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. And this is his greatest novel. I love this freaking book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. My internet alias is from a character in it. I’ve got an autographed copy of it sitting on my shelf along with an autographed 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 L.A. 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 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.
American Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren't...moreAmerican Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren't trying to make history, they're just trying to survive it.
American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite books. The second part of this trilogy has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. I read both again to prep for the release of the final book, Blood's A Rover. With that one sitting here, just waiting for me to start reading, I'm feeling a bit more charitable to this one now.
I judged it harshly because after the mind blowing brilliance of American Tabloid's fictional re-telling of the JFK years from the perspective of a cop/criminal trio of Ellroy patented Bad White Men, anything was going to seem like a let down. Ellroy's crazy fragmented writing style works brilliantly when he keeps it on a leash like he did in L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid, but when it gets away from him, it slips into near self-parody, as I think it did in White Jazz. He comes dangerously close to that in this one, too.
And while American Tabloid felt like an epic re-telling of American history during the JFK era, The Cold Six Thousand has always had a slightly grungier and grimmer tone. That's understandable since American Tabloid mirrored the JFK administration. Even the guys trying to scam and steal their way to greatness felt like they were making history as they did it.
Here, with the fallout of the JFK assassination plot hanging over everything and coloring all the characters with varying degrees of paranoia and guilt, the schemes feel small-time and cheap, no matter how much money is involved or how grand the plot.
Howard Hughes wants to buy every casino in Vegas, and the Mob is selling, provided they keep their own people in place to run their skim operations and steal crazy Howard blind. Vietnam is ramping up and everyone in the book sees it as a business opportunity to start large scale heroin smuggling operations to fund their own pet causes.
An aging J. Edgar Hoover is obsessed with bringing down Martin Luther King Jr. for having the nerve to demand equal rights. All the players are worried about what Bobby Kennedy actually thinks about his brother's death and what he plans to do about it. Loose threads to the JFK plot are getting ruthlessly snipped and the only way to stay alive is to stay useful to the men in power which means that even the worst of them are being told to do things that push them to their limits and beyond.
Adding to the grimmer tone of this one is the new guy, Wayne Tedrow Jr. He starts out as a relatively clean Vegas cop being pushed towards contract murder by his rich asshole father, who wants him to join the family business of peddling hate against anyone but white Americans. When Wayne is given cause to start hating too, it makes him one of Ellroy's most uncomfortable characters to read about.
Wayne isn't an ignorant racist just hating for hate's own sake. He knows it's evil and wrong, but he's so committed to it that he practically creates his own purer form of racism that's scarier than the worst redneck rants. And he's one of the main characters so spending several hundred pages in his head isn't exactly a joy ride.
But reading this one now, after some time has gone by after my initial disappointment, I think I've gotten a better idea of what Ellroy was going for. Here's hoping that he can finish off the '60s and wrap this up in style.(less)
Stephen King once wrote some books under the pen name Richard Bachman, but the gag was blown by a book store clerk in 1985. In The Dark Half, a writer...moreStephen King once wrote some books under the pen name Richard Bachman, but the gag was blown by a book store clerk in 1985. In The Dark Half, a writer using a pen name is exposed and a murderous rampage occurs as a result with numerous victims getting killed in a variety of gruesome ways, including one guy getting beaten to death with his own prosthetic arm. Uh…Mr. King? I can assure you that I have no interest at all in revealing any secret of yours that I may accidently come across someday. I promise.
Thad Beaumont is a college professor and writer with a wife and baby twins. Thad writes very serious literature and was a National Book Award nominee for his first novel. Unfortunately, he never really found commercial success and got a fat case of writer’s block along the way. So Thad comes up with the pen name, George Stark, and starts writing gory crime novels and those books all become popular best sellers. Part of the Stark mystique is the elaborate history Thad devises for him with George sharing a lot of characteristics with the ruthless killer who is the star of the books.
When someone threatens to blow the whistle about who Stark really is, Thad beats them to the punch by going public and declaring that he’s tired of George Stark and will no longer write the crime novels. However, a lot of people connected with ending the Stark name start getting killed. And how can Thad’s fingerprints be all over the crime scenes even though he was hundreds of miles away? Apparently George Stark is a little more real than Thad thought. And he’s very pissed off.
If you ever get into discussions about King’s books with his fans, The Dark Half doesn’t get mentioned a lot, and that’s a shame because I think it’s one of his most underrated books. It’s obvious that the idea was inspired by King’s own use of a pen name, and it’s one of the first books that King really started digging into the idea of what it means to write and create something. Those are themes he’d come to explore a lot more in later years, but when Thad asks himself, “Who am I when I write?”, you can feel King pondering that question himself.
This feels a little bit different from some other King books because it's a hybrid of crime and horror. As always with King, he starts throwing in more detail than he needs to, and it probably would have been a better book if he trimmed a hundred pages. I still think it’s one of his better efforts and that Stark is one of his scarier villains.
I also have a soft spot for this one because it led me to another writer who became one of my favorites. During the story, while Thad is giving an interview about how he came up with George Stark, he mentions being inspired by Donald Westlake using Richard Stark as a pen name for his Parker crime novels. I’d never even heard of Westlake back then in those caveman days before the internet or Amazon, but I thought he sounded interesting so I eventually tracked some of his books down and have been a fan since.
Not as good as The Stand or Salem’s Lot or The Dead Zone, but a helluva lot better than Rose Madder or Desperation, this is one that I think should get more attention from King fans. (less)
Keller's a pretty normal guy. He does crosswords, loves dogs, collects stamps and buys earrings for his girlfriend every time he travels. And he trave...moreKeller's a pretty normal guy. He does crosswords, loves dogs, collects stamps and buys earrings for his girlfriend every time he travels. And he travels a lot since his job is killing people.
Block did a great job with this string of short stories about Keller that build a character study about a professional hit man who often finds himself dealing with odd circumstances despite his desire to just do the job and get out of town. Keller isn't a psycho, but he isn't exactly wracked with guilt either.
Keller's also got a tendency to get a bit lost in his own imagination as he does his job, and Block uses these to add some themes to the stories. For example, after reading a paperback western on the plane to a Wyoming town to kill a guy, Keller spends the rest of the trip thinking of himself as the heroic drifter in a western movie who's blown into town.
It's Keller's idle musings that make these stories different from other hired killer books. Keller's mind will wander, but at some point his pragmatic streak kicks in and he'll focus on just getting the job done. Too bad for his targets that he's really good at it.(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)
Keller is a creature of habit. He leads a low-key New York lifestyle and his idea of a good time is collecting stamps. Even his job as a hit man has a...moreKeller is a creature of habit. He leads a low-key New York lifestyle and his idea of a good time is collecting stamps. Even his job as a hit man has a certain routine. He gets a job, he flies somewhere, he kills someone, and he flies home.
But weird disruptions are happening to Keller in this second book in the series. A trip to Louisville with complications leaves him out of sorts. Odd events on a couple of other jobs don’t help matters. An offhand comment from a woman he’s seeing leaves him wondering if he was destined to be a killer, and leads him to consult an astrologist. Keller even has to deal with jury duty. And he’s starting to realize that he may be in a rival’s crosshairs.
Block has done a great job of turning a hired killer into a sympathetic character and while Keller’s story is serious, there’s also an undercurrent of absurd black humor. I read these books not just for the plots about how Keller carries out his work but for Keller’s idle musings about certain aspects of everyday life and his conversations with Dot, the woman who books his contracts.
I wish you could add sound effects to books because it would have been cool if the flashback noise from Lost would have played when I started reading...moreI wish you could add sound effects to books because it would have been cool if the flashback noise from Lost would have played when I started reading this.
According to Lawrence Block lore, he originally planned to end the Scudder series with the last book, Eight Million Ways to Die, and it certainly would have made a good stopping point. But Block owed a Scudder story so he wrote a short version of this that he liked it so much he expanded it to a book. Then he liked the book so much he decided to write more Scudder novels, and I am very glad he changed his mind about continuing Matt‘s story.
The book opens with Matt having cocktails with some drinking buddies at an after hours club. Two men come in and rob the place at gunpoint. No one is hurt and Matt and his pals shrug it off as just another night in New York. But those who read the last book will find the beginning a bit jarring because Matt was struggling mightily to get sober so it’s shocking to read about him casually boozing it up again.
What we learn in the second chapter is that Matt is telling us this story as something that happened years before during a summer in the mid-1970s long before he tried to quit drinking. This chapter is some of my favorite writing by Block because it consists of Matt reminiscing about what was going on in New York and what he was doing at the time. It’s an elegant bit of stage setting that makes you feel like you’re there in Manhattan circa 1975.
The robbery of the after hours joint seems to kick off a series of random crimes involving the people who were drinking with Matt. The owners of the club are two IRA connected brothers who want to find the gunmen with no cops and they offer a ten thousand dollar reward for anyone who can tell them who did it. Matt thinks he has no chance of finding them, he does put some feelers out. Then the wife of Matt’s drinking buddy Tommy is murdered in what looks like a burglary gone bad, but the cops think he was involved. Tommy asks Matt to try and dig up definite proof that two men accused of the burglary also killed his wife. Another friend, Skip, calls on Matt for advice and assistance when someone steals his financial ledgers that would prove he’s been cheating on his taxes and now he’s being blackmailed for their return.
Matt roams around New York working on all these problems as tries to drink up all the bourbon in the city. By telling this as an episode that happened years ago, there’s a sense of nostalgia to this one that reads as Matt saying goodbye to a phase of his life. I also loved the ending and how it shows Matt’s unorthodox methods of helping justice along.
This is one of the best books of the Scudder series.(less)
Right after finishing this book, I was at the grocery store with the wife. I was daydreaming while she got some meat from the butcher’s counter. She d...moreRight after finishing this book, I was at the grocery store with the wife. I was daydreaming while she got some meat from the butcher’s counter. She dropped a couple of wrapped steaks and hamburger in the cart. I ran screaming out of the store. So thanks for that, Lawrence Block.
Kenan Khoury is a heroin distributor whose wife Francine was kidnapped. Kenan followed instructions and paid a large ransom without contacting the cops, but Francine still got choppity-chopped and sent home like pork cutlets. Since he can’t go to the cops without a lot of awkward questions, Kenan hires Matt Scudder to try and find the men who killed his wife. Matt follows a trail that will lead him to some of the most sadistic sons-of-bitches he’s come across yet. And as he’s working on that, Matt will also have to decide what kind of relationship he wants with Elaine, the call-girl he’s been dating.
Holy shit snacks! The early books in this series always had intriguing mysteries, but I’d forgotten about the string of truly despicable villains that Block created and threw at Matt along the way. The books contained some horrifying crimes without becoming schlock serial killer thrillers, and Block always managed to use Matt as our decent anchor in a world that has seemingly gone mad.
This one also continues the trend of developing Matt’s supporting cast. TJ, the young street hustler, and Matt are starting to form a bond, and TJ is proving to be a valuable asset for Matt’s investigations. We also meet the Kongs, a couple of computer hackers circa 1992 who help Matt with some phone research and hook him up with the greatest long distance deal ever.
I like the way that Block has introduced variety of people into Matt’s life that are criminals on paper, yet they turn out to be much more than just their occupations. Matt has a lot of odd relationships for an ex-cop who takes the notion of good and evil very seriously. Mick Ballou may be a gangster and a killer, but he’s Matt’s best friend. Elaine is a hooker, but she’s a very smart and classy woman that he cares deeply for. Kenan is a drug dealer, but he’s also a very stand-up guy in his own way and Matt once again finds himself forming an unlikely friendship with someone that he’d normally expect to disapprove of.
Another gem in the Scudder series and a very powerful and disturbing crime novel.(less)
Spinner Jablon is a small-time criminal and hustler that Matt Scudder knows from his days on the police. Spinner shows up with money in his pockets an...moreSpinner Jablon is a small-time criminal and hustler that Matt Scudder knows from his days on the police. Spinner shows up with money in his pockets and an offer for Matt; hold onto an envelope and if Spinner gets killed, open the envelope and act on it. It seems like easy money and weeks pass until he doesn’t make his regular check in and Spinner’s body is found in the river.
When Matt opens the envelope he finds a note from Spinner, a wad of cash and blackmail info on three people. Spinner’s note explains that he thought one of his blackmail victims was trying to kill him, but he wasn’t sure which one. He asks Matt to track down his killer, but to let the other two off the hook since Spinner thinks they’ve fulfilled their part of the deal. Matt contacts the three and pretends to be a new blackmailer that Spinner sold out too and demands more money. The plan is to get whoever killed Spinner to try and kill Matt so he can know who had Spinner murdered, but his plan may have succeeded a little too well.
Another great entry in the Scudder series. I love how this one illustrates the murky ethical world that Matt inhabits. Spinner may have been considered a small time lowlife by everyone else, but Matt notes that Spinner never hurt anyone physically and tried to uphold his own version of a moral code. (It’s interesting that Matt seems to like and relate more to Spinner than he did the cop he worked for in the previous book.) While Matt may be willing to pretend to be a blackmailer and to do shady things like take money from a dead man’s wallet, he has a core conviction that murder is a crime that should always be punished. He could easily take Spinners money and do nothing or just dump the whole mess on the cops, but he feels duty bound to honor Spinner’s request even though it leads him into a tangled web of unintended consequences.
I also like how Block has shown Matt’s drinking getting progressively worse as the books have gone on. Matt’s control is slipping and he engages in a full blown bender in this one unlike his usually steady not-quite-sober but not-quite-drunk regular drinking.(less)
I want a friend like Matt Scudder. Why? Because Matt is the kind of guy who will drop everything to come over and help you dispose of a couple of bodi...moreI want a friend like Matt Scudder. Why? Because Matt is the kind of guy who will drop everything to come over and help you dispose of a couple of bodies in the middle of the night, and then you wouldn‘t even have to worry that he‘d take your last beer out of the fridge. (You know, because of the whole alcoholism thing.) I have a hard time getting a buddy to come over and help me move a couch, let alone take a midnight run to give a couple of corpses the shallow grave treatment.
Matt’s friend, the gangster Mick Ballou, calls him for help, and then takes him to a storage unit with a couple of corpses in it. (Two corpses in a storage unit? That’s worth at least a $50 bid if Storage Wars has taught me anything.) The dead men were Mick’s employees sent to pick up some hijacked liquor, but they’ve been shot and the booze is gone. After Matt helps him bury the bodies, Mick confides that someone has been targeting his organization lately and asks Matt to find whoever is behind it. Matt checks a few things out, but suddenly Mick’s enemy is attacking Matt, too, and the losses are devastating.
This is one of the more violent and action filled Scudder novels, and as a long time fan, the idea of Mick and Matt going to war together made me giddy. What I particularly like about this one is the way it’s used to make Matt once again ponder his friendship with Mick. Neither man really understands why a hard drinking gangster and murderer would be BFFs with a sober alcoholic ex-cop with a deep sense of right and wrong, but the bond is well portrayed.
I also like how Block didn’t use shortcuts to try and turn Matt into a bloodthirsty action hero. Matt is hesitant to help Mick at first because he doesn’t want to hand anyone over to be murdered while acknowledging his own hypocrisy because it’s not like Matt hasn’t taken matters into his own hands a few times. When things start getting bad, Matt wants out, and Mick agrees that would be best. Even after a crime that would have most fictional detectives swearing revenge, Matt still would gladly walk away, but realizes that now that he’s been identified as an ally of Mick’s his only way to safety is to help Mick find and kill whoever’s responsible. Once he’s angry, Matt is more than willing to pitch in on that little chore, too.
See, that’s why Matt’s a good friend. And a very bad enemy.(less)
Just as Babe Ruth couldn’t hit a home run with every at bat or Joe Montana couldn’t throw a touchdown pass on every throw, even Lawrence Block had to...moreJust as Babe Ruth couldn’t hit a home run with every at bat or Joe Montana couldn’t throw a touchdown pass on every throw, even Lawrence Block had to eventually produce a Matt Scudder novel that’s just ‘pretty damn good’ instead of ‘freakin’ awesome’.
A yuppie lawyer gets murdered when making a call at a payphone, and everyone thinks that a homeless and disturbed Vietnam veteran was the killer. Even the vet isn’t sure if he did it or not but admits he could have. The vet’s brother asks Matt to check it out to make sure his brother isn’t being railroaded. Matt’s a little hesitant because he had actually met the victim a few times, but decides to take the case.
As he looks into the murder, Matt has to make some decisions about his on-going relationship with Elaine. He also gets some bad news from an old friend as well as an unusual request.
There’s nothing really wrong with this book. But after the crazy creative high that Block had been on with Scudder since 8 Million Ways To Die, it was probably inevitable that he’d have to cool off a bit.
Block seemed a bit unfocused and out of sync in this one. He almost always used the parallel stories of Matt working on a case while working through some stuff in his personal life, and this one fits that formula perfectly. There’s just a lack of energy and momentum in this one that was present in the previous books. Part of the issue may be the lack of a strong villain in this, and after the wicked line of bad guys Matt had been dealing with in the previous books, that makes this one seem a bit less urgent and dangerous.
Plus, this has a rare story telling miscue by Block. (view spoiler)[ It turns out the killer is a guy that Matt had met in the previous book. It might have had more impact if it had been anything but a chance encounter. Even though I just reread that book a few weeks ago, it threw me for a loop as I was trying to recall the specifics of the meeting and kept flipping back earlier in this book trying to remember when it happened until Matt finally explains to someone when it occurred. It seems random and kind of a cheat that this minor point from a previous book is how Matt eventually solves the case. (hide spoiler)]
Even though it’s just an average Scudder, an average Scudder is still better than 90% of what you’d find in the mystery section of any bookstore. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(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)
Before he wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island or was part of the crime novelist dream team that worked with David Simon on The Wire, Dennis Lehane was...moreBefore he wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island or was part of the crime novelist dream team that worked with David Simon on The Wire, Dennis Lehane was just another writer trying to establish a private eye series. Of course, they’d end up being some of the best books of their kind because Lehane is just that damn good.
Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro have been friends since their childhood growing up in a blue collar Boston neighborhood and now they’re partners in a detective agency. They’re more than a little in love with each other, but Angie is married and loyal to a man who abuses her regularly. Patrick is baffled by how the strong-willed and tough-as-nails Angie is willing to be a punching bag for this asshat, but his efforts to try and stop it have only made matters worse. Plus, Patrick has his own issues in dealing with his background as a physically abused child at the hands of his father, a hero firefighter. So their relationship is a bit…complex.
Patrick and Angela are hired by some local politicians to track down documents they claim were stolen out of a state senator’s office by a cleaning woman. The woman has vanished, and the pols are desperate to get their documents back. What should be a routine job quickly turns bloody, and Patrick and Angela become the targets of both sides of a massive gang war.
But since this is a series with smart-mouthed, gun-toting PI’s, there’s got to be a bad-ass friend they can turn to. Spenser has Hawk. Elvis Cole has Joe Pike. And Patrick and Angela have Bubba Rogowski, ‘a lovable sociopath’ with a talent for mayhem and a hatred for everyone in the world except Patrick and Angela. Bubba is the kind of guy that when you ask him for a couple of guns, he'll also provide some hand grenades. Because you never know when a good grenade might come in handy...
A quick plot summary and the Bubba character make it seem as if this just another unrealistic PI series. (We all know that there aren’t really any private detectives who go around shooting people with friends who supply them with grenades.) In fact, the first chapter almost seems like the Boston-born Lehane is doing a straight rip-off of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. It’s a first person story told from Patrick’s point-of-view, and he meets the clients at the bar in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a favorite Spenser watering hole. He also delights in throwing out smart ass comments to tweak his employers, just as Spenser does.
However, as the story progresses, it gets much richer and deeper in characterization and themes than most PI series. Race plays a huge part in this story, and Lehane allows his heroes have some less than politically correct thoughts regarding racial issues. There’s a lot of violence, and Patrick and Angie can play the tough smart-ass when need be, but privately, they show the physical and emotional toll it takes on them. These aren’t larger than life action heroes who can shoot their way out of any problem, these are real people struggling to do the right thing in impossible circumstances and there are no easy answers.
It looked like Lehane might have been done with Patrick and Angie’s story after the fifth novel, when he went on to do his stand-alone novels, but he’s finally delivering us a new P&A book later this year. Woo-hoo! (less)
“If you and your partner aren’t civilians and you’re not cops, then what are you?”
I shrugged. “Two idiots who aren’t half as tough as we thought we we...more“If you and your partner aren’t civilians and you’re not cops, then what are you?”
I shrugged. “Two idiots who aren’t half as tough as we thought we were.” - In media res is a cute little story telling trick where the writer starts in the middle or with the aftermath of the action and then drops hints and clues about what occurs in what you’re about to read. It works really well if it’s some kind series where you already know the characters. I’m a complete sucker for this tactic, and Lehane uses it beautifully in this one.
In the first few pages, Patrick Kenzie tells us that he’s been through hell. He’s coping with some serious physical injuries, the detective agency he runs with his best friend, Angie Gennaro, is closed, and he ominously describes her as ‘gone’. Which of course, leaves you immediately worried about what that maniac Lehane did to the two characters he introduced just one book ago. It gives you a nasty feeling of dread as you read the rest of the book and what unfolds is probably worse than what you start fearing when you read Patrick’s introduction.
Leading up to that, Patrick and Angie take a case from a female psychiatrist who had a session with a women who claimed to be in abusive relationship with a psycho Irish-mob hitman that the two detectives know from their childhood in their blue-collar Boston neighborhood. The woman disappeared without a trace and the doctor has started receiving threatening phone calls and candid pictures of her college-aged son so she’s worried that the hitman thinks she was told something incriminating and wants to shut her up. There’s also the odd coincidence that the patient told the doctor that her last name was Kenzie, but Patrick isn’t aware of any relatives who match that description.
Having to try and get a sadistic mob hitman to leave someone alone is bad enough, but things quickly take an even darker turn that involves a brutal murder and a serial killer who has been in prison for years. Patrick and Angie are usually more than capable of taking care of themselves, but even with the help of the police, the FBI and their pet sociopath Bubba Rogowski, they’ll soon be overwhelmed by the horrific violence targeted at them.
One of Lehane’s favorite themes is that violence can be passed along from one generation to the next, and he delves deeply into the legacy-of-violence idea here. It’s also amazing how quickly he dropped some of the standard PI-novel conventions from the first book to this one. P&A are still tough professionals, but there’s much less smart-ass banter and a darker, grittier, more realistic feel to this one.
While there’s a bit of a Hannibal Lector-thing going on with the incarcerated serial killer manipulating people, Lehane didn’t let it get out of hand and become distracting. He keeps the focus on Patrick and Angela and delivers a taunt and terrifying thriller in this one. This is not for the squeamish but it never feels gratuitous. (less)