see it after it had already been saved that puts him in his own personal hell.
I also like how that sneaky bastard King made us all complicit with Roland’s fate. By offering us the chance to opt out and leave the book knowing that Roland reached the Tower and that Susannah was reunited with Eddie and Jake in another version of New York, King made us all Roland by proxy. We couldn’t resist. We had to know what was in the Tower. And when we find out, we all share Roland’s fate of going back to the beginning. (hide spoiler)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Someday I’m going to get around to putting together my list of the greatest mystery/crime novels I’ve read. When I do, this one is going to be very ne...moreSomeday I’m going to get around to putting together my list of the greatest mystery/crime novels I’ve read. When I do, this one is going to be very near the top.
Matt Scudder is still working as an unlicensed private detective, and he is approached by an upscale prostitute named Kim. She wants to quit the business but is nervous about telling her pimp, Chance. Kim hires Matt to break the news to Chance and gauge his reaction to see if he’ll try to keep her working.
After Matt tracks Chance down, he’s surprised to find that the pimp seems reasonable and doesn’t object to Kim leaving. Matt passes the word along to Kim and thinks his work is done. Days later, he’s shocked to learn that Kim has been brutally murdered.
Matt’s also got a personal crisis going on. His drinking has started taking a big toll on his health, and he’s had enough blackouts to finally admit that he’s got a problem. So he is attending AA meetings and trying to stay sober as he tracks Kim’s killer.
From what I’ve read, Lawrence Block was originally going to end the Scudder series here, and it would have been a natural stopping place by the end of the book. Instead, this became the end of the first phase of Matt’s story. The mystery in this one is good as usual, but what makes this one special is Matt’s battle with the bottle.
The usually steady Matt is jittery and on edge. He attends AA meetings and is often fascinated by the stories of others, but won’t talk himself. He’s constantly aware of his craving for booze, but is also always trying to rationalize that it’s not that big of a deal.
It’s not helping that this was written during the early ‘80s when random murders in New York were reaching record levels. Matt compulsively reads the newspapers and is horrified by the prospect of violent death that seems to lurk around every corner, and his interactions with a cynical cop aren’t doing much for his state of mind.
Block’s depiction of a Matt struggling to come to terms with his alcoholism is one of the best stories about addiction I’ve read, and the backdrop of a decaying New York overrun by crime makes you feel Matt’s desperation. It seems like drinking is the only sane response to the madness he sees all around him, but he’s honest enough to admit that he’s really just trying to find a reason to get drunk. The real mystery in the book isn’t about who killed Kim, it’s whether Matt will ever be able to get sober.(less)
This book wrecked me the first time I read it. It was almost like having post traumatic stress syndrome. I found myself st...moreAnd then depression set in….
This book wrecked me the first time I read it. It was almost like having post traumatic stress syndrome. I found myself staring blankly at the walls for days after I finished it the first time. I felt like calling my sister and telling her to keep my young niece locked in the house until she was at least 25. I remember meeting a friend for beers shortly after I finished it, and that he asked me what was wrong. When I tried to explain, he was skeptical. “You’re really this bummed over a book?” And yes, I was that bummed over a book.
Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro have had enough of the crazy-ass violence that has surrounded them for three novels. They still run their detective agency, but they’re strictly doing routine jobs with no chance of anyone getting hurt. They’re also finally relatively happy with their lives.
That changes when they get hired to look for Amanda McCready, a 4 year old girl who has been missing for days. The cops and media are all over it, but Amanda’s aunt and uncle want Patrick and Angie to join the search. The detectives are reluctant, partly because they don’t think that they can do anything that the cops aren’t doing already, and partly because neither of them is anxious to sign on for what is almost surely going to be a case that ends badly. However, the aunt’s desperate request for help gets the better of them. By the end of it all, they’ll really wish they would have just gone on vacation.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Kemper, you dumb bastard. You read a book about a child abduction by Dennis Lehane, a guy you knew wasn’t exactly Mr. Giggles. Were you really expecting a happy ending?”
Yes, I knew it was probably going to be a depressing story, but while I had braced myself for all kinds of terrible things happening to kids (and terrible things do happen), I wasn’t ready for the more banal cruelty and neglect that Lehane sprinkled the book with in regards to how some people treat their children.
Amanda’s mother, Helene, is a barfly and small-time doper who doesn’t do anything really bad enough to technically qualify as abuse, but Amanda was usually left to entertain herself in front of the TV. It’s the tiny details that are heartbreaking like when Patrick checks out Amanda’s room and finds a mattress on the floor, few toys, and no books of any kind, not even coloring books. Or when they talk to the people on Amanda’s t-ball team and everyone notes how she’s the quietest kid around who acts like she’s used to being ignored. You’d have to be one cold bastard not to be saddened by it.
This is one of the best crime novels I’ve read. Maybe even the best. But you won’t be skipping down the street and whistling any time soon after you read it.
**A Few Thoughts on the Movie Version**
I was not a fan of Ben Affleck. I thought he was a complete goober, and that Matt Damon must have wrote most of Good Will Hunting because I couldn’t imagine that Ben could read, let alone write anything. When I heard that he was going to be one of the people writing the adapted screenplay and directing the movie version of one of my favorite books, they probably heard my screams of outrage in Hollywood. When he cast his brother Casey as Patrick, I exhausted my extensive vocabulary of profanity and swore I’d never see the movie.
Wow. I was definitely wrong on that one. The movie version is not only one of the best crime novel adaptations I’ve seen, it’s just an incredibly good movie, period. (And Ben Affleck’s recent adaptation of another book The Town is also a very good flick so the guy has some very real skills.)
What surprised me most is that Affleck made a couple of very smart changes from the book to the movie. He revised Patrick and Angie from veteran smart-ass gun fighting private detectives to a couple of kids who mostly track down people skipping out on bills. That allowed him to introduce the audience to them, and really gave weight to the idea that these were two characters in way over their heads.
Affleck also tightened up the story to the point that I’d almost call it an improvement over the book’s plot. That’s incredibly rare. My only complaints are that Angie didn’t come across as Angie-like in the film version (although she still gets one of her best Big Damn Hero moments in the film), and that Bubba has a much smaller role. Plus, Bubba is portrayed more as just a bad-ass street guy rather than the one-man army he is in the book, but again, it works perfectly with the way Affleck chose to tell the story.
Now that he’s adapted two crime novels into top-notch movies, I’m ready to start my own chapter of the Ben Affleck fan club. Just as long as he doesn’t do any more Michael Bay movies. (less)
This is one of my favoritest books ever. In fact, put a gun to my head and tell me to pick just one as my all time fave, it’d be better than even mone...moreThis is one of my favoritest books ever. In fact, put a gun to my head and tell me to pick just one as my all time fave, it’d be better than even money that Lonesome Dove would be the one I’d name.
It has the bonus of not only being an incredible book but of having an excellent companion piece in the television miniseries based on it. That’s one of the great all-time fusions of print and film. I can’t read this without hearing the voices of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Danny Glover, Diane Lane and all the rest in my head.* So every couple of years, I do a rereading of the book and then I break out the DVD of the miniseries and I immerse myself in the perfection that is this story.
* I didn’t know this until I was looking up some stuff on the net for this review, but Lonesome Dove was virtually snubbed at the Emmy Awards. War & Remembrance beat it out for best miniseries. It only managed to take a best director and a few other technical prizes. Worse yet, none of the actors nominated won. It’s a good thing I never got into any bar wagers about this, or I would have bet my house that Robert Duvall won best actor for a miniseries , and when I lost that, I would have bet my car that it had to be Tommy Lee Jones. Nope. Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane and Danny Glover all lost, too.
Hey, Emmy voters of 1990! WTF??
Why do I say the story is perfect? Start with the characters. Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call are two retired Texas Rangers who run a rinky-dink cattle company in a speck of a town called Lonesome Dove on the Texas/Mexico border. Gus and Call couldn’t be more unlikely friends. Call is a dour workaholic who has spent his life trying to be the perfect leader of men while Gus is a good-natured and lazy soul who likes to drink whiskey, play cards and spend time with Lonesome Dove’s beautiful but distant whore, Lorena Wood. Gus also delights in giving Call grief about young Newt, a boy they took in after the death of his mother. Newt’s mom was a whore that Call had visited regularly for a short time, and he’s probably the boy’s father but refuses to acknowledge it.
Their dull routine is broken when their old friend and fellow ex-Ranger Jake Spoon shows up. Jake is looking for a hiding place after accidentally shooting a man in Arkansas, and he fears that the sheriff, July Johnson, will be after him. Jake’s idle remark about having been to Montana and that it’s a cattleman’s paradise for the first men to risk the hostile Indians starts a fever in Call. He wants to be the first to drive a herd to the Montana territory and start a ranch there.
Call soon has started hiring men and stealing Mexican cattle for the drive. Gus says that Call is going to get them all killed just to have another adventure in a wild frontier, but he goes along to see his old sweetheart Clara who is living in Nebraska. Jake has taken up with Lorena and decides to travel along with the herd, much to Gus’s amusement and Call’s aggravation. The large cast of characters carry their hopes, fears and limitations with them out onto the vast plains of the American Midwest, and the drive turns out to be dangerous in ways they couldn’t even imagine.
This book has everything that anyone could want in a story. It’s epic in scale, but relatable through it’s shifting point of view through a variety of vivid characters. There’s intense western action and heart breaking love stories. It’s incredibly profound and amazingly simple. It’s hilarious at times but could reduce the toughest man in the world to tears at some points. And all of this is set during those last moments when America was still half-wild and anyone with the gumption to do so could throw together a herd of cattle and go out into the wilderness to make history or lose their scalp.(less)
There’s a story regarding the movie version of The Big Sleep that I love, and if it isn’t true, it should be. Supposedly, while working on adapting th...moreThere’s a story regarding the movie version of The Big Sleep that I love, and if it isn’t true, it should be. Supposedly, while working on adapting the book the screenwriters (William Faulkner & Leigh Brackett) couldn’t figure out who killed one of the characters. So they called Raymond Chandler, and after thinking about it for a while, Chandler admitted that he’d completely forgotten to identify the killer of this person in the book and had no idea who did it. Since no one complained about the flaw in the book, the movie just repeated it and didn’t bother answering the question either.
And that’s the thing about The Big Sleep. The plot is overly complex, and it’s pretty clear that Chandler was making it up as he went. It’s still a crime classic because Philip Marlowe books weren’t about the plot, they were all about the character and the atmosphere.
Marlowe is hired by wealthy and dying General Sternwood to see what he can do about illegal gambling debts that his daughter Carmen has incurred. The general’s other daughter was married to a bootlegger named Rusty Regan that has disappeared, and the old man was fond of Rusty and misses his company. Everyone that Marlowe deals with assumes that he’s been hired to find Rusty, and the detective is soon caught up in a web of blackmail and several murders.
Chandler’s first book is a classic and would help redefine and reinvent the mystery genre. With Philip Marlowe, the prototype to the small time smart-ass private detective with an unbreakable code of honor would be established and it’s influenced countless fictional detectives since. Chandler’s no-nonsense, razor sharp cynical prose is still a delight to read.(less)
The last ten years have mutated my views on religion. I went from a vague agnostic live-and-let-live attitude to a full blown distrust and dislike of...moreThe last ten years have mutated my views on religion. I went from a vague agnostic live-and-let-live attitude to a full blown distrust and dislike of mass worshipping of mysterious deities. When it wasn’t being used as an excuse to murder people who believed different things, then it was being used to deny basic scientific concepts or prevent consenting adults from marriage based on gender. Overall, I’d become convinced that humanity was far too stupid to use religion as anything but yet another system to justify telling someone else how to live.
So naturally, one of my favorite novels of the last ten years is a funny and touching book about the life of Jesus.
Yeah, it was that kind of decade.
The story is told by Jesus’s best friend, Biff. Actually, Biff quickly explains that Jesus was known as Josh back in the days when they were kids in Nazareth. Biff knows there is something special about Josh from the moment they meet, and he adopts a life-long role of dealing with the practical matters that the naive Josh tends to overlook. When teen-aged Josh decides to track down the wise men who attended his birth to see what they can teach him about how he should become the Messiah, Biff knows he has to go along to protect Josh from an evil world.
Together, they travel across Asia, invent sarcasm, learn alchemy, discover coffee and become kung fu experts as Josh prepares himself to one day return home and fulfill his ultimate destiny.
It’s no surprise that Christopher Moore could write a very funny book about the life of Jesus. What is surprising that he’s able to make it so touching that even a cynical non-believer such as myself could be moved by it. By focusing in on the basic love-thy-neighbor concepts that Josh fiercely preaches, Moore wrote a warm reminder of what Christianity is supposed to be about. (less)
On the surface, Matt Scudder would appear to be something of a lowlife.
As a cop in New York in the 1970s, he wasn’t above taking bribes or framing som...moreOn the surface, Matt Scudder would appear to be something of a lowlife.
As a cop in New York in the 1970s, he wasn’t above taking bribes or framing someone. After he accidentally shot and killed a child while trying to break up a robbery, he quit the cops and left his wife and two sons to live in a hotel in Manhattan. He makes his living as an unlicensed private detective who refuses to keep records or file reports, and he gets information by bribing various cops and government workers. He drinks constantly and occasionally engages the services of prostitutes.
Doesn’t sound like the hero of a long running detective series, does he?
What’s great about Scudder is that while someone could get on their high horse and look down their nose at the way he lives, Matt is actually a deeply moral man who broods about the nature of good and evil while trying to figure out where he fits into that battle. He’s also willing to get his hands dirty while trying to do ‘good’.
In this first book of the series, Matt is hired by a man whose estranged daughter, Wendy, was murdered by a man she was living with. The man was immediately caught while covered in her blood and hung himself in his cell. The father thinks that Wendy had become a prostitute and feels guilty that he hadn’t done more for her so he wants Matt to look into her life and give him a sense of what her last years were like.
You can’t really put a label on this series. It’s not action packed although Matt does show flashes of a violent nature and being able to take care of himself. He isn’t an armchair detective sitting back and thinking about clues and figuring out intricate puzzles, although does have a cop’s nose for lies and inconsistencies. Matt isn’t a wise cracking hard-boiled PI with a strong moral code either. He just roams Manhattan talking to everyone from cops to ministers to gay night club owners to get the info he needs. He’s also a realist who does the best he can, and doesn’t see the point of fighting a system that’s inherently corrupt.
Here’s a great scene illustrating that with Scudder advising a rookie patrolmen who has just tried to refuse the twenty-five bucks Matt offered him for telling him about the arrest of the killer:
“Think about it. If you don’t take money when somebody puts it in your hand, you’re going to make a lot of people very nervous. You don’t have to be a crook. Certain kinds of money you can turn down. And you don’t have to walk the streets with your hand out. But you’ve got to play the game with the cards they give you. Take the money.”
Despite being written in first person, we don’t get much introspection into what Scudder is thinking or feeling other than tidbits like this that Block sprinkles throughout the book. The reader often doesn’t realize how much something has effected Scudder until Block gives us a sign like him suddenly gagging while checking out the murder scene. At one point late in the book, Scudder casually tells someone that he would have killed himself years ago if he didn’t think it was a mortal sin. It’s really only at this point that you realize how deeply guilty and weary Matt really feels. Block does a great job of using that without letting Scudder become an angst-ridden bore.
This is one of my favorite characters, and I can’t wait to re-read the rest of these.(less)
If you took the ultimate manly-man, tough-as-nails, smart-ass private detective and paired him with a no-nonsense feminist lesbian, would you get a hi...moreIf you took the ultimate manly-man, tough-as-nails, smart-ass private detective and paired him with a no-nonsense feminist lesbian, would you get a hilarious new sitcom or a complete disaster? The title of the book should be a clue that it doesn’t go all that well.
Political activist and author Rachel Wallace has a new book coming out that will expose discriminatory practices by several prominent corporations, and she‘s been getting death threats. Rachel chafes at the idea of being surrounded by bodyguards, and will only agree to having a single person at her publisher’s insistence. Enter Spenser.
The idea of hiring a female bodyguard is briefly discussed and dismissed because the publisher demands that if Rachel will only agree to one protector, than they say that it has to be the biggest toughest guy they can find in case he has to ‘wrestle around’ with someone. Naturally, feminist Rachel is extremely unhappy with the set-up even before she meets Spenser.
Spenser is sympathetic towards Rachel’s cause, but he has an innate distrust and dislike of all forms of political activism because zealots tend to put principle ahead of people, and her lack of humor about the subject quickly tests his patience. Rachel, already resentful that she’s had to agree to be protected by a man with a gun, sees Spenser as little more than a thug who lives by an antiquated macho code.
However, after Spenser gets a first hand look at the daily bullshit that Rachel has to contend with to get her message out, and when Rachel realizes that Spenser is more than just a club-wielding cave man, the two start to grudgingly respect each other. Before their relationship can develop much further, there’s an ugly incident during which Spenser can't put his own pride aside to let Rachel do things her way to score some political points. Furious, Rachel fires him.
Spenser realizes that Rachel was right and feels badly about it, but he moves on to other things. A short time later, Rachel is kidnapped and a note is sent to the police indicating that some kind of right wing fringe group has taken her. Feeling responsible, Spenser sets out on a quest to find Rachel Wallace, and he won’t be deterred by right wing racist thugs, rich blue-blood bigots or a blizzard that shuts down Boston.
For my money, the golden age Spenser begins here in one of my favorite Parker novels. While the earlier novels have been very good to this point, this is the first book where all the pieces of ‘classic’ Spenser are in place, and the story is great. The irony that Parker delivers here is terrific and realistic. Rachel is right about Spenser’s macho code getting in the way of him doing his job correctly, but it’s Spenser’s code that makes him so good at his job and drives him so relentlessly to find her. Spenser and Rachel are both right and they’re both wrong at the same time, and it makes for a great theme in a book about an old school private detective.
Hap returns home from working a gig on an oil rig and is promptly attacked by a rabid squirrel. Thanks to crappy insurance and a grumpy doctor, he has...moreHap returns home from working a gig on an oil rig and is promptly attacked by a rabid squirrel. Thanks to crappy insurance and a grumpy doctor, he has to stay in the hospital in order to get his rabies shots paid for. While Hap is left to the mercy of the American healthy care system his best friend Leonard has been having problems with his boyfriend, Raul. Raul has been two-timing him with a biker, and it’s made Leonard so angry that he’s doing crazy things like beating the biker with a broom handle and shooting up bars and motorcycles. When the biker turns up dead and Raul is missing, Leonard is naturally the prime suspect.
But it isn‘t all bad news. Hap has met a hot foul-mouthed red-headed nurse named Brett, and they’ve taken a shine to each other. Once upon a time, Brett dealt with an abusive ex-husband by hitting him in the head with a shovel and setting his hair on fire. Hap may have found true love.
This was the first book by Lansdale I ever read and with the opening chapter that details the squirrel attack on Hap, I laughed so hard that I thought I did myself permanent injury. I knew then that I was going to a Joe Lansdale fan for life, and he hasn’t let me down since. This is probably still my favorite Hap & Leonard novel. Like the others books, it’s obscene, violent, politically incorrect and one of the funniest things you’ll ever read.(less)
Scott Smith’s wrote one of my favorite crime novels with A Simple Plan that released in 1993. Thirteen years later came his second book, The Ruins, wh...moreScott Smith’s wrote one of my favorite crime novels with A Simple Plan that released in 1993. Thirteen years later came his second book, The Ruins, which instantly became one of my favorite horror novels. I’ve got my fingers crossed that sometime later this decade he’ll write another one and maybe it’ll turn out to be the greatest sci-fi epic I’ve ever read.
The concept here is dirt simple. Idiots go somewhere they shouldn’t and bad shit happens. In this particular case four American college students, two boy-girl couples, are on vacation in Mexico where they meet several other tourists from all over the world. A German named Mathis tells them that his brother got smitten with a woman and followed her to an archaeological dig in the jungle, and that he needs to retrieve him before their flight home. The Americans and another Greek fellow decide to join him and set out on an impromptu adventure following a hand drawn map to a remote location.
A bunch of unprepared and ill-equipped tourists wander off into the jungle? What could possibly go wrong?
After they find themselves trapped on a hilltop, the young people struggle against something almost beyond belief as they endure thirst, hunger and injuries and have to consider extreme actions in order to survive.
The sub-title of this book could almost be A Series of Bad Decisions, and that’s one of the aspects that made it unique for me. A lot of horror is based around punishing people for their actions. Frankenstein gets his monster for daring to try to change the natural order. Jason slaughters teenagers for acting like teenagers. In The Ruins there is no single moment of arrogance or failure of character to point out as the thing that bring about the situation. (Although there are plenty of small examples of rotten behavior that make it that much worse.) Rather it’s just the sunny optimism that everything will be OK that puts these kids in a leaky canoe headed up that fabled Shit Creek with no paddles.
Smith does a great job of playing off the human nature of being in a bad spot and then wondering how you got there only to have the sickening realization that you knew for a while that you heading into trouble but you somehow talked yourself into staying the course it with the assumption that everything would work itself out.
The characters themselves are a departure from what you get in most horror novels these days. Yeah, I know some people hated them, and they truly are a pack of insufferable dumb asses for a large part of the book. But I think what some readers really didn’t like about them was that they did act the way most of us would in those circumstances. For example, Jeff tries to play the hero, and while you can empathize with his frustrations with the others, he’s also being a complete douche bag for not acknowledging the bigger picture and the others also act with varying amounts of denial and panic.
What’s interesting is that there are no easy answers as to how they should be behaving. (Serious spoilers here.) (view spoiler)[Jeff’s insistence on amputating Pablo’s legs and trying to convince the others to eat the corpse of another illustrates that you can make a bad situation worse by trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, sitting around and drinking tequila is criminally irresponsible on the part of Amy, Eric and Stacy. (hide spoiler)] So there’s this uncomfortable push-pull between the traditional concept of doing every single desperate thing you can think of to survive versus realizing that you’re fucked and just giving up. That’s the grey zone where this book operates and part of what I found so compelling about it.
I’ve seen some complaints about the nature of the threat, and I’m not sure if that’s still considered a spoiler or not so I’m throwing it under a tag. However, I’m only discussing what they’re facing, not giving up any plot details. (view spoiler)[ OK, so it’s a plant, and I get why some are skeptical of the concept. The mystery probably didn't help that when it first came out because some people were expecting a chupacabra or jungle cannibals or something along those lines so that when the reveal came, the first reaction was “They’re fighting a fucking plant?” I remember being surprised and wary the first time I read this, plus the stuff about it being an intelligent and mimicking sounds did strike me as far-fetched. But is it really any more fantastic than vampires, zombies, werewolves or Texas chainsaw massacres? In the end, the insidious nature of the vines became another major plus of the book for me. (hide spoiler)]
So this one retains its high spot among my personal rankings after reading it a second time. It’s not your typical horror tale, and it’s a gruesome story that shows people behaving poorly in dire circumstances which makes it an uncomfortable read at times. But isn’t that the point? ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
When it comes to Scott B. Smith it’s a good thing we got the quality because the quantity is on the low side with only The Ruins released since this o...moreWhen it comes to Scott B. Smith it’s a good thing we got the quality because the quantity is on the low side with only The Ruins released since this one came out in 1993.
Hank Mitchell is a regular guy living in rural Ohio with his pregnant wife Sarah and a steady job as an accountant at a feed store. He isn’t close to his brother Jacob who is a high school dropout who spends most of his time drunk when not scrounging out a living. One of the few times they interact is their regular New Year’s Eve visit to the graves of their parents. While taking care of this annual obligation they’re going to drop off Jacob’s drinking buddy Lou before heading to the cemetery when a freak accident leads the three men to the discovery of a small plane that has crashed in the snowy woods. Along with a dead pilot they find a bag with over four million dollars in it.
Hank’s first instinct is to turn in the money to the cops, but Lou and Jacob want to keep it. Tempted but worried that the two men will do something stupid to draw attention to them, Hank will only agree if he holds the cash until the plane is eventually discovered once the snow melts. If no one is looking for the money after the plane is found, they’ll split it up and go their separate ways.
Anybody think this is going to end well?
This is one of my favorite crime novels and a prime example of what I consider to be noir. What starts as the kind of decision that many (Most?) people would make is the first step towards suspicion and betrayal that finds Hank constantly reevaluating his relationship with his estranged brother. That’s about all I want to reveal to anyone who hasn’t read it, but if you like dark stories about the lengths seemingly ordinary people will go to when they see a chance to change their lives, give this one a try.
It was also turned into a very good movie adaptation with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton that has significant plot differences that make it a surprising watch even if you’ve read the book.
• This and No Country For Old Men make the point that if you find a bag of money and want to keep it that you should never never never go back to the place where you found it.
• I’ve always thought it was effectively creepy how the pregnant Sarah becomes Hank’s Lady Macbeth, but they make the amateur criminal mistake of being just a little too cute with their crimes. Sarah’s idea of returning some money to the plane is clever, but returning to it causes the first murder. Killing Sonny as part of the stage setting for the murders of Lou and Nancy was completely unnecessary. The cops would have no trouble believing that a guy like Lou could shotgun his girlfriend in a drunken rage for any trivial reason. Trying to make it look like Sonny and Nancy were having an affair was an unnecessary risk that could have easily backfired.
• Speaking of that shotgun murder spree, I’ve read this three or four times, but I just realized that Smith made some critical errors with Hank's actions that should have got him caught. First, Hank called Sarah after Lou and Nancy were dead, and she comes up with the plan about involving Sonny. The story is that they dropped off Lou and were leaving when they heard the shooting. If the cops pulled the phone records (Which seems likely at the house of a quadruple murder.) they’d see that call to Sarah and have a good idea that Hank was lying. Also, gunshot residue tests that would be routinely administered in a situation like that would show that Lou hadn’t fired a gun but that Hank had been emptying a shotgun.
• I’d forgotten the part about Jacob’s dog. Hank really shows that he’s kind of an uncaring son-of-a-bitch under this regular fella persona when he leaves the poor animal alone in a garage nights and ties it to a tree during the day where it has nothing to do but sit in the cold and mud. He never considers that it’s not Jacob’s death but his own treatment that makes the dog mean, or of trying to find another home for it. The way he botched the shooting of it is also the most painful scene in the book for me. Yeah, I’m one of those people who can read about or watch a thousand people getting brutally murdered without batting an eye, but even fictional cruelty to animals makes me sick. (hide spoiler)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
When we meet Parker, we don’t know much about him. He’s just a guy with shabby clothes and a bad attitude walking across the George Washington Bridge...moreWhen we meet Parker, we don’t know much about him. He’s just a guy with shabby clothes and a bad attitude walking across the George Washington Bridge into New York without a dime to his name. Within hours of arriving in Manhattan, Parker has used an early ’60s form of identity theft to fill his wallet and set himself up quite nicely. Clearly, this is a resourceful guy. As we quickly learn in The Hunter, he’s also a guy that you do not want to double-cross.
A professional thief, Parker was betrayed, robbed and left for dead by one of his partners, Mal Resnick, who turned Parker’s wife against him. Mal used the money he took from Parker to pay off a debt he owed to the Outfit, and now he’s got good connections to the mob in New York. Parker doesn’t care who got the money or who Mal knows, he just wants to satisfy his grudges.
It’d been a while since I’d read any of the early Parker novels, and I was a little worried about how they’d hold up. Thankfully, they‘ve aged with style. With Parker, we’d get the prototype to the anti-hero professional thief, and there are countless fictional characters that owe a debt to him.
Since this initial book has Parker seeking revenge for a very personal double-cross, he’s more angry than he’d be for most of the series, but he’d always have that blunt and no-nonsense nature. On some levels, Parker seems completely amoral, but he’s a ruthless pragmatist, not a psychopath. He doesn't hurt anyone unless it's necessary, but if he needs to kill someone to get away with the loot, he doesn't hesitate for a second.
I read somewhere once that when asked why he used the Richard Stark pen name for these novels, that Westlake replied that he wrote his funny comic capers as himself on sunny days but that on rainy days he wrote as Stark. Fortunately for crime fans, Westlake must have had a lot of rainy days.
And a big Thank You to the University of Chicago press for reprinting the hard-to-find early Parker books in these gorgeous trade paperbacks. (less)
Wanted: Middle management for the oversight of an assembly line in an industrial paper factory. College degree and experience a must. Homicidal maniac...moreWanted: Middle management for the oversight of an assembly line in an industrial paper factory. College degree and experience a must. Homicidal maniacs welcome to apply.
Burke Devore was a typical middle-aged guy with a steady job, a wife and two college aged kids. However, when he gets laid off, he spends two years looking for new employment and realizes that there are far too many people with more education and experience looking for similar work.
After Burke reads an article in a trade journal about a factory doing the kind of work he specialized in along with an interview of a manager there, he realizes that it’s exactly the kind of job he’s suited for. Broke and desperate, Burke comes up with a unique solution. He’ll kill the manager and apply for his job. But with so many unemployed in his industry, there’s bound to be a better candidate. So Burke places a phony ad in a trade journal, collects the resumes of the people who would apply for the job, selects the ones who would be the most competition and sets out to eliminate the six people he’s identified. Burke knows it will take a terrible toll on him, but he’s determined to get that job.
The late Donald Westlake wrote this in 1997, but his publishers really missed an opportunity during the last economic bust to reissue this book with great fanfare because it’s even more poignant now.
I’ve noted before that I’m amazed at how Westlake was always able to shift gears between his comic writing in books like his Dortmunder series and the hard boiled Parker crime novels he wrote as Richard Stark. This is another facet of his writing. The concept seems almost darkly funny at first, and this could have been played for black humor easily.
But Westlake wrote a taunt and tragic tale of an ordinary guy committing horrific crimes, and he makes the point that it’s more than just economics driving Burke. His identity is wrapped up in his job, and he has come to conclusion that he’s acting in self-defense to preserve himself and his family. I also liked how Westlake portrayed Burke going through various kinds of emotions related to his murders. Sometimes he’s overwhelmed with guilt. Sometimes he gets incredibly angry at the people in his way. Sometimes he has nothing but contempt for his victims for not being as willing as he is to do what it takes.
The whole book is pretty chilling, and Burke comes across as a character that you’ll both sympathize with and fear. (less)
My copy of this was a paperback that I had picked up somewhere in my high school years. It was printed in the ‘50s and cost 60 cents per the cover pri...moreMy copy of this was a paperback that I had picked up somewhere in my high school years. It was printed in the ‘50s and cost 60 cents per the cover price. The pages were yellowed and an old dog of mine (dead 20 years now) chewed on a corner of it at one point, and his teeth marks are still on it. But I held onto that copy over the years through multiple changes of residence and numerous paperback dumps to used book stores and library donations. When I was trying to organize some of my stuff packed away in the basement, I found my battered old copy and felt the immediate need to read it again.
But I also decided to invest in a better edition. Frankly, I was scared the old one would fall apart, but I’ve carefully packed away that copy again. I’m thinking about putting it in my will that I should be buried with it. That gives you an idea of how highly I regard this book.
My new copy says on the cover that it’s the greatest war novel of all time. I’m not going to argue about that statement. I’ve often thought that this book should be required reading for any politician with the power to declare war. Only a madman or Dick Cheney could send troops into combat after reading this.
Paul is a 19 year old German soldier in World War I. Living though artillery shellings, gas attacks, trench warfare and seeing a generation of men blown to bits has made Paul old before his time. He has a soldier’s profound weariness and cynicism. Some of the more heartbreaking parts of this are when Paul and his fellow soldiers realize that they’ve been changed far too much to ever care about anything but survival again. Paul and the other soldiers try to find small comforts where they can since there’s almost no chance they’ll survive the war unscathed.
On the very short list of books that I think everyone should read at least once.
Trivial Side Note or No, I Don’t Work for the Kansas City Tourism Board
The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is something I recommend to anybody who likes this book, or has any interest at all in these types of things. (My wife is usually not interested in war stories or memorabilia at all, but she found this museum fascinating.) It’s got tons of actual equipment from the war, interactive multi-media displays, and some truly eye-opening exhibits.
For example, there’s one room you walk into that is a recreation of what it looked like when a large shell hit a French farm house from the basement perspective. So you walk in and it feels like you’re in a giant crater with house debris above you. There are also recreations of the trenches and one battlefield set done below a wide screen documentary playing that gives a vivid and eerie feeling of what a hellish landscape was created by the war.