Monday, September 1, 2014

Queenpin by Megan Abbott


"Noir is all about drives," says Megan Abbott, author of Queenpin.  "Drives we have that we can't control."
The unnamed protagonist of Queenpin has drives all right. A blue collar Catholic girl, keeping the books in the Tee Hee club, in an unnamed burg along a river–

 "I was ready for more. I wanted more," she says in the first chapter. 

She hitches her wagon to Gloria Denton, a star, a queenpin, and moves money around for the mob while she learns from her ruthless boss. But another drive she has puts her in the sack with a gambler, loser and con men, and our girl double crosses Gloria, hoping to help her young man get off the hook with some gamblers.  Gloria takes violent revenge on the boy friend, saying, "Don't worry," says Gloria. "We'll find someone else for you to fuck."
The plot unfolds with the clarity of Raymond Chandler, but it's clear enough for the reader to understand there's trouble.  And that's really all you have to know.  It's a hard-boiled story, about a couple hard-boiled dames who are unrelenting in their drives and merciless.
The strength of the book is the prose, which rat-a-tats along with an economy reminiscent of James M. Cain, or of Albert Camus. It left me with the impression that the story moved not from plot point to plot point, but from emotion to emotion.  Good writing, and the kind of approach I can learn from.

It's brief--less than 200 pages--and it doesn't ask much of the reader. Just hang on for the ride.
     
See Megan or this review on Goodreads
All my reviews.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Coffin for Dimitrios – Eric Ambler


Alan Furst, in the May 29, N.Y. Times Book Review, says the best spy novel ever written "would have to be Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios." I'm very fond of Furst--he has that atmospheric style I'd love to achieve, and I'll probably buy and read his latest, Midnight in Europe.  So I had to re-read Ambler's Dimitrios.

A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book.  As Furst says, it "has an anti-fascist antihero, a writer of mystery novels, set amidst gangsters and secret police in an eve-of-the-war setting, moving from Istanbul through the cities of Europe."  The idea of the protagonist being a writer of mystery novels appeals to me. But it's not as simple as that.  The writer, Charles Latimer, is as much an old-fashioned narrator, the author's voice, as he is a protagonist, though almost by default he is the protagonist, too.  He's an ordinary man, out of his depth in a world of political intrigue, assassination, and drugs from Istanbul to Paris, much like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is an ordinary man in over his head. 

But there is considerably more action in N x NW.  A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book, and a tale strangely told, too.  The plot is not so much based on the criminal career of Dimitrios, or on Latimer's wanderings, but rather it's a skillful interweaving of those two threads into a cause and effect yarn.  Most of the story comes to us in the conversations and some correspondence that Latimer conducts with a loosely connected bunch of journalists, spies, and heroin dealers whom he meets on the trail of Dimitrios, whom he believes he saw in a morgue in Istanbul.  Intrigued to unravel the arch-villain's story, Latimer traces Dimitrios back to Smyrna in 1922, to Sofia, to Belgrade., Twice he encounters a threatening and mysterious fat man, "Mr. Peters," who has unexplained knowledge of Dimitrios. Peters sends Latimer to a retired spymaster in Switzerland, after which, he is invited to meet Peters in Paris re: an unspecified proposition that Peters promises should profit them both. 

All along, Latimer tries to convince himself he doesn't really care, and he's wasting his time, but he's somehow hooked.  A creator of murders in art, Latimer is fascinated to learn about this real murderer--"a dirty type, common, cowardly, scum. Murder, espionage, drugs–"

The book is slow at times, dense with dissemblers telling Latimer their stories, at length.  But it has the atmosphere of danger and fear in dark nights, in shadowy places in European capitals between the wars.  What motivates these people to tell Latimer their stories?  Do they all hate Dimitrios?  Fear him? Or does he have some hold over them as he has attained over Latimer?

The book comes to a surprising but inevitable conclusion in Paris.  Latimer retains the high moral ground throughout. (After all, he's an Englishman.)  Though Ambler writes in a friendly, accessible style, parts of Dimitrios were difficult reading, as much of the political world is no longer current--gone forever--and one struggles to understand the layers of meaning, not to mention motivations.  On the other hand, and sadly, much of the political world still exists, and is playing itself out again.

I also have Eric Ambler's Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm and Journey into Fear, which like Dimitrios, I have read before.  Maybe it's time to look at them again.           

Friday, July 18, 2014

Leonardo Padura – Havana Blue


A fellow in my winter Mystery and Suspense class (w/Con Lehane) recommended Leonardo Padura, a Cuban author of detective novels. The recommendation sounded as if they were something I'd like--atmospheric, Chandler-esque stories set in an exotic locale--Habana--so I tried the first one, Havana Blue, written in 1991, and translated into English around 2008. 

The Havana Quartet features police lieutenant Mario Conde, known as "The Count." The stories are seasonal, and the first, Blue, is winter.  The Count is a likable hero, "a cop who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of 'solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards'."  Hmm, sounds like me. 

The author does a good job with the Habana setting, an excellent job with the characters--not just Conde, but also his sidekick Manolo Palacios, their cigar-loving chief, Conde's crippled pal Skinny, and his love interest, Tamara.  He does a swell job with sex, describing feelings of lust and passion without getting too clinical or salacious. The translator, Peter Bush, also seems to have done a better than average job with what must have been challenging prose in the original (despite translating into British, rather than American English.) 

The plot is murky.  A high-placed cadre disappears, apparently a difficult thing to do in Cuban society.  The reason eventually turns out to be theft or embezzlement of international funds from his enterprise.  A woman cop of Chinese ancestry finds the paper trail proving this, but what exactly happened or how is about as clear as who killed General Sternwood's chauffeur in The Big Sleep. 

The book was relatively irritating in an almost total lack of dialog tags, a total lack of chapters, and a shifting of voices sometimes following a blank line.  Although the point of view is generally third person Conde, some of the shifts put us in interrogations in which he's not present--for example Manolo interrogates Maciques, (who turns out to be a murderer), in a section of dialogue in quotes with slashes and ellipses between speakers.  What reader needs crap writing like that? 

So while the language was lovely, the characters charming, and the setting atmospheric, would I buy another? Havana Gold, Red, or Black? (Spring, summer, or autumn.)  Not likely.  Too much difficulty slogging through the thing, too little pleasure in return. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ross MacDonald – The Chill


So what did I read to decompress from 26 Shamus entries? I thought a quality private eye book would be a good idea. In addition to freeing me up to enjoy P.I. fiction again, it would be a "control" of sorts, to tell me if I was too harsh on the bad Shamuses, or too forgiving of bad writers. 
I chose The Chill, a 1964 novel by Ross MacDonald.  For one thing, MacDonald is often considered the logical successor to my two favorite p.i. writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. For another, I've had The Chill on my wish list and in my book box for some months, so it was time to crack it. 
I have to admit, I've tried a few Ross MacDonald/Lew Archer stories in the past--The Drowning Pool, which seemed a little odd, The Galton Case, which I don't recall very well, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which I remember enjoying, and The Far Side of the Dollar.  I was a little disappointed with all of these. They lacked the crisp snap of Hammett, and the intoxicating prose of Chandler. (Or is that intoxicated?)  They were grey books. Lew Archer was a grey, boring fellow. But what impressed me most after two or three is that in all the books, all the characters Archer came in contact with were all related. At some point in their pasts they all had the same father, and if a younger character was screwing a character of an older generation, chances are the older one was a parent. (If two younger characters were screwing, they were siblings.)
But I gave The Chill a fair try, just like I gave the talking-Chihuahua-zombie-p.i.s a chance.  The first thing I noticed about this book was that night after night, it put me to sleep in a trice, and I'd spend half-an-hour, reading, re-reading, and failing to comprehend whatever page or paragraph I was on. 
The plot wouldn't have passed muster even with Chandler.  Too confusing.  Too many characters. And the passage of time between (off-stage) murders was never clear.  Would it have been less confusing if it hadn't kept putting me to sleep? Yes, I imagine so.  Is that a selling point?  No, but in the book's favor, it was light, easy to carry on the Metro, and didn't hurt much when it would fall on my chest. 
The setting was some melancholy suburban L.A. locale, not well-known enough for me to recognize, but not interesting enough for me to get up and look at my atlas.  The characters were melancholy academics, a nice touch, along with So. Cal. shrinks. Archer made intuitive leaps or at least I thought they must be intuitive, because there didn't seem to be enough known about the characters to make deductions. There was little or no evidence about any of the murders.  They all occurred in melancholy voids, away from witnesses.
I was so unmoved by this book, I had to google it to see why it's so well thought of.  I found an excellent blog post by no less a doctor of crime fiction than John Connolly. http://johnconnollybooks.blogspot.com/2008/04/on-chill-by-ross-macdonald.html   
Imagine my surprise to learn that The Chill takes its structure and plot from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." I didn't see that, but Connolly mentions a "dead pigeon," rather than an albatross. I seem to have missed the dead pigeon, too.  (If I read on a Kindle, could I search for "pigeon?")
Well, I agree with many of Connolly's comments, but Connolly says "I would describe this book as a 'nearly perfect' crime novel. . . . The Chill is the finest jewel in Macdonald's crown."   Some of this is hard to argue.  That's Connolly's opinion, and he explains how he came to these conclusions. 
For me though, The Chill was a crushing disappointment. There was a true paucity of action. Scenes were primarily dialogue, and much of the dialogue was dancing around the truth.  It seemed to me hard for the reader to distinguish truth from falsehood, and Archer is a total enigma. There was no way to tell how he was reacting to the dialogue.
But the biggest problem for me is my belief that in good detective fiction, change and movement must be manifested in action.  I ain't sayin' I need a car chase, but character development must be externalized.  There must be sensory details that I the reader can share with the dick.  The moment of recognition must be manifested in action. 
In The Chill, everything was manifested in melancholy.    

 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Shamus Awards


It was my honor this year to be one of three judges for the Shamus Awards, Best Paperback Original Novel. Shamus Awards, of course, are awards for writing in the private eye sub-genre, which happens to be my sub-genre. My fellow judges were Jan Grape www.facebook.com/mysteryauthorjangrape and Reed Farrel Coleman, http://reedcoleman.com/, both of whom put up with me admirably.

The judges received 26 books, direct from publishers. One of the first odd things I noticed was that publishers sent books that were clearly not p.i. novels, and others that were iffy at best. The p.i. we’re looking for is supposed to be a crime solver not employed by a police or government agency. However, he (or usually she) should be someone paid for his work. I think this is a key point that people should be able to understand. Like a sonnet has 14 lines, a private investigator does work for pay. 

A second thing I noticed is that there are some bizarre books being published.  For example, two entries featured a dead private eye, yes, a zombie. Three more had ghosts in varying roles. And then there was the talking Chihuahua private eye.  Eight of 26 books were “not my cup of tea,” my new polite way of saying I didn’t think the author wrote well. I suppose that’s a matter of taste, but I was being asked to judge, wasn’t I?

Of the remaining 18 we found four the three of us agreed were perhaps better than the rest. I had two others I liked that Jan and Reed didn’t think much of and they had one they were both quite fond of that was low on my list.  I thought being new, I could give a little for the sake of consensus, so I did. 

It was an interesting experience but I had a steady stream of required reading for two and a half months. I got to the point where I was really not looking forward to another private eye novel. I suppose it was a good experience, to see what’s in the market, but I don’t think I’ll do it again for a while. 

The winner? I’m going to leave that for the Private Eye Writers of America http://www.privateeyewriters.com/ to announce. It was a good book, well-crafted, and I have no regrets about selecting it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What can I borrow? What's plagiarism?


Among the many swell things about Dashiell Hammett’s writing are the striking, powerful original scenes he brings to life.  One such scene that has long fascinated me is the section in Red Harvest, in which the Continental Op and Dinah Brand get drunk on gin and laudanum.  When the Op wakes up, his hand is on the handle of Dinah’s ice pick.  Dinah’s dead, the needle sharp blade of the ice pick buried in her left breast.  He’s had a blackout and doesn’t remember what happened.  Did he kill her?  If so why?  If he did, does that make the Op just as immoral as the murderers in the town he’s trying to clean up? 

Good questions, and the Op, who narrates in the first person doesn’t know the answers, and doesn’t tell the reader what he thinks happened.  I’m working on a new story that puts P.I. Frank Swiver in a similar situation. 

Then I got to thinking—is that plagiarism?  Can I do that?  What if my readers don’t know that I took the idea from Red Harvest?  What if they do?

Then the other day, I saw a book review in the Washington Post of a new novel, Alena.  Reviewer Carolyn Parkhurst writes, “…Rachel Pastan has taken on a daunting task: borrowing the basic story of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca…It’s a tricky business, reimagining a much-loved work of literature.”  Well, good, “re-imagining” is a much kinder word than plagiarizing. 

So I guess authors do that all the time—maybe you can use ideas, plots, characters.  Just don’t steal the language.  (OK, so the opening line of Alena is “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.”)

At any rate, I am going to proceed with my story.  Yes, it’s inspired by my reading of Red Harvest.  But it’s really not the same plot, nor the same characters.  And it won’t be Hammett’s words.    

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The High Window – by Raymond Chandler


I just finished reading (re-reading) The High Window, Raymond Chandler’s third novel.  The first time I read through the Chandler canon, I put this down as one of the weaker efforts, along with Payback.   When you’re competing with books such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Lady in the Lake, and The Little Sister, well, it’d be tough to be in the top three. 

But this time through I was impressed with what a professional, polished effort this was.  I was struck by the descriptive efforts—settings for scenes, both indoor and out, and the appearances and clothing of the characters.  Chandler’s mystery and plotting is different—more traditional, in the British mode.  In the climactic scene Leslie Murdock says to Marlowe, “Get on with it.  I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant.  Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot.  Just like a detective in a book.”  Marlowe proceeds to take Murdock apart, explain the case, the deductions, and the three murders step-by-step, for 14 pages, while Murdock “turns pale as a paper, froths at the mouth,” and confesses to the murder of Vannier.  It’s not that I didn’t know Marlowe (and Chandler) had it in him, but …usually a guy comes through the door with a gun, right? 

Murdock is a jittery as a mink on Benzedrine as Marlowe questions him, and Chandler in his writing turns up the “beats.”

·         “He shrugged and bared his teeth.” 

·         “He stared at it tightly.  His mouth set.”

·         “His shoulders gave a quick little jerk, as if he was cold.”

·         “He nodded and moved a hand wearily across his head.”

·         “He stared at the floor and didn’t speak.”

·         “He looked up quickly then, his face very white, a kind of horror in his eyes.”

And that’s only the first five pages of the 14-page scene. 

I think the book suffers, to whatever extent one might think it does, as the villain is not very horrible.  Sure Murdock killed Vannier.  But Vannier killed George Anson Phillips, and old man Morningstar, so who cares about Vannier?  And he wasn’t much of a villain either, just a blackmailer, one who’s dominated by his mistress, long-legged blonde, Lois Magic.  The stakes don’t seem very high for Marlowe—just the return of a rare coin, the Brasher Doubloon, and being a white knight for Merle, a virgin in distress (but no imminent physical danger).

The “white knight” is the essence of Phillip Marlowe’s character.  And the plot is one of Chandler’s stronger efforts.  It’s complicated but makes sense.  So The High Window is a good introduction to the Marlowe series.