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Shoulder Wounds #8

Maybe it’s the darkening of the days, or the drawdown to Election Day, or the deepening unease I feel about my coming cross-country drive (Seattle to Gainesville, Florida) on a death-march budget, but I’m been doubling down on comfort-food reading.

For a week, I listened to nothing but actress Laura Linney, my crush to end all crushes, reading the first several Nancy Drew mysteries on Audible. Then I powered through all eight Great Brain books, favorites ever since I was a fifth-grader in Toughskin jeans and Farrah-feathered hair that frequently got tangled up not in blue but in headgear braces. And I realized that they could easily categorized as crime novels, given that Tom Fitzgerald is an incurable con man, and that his crimes are mitigated only by his occasional solving of crimes by others.

Then I read several volumes in the Chet-and-Bernie detective series by Spencer Quinn. And as I do every time I read one of these books, with their cutesy-typeface, punny titles, I remember that cozy mysteries are not usually my jam, and then I remember that Spencer Quinn — a.k.a. Peter Abrahams, who’s written many dark thrillers for many decades — has adamantly argued that these novels, told from the POV of Chet, the dog, are not cozies. And I decide, as always, that they’re both cozies and not cozies, and then I decide, so what, because they’re fun, and dammit, what’s wrong with fun? Especially these days, at this particular time of year?

The genius of the Chet-and-Bernie series is in their baked-in conceit, in which the work of the hardboiled detective is softened by the “I sort of get what’s going on but sort of don’t, and here I am, doing something dramatic or hilarious but always plot-advancing while everybody else is standing around contemplating the guns in their pockets, and why is that man’s bloody leg between my teeth” voice of Chet. And when you think about it, how else would a dog look on the world, but with a bemused mix of befuddlement and repetition-driven wisdom? Quinn/Abrahams is too much of a stone pro to let this silliness over-season the storytelling, which is always sturdy and salted with pleasurable uncertainty in all the right spots.

If you are a fan of Peter Abrahams’s work — THE FAN, which became a film with Wesley Snipes and Robert DeNiro, is his best known; and END OF STORY, a pocket master class in literary suspense, is his best — you’ll see his signature darkness in these books. But if you take your crime fiction straight with no comedic chaser, you might decide these aren’t the kind of bones you’d chew on. My admiration of Abrahams is such that I’ve found my way with the dog days of his career, a phase that extends into spinoff series for younger readers that are just as fun in their way as the Great Brain stories. If so, start with the first in the series, DOG ON IT, and continue through every eye-rolling cozy-not-cozy pun title.

The collision of comedy and crime also comes into play when considering the career of Ross Thomas, a cult figure of admiration for his colorful Cold War caper novels. Occasionally someone online, like crime author and critic Sarah Weinman, talks about their love of Thomas’s work, which began in 1966 and ended with the author’s death in 1994.

I am a Ross Thomas admirer too but I understand why he’s been left behind while new generations of crime readers find and fall in love with the likes of Elmore Leonard. As much as I enjoy the hell out of novels like THE FOOLS IN TOWN ON OUR SIDE, from 1970, Ross Thomas is 9,000 percent of his time, which is always heavily informed by pre- and post-WWII mores, cultures and politics. As is, unfortunately, his John D. MacDonald attitudes toward women, which almost always paint females as sex kittens, shrews, scolds, saints or shrieky-sobby simpletons. (Elmore Leonard rarely gets credit for this, but I’m convinced that part of the reason he endures today is that he created women it’s impossible to not admire.) If the Cold War was a sinking ship, Ross Thomas is the lifeboat that couldn’t quite escape the suction. He’s strictly a nostalgiagasm for me.

That said, THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE is first-rate Thomas, full of audacious schemes, stiletto-edged dialogue, and secret pockets of sentimental depth. It’s also quotable for days. One example, from a scene in which a man has taken a precocious eight-year-old under his wing as they flee wartime China on a roundabout route to the United States: “Okay, let’s agree that you’re smart. You can shill a crap game, pimp for a whorehouse, speak six or seven languages, roll drunks and hustle the rubes. But you can’t read or write, and you’re goddamn well going to learn how.”

It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away the pleasure, but imagine being asked to take a corrupt American city the size of, say, Spokane or Schenectady, and make it even more corrupt for the benefit of a powerful few who have decided they can never be powerful enough. It’s all tremendous fun, but I can’t imagine recommending it to someone raised on today’s terse military-guy thrillers or operatic-pitched domestic suspensers.

Speaking of operatic-tinged domestic suspense, I recently read Nic Joseph’s THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, a much-praised new work of psychological suspense that hails from the trendy “twist-a-minute” school. And it is the rare novel sunk by its very first page. Prologues are a high-wire act to begin, easy to screw up and leave the reader stranded at the gate. And for that reason it’s only occasionally done, and even more occasionally done well.

This prologue, which begins with the words “I decided early on that telling the truth — the whole truth — was out of the question,” is annoying on two levels. One, it announces its intention from the get-go to jerk around the reader, all but saying “Look how fashionably unreliable I am! Awesome, right?” And two, it fails to follow through on its promise of twisty unreliability. Paula Wileson, the narrator, attempts to blackmail a pop-music star cheating on his wife, and her ham-handed efforts to get closer to him collide with a murder of a woman who lived in The Other Woman’s building. Paula, a rideshare driver whose efforts are driven by an attempt to raise money for a surgery that may enable her husband to walk again, has reason to be circumspect and even coy with the cops. But she turns out to be a much flatter and more conventional character than the prologue promised, and the novel’s failure to develop the other characters undermines its big reveals.

Paula is an intriguing character until those last chapters, and Joseph is canny enough to keep us invested in how this well-meaning Chicago woman keeps getting herself into and out of trouble she can’t quite handle. But Paula is nowhere near as devious or unreliable as those first pages portend, and in the end THE NIGHT IN QUESTION turns out to be like dozens of books in its genre — well-crafted but unable to convincingly get out of the corner it paints its characters into. (I’d also dock it another star for going to the bother of creating a pop star with complicated motives and failing completely to find extra dimensions — or page space — for him.)

Altogether different is Nick Kolakowski’s latest hardboiled tale, BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB. (I moderately admired his first novella, A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS.) I give him points for being a New York City author who takes on — and pulls off — the challenge of realistically setting a novel in Idaho. Would that more authors made similarly audacious leaps out of their comfort zones.

Points, too, for writing a pretty good novella, if one for all its audacity with setting, is composed of fairly familiar parts. Jake Halligan is a bounty hunter and ex-soldier with two primary human assets — his almost-not-quite-ex-wife Janine, and his sister Frankie, the local badass-bitch-on-wheels gun runner with a private army and a propensity for creative violence. When they run afoul of the local powers-that-be, the three find themselves the objects of a Most Dangerous Game run by every right-wing rich-guy stereotype you can think up.

It’s all good fun as far as it goes, if a tad light on character depth. It also has a tendency to whipsaw uncomfortably between low-key domestic scenes and high-voltage, high-body-count blowups.

But the real takeaway is Kolakowski, a writer who in my mind seems to be building up to a breakthrough novel that will get him broader notice. In BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB, his considerable chops are on full display: crisp pacing, light-on-its-feet action, a deft touch with snarky dialogue, and considerable powers of narrative observation. (“She wore as much black clothing and eyeliner as a high school Goth, and nobody made jokes about it, because she liked to do things like shove pens through necks.”) I get this funny back-of-the-neck feeling that, like Lou Berney, who followed up two conventional plot-in-a-blender novels with the exquisite and enduring THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE, there’s a quantum leap in similar quality lying in wait for us from Kolakowski.


Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.


Categories
Books

Shoulder Wounds No. 6

The theme of my reading the last few weeks has been: Sometimes all you come away with from the experience of reading a novel is how you viscerally react to it.

I can’t tell you why I loved Scott Von Doviak’s CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, only that I did, that, as I posted on Twitter, each page was a greased pan of pure reading pleasure. I’ve read largely laudatory reviews that expertly broke down what makes the novel work, and I agree with them, but somehow I was unable to form the sentences that spelled out CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL’s success with the mechanics of plot, structure, character, pacing and prose style.

The story cuts between stories set in 1946, 1986 and 2014, each loosely connected to a series of killings connected to the theft of some priceless paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston (the author cleverly appropriated the real-life 1990 incident into his 1946 story) and its lingering connection to the Charlesgate building, a residential structure with a fascinating, haunted boom-and-bust history.

While Von Doviak clearly loves Boston and loves history, he never gets bogged down in them to the point that he forgets to tell a story. And this is a story about character, and to the extent that I can articulate my good feelings about the novel, I can say that the characters are a fascinating blend of good and bad, bright and stupid, and brave and weak, and never feel contrived from a checklist of craft-guide characteristics. They have that real, blind-spotted, complicated-but-simple feel of lives that have been semi-comfortably slept in, that can only be created by a writer with a core confidence in what they’re doing, who have lived these people in their heads for so long that when they come out into the world, they’re walking and talking and strutting like kids ready to rule the playground.

Tommy Donnelly, the central character of the 1986 story, for example: he’s a clever, fun, hardworking student who stumbles on an interesting mystery. We root for him to put together the clues and get the loot and get the girl he lusts after. But he doesn’t really have what it takes to get to the finish line, and he freezes up in the face of true evil when its shadow falls across his beer glass. And I found I liked that better than a more conventional character arc. You will too, trust me.

More I will not say, because I cannot say, other than CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL just plain works, and I felt constantly caught between my desire to race through it and my desire to savor it in little bites and save it up for days like a child’s dessert. Not a very critic thing to say, I know, but it’s honestly all I’ve got.


The next novel in my queue was Amy Stewart’s GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, the first of four novels (so far) about the Kopp sisters of New Jersey, set in the years of World War I. And damned if I didn’t have exactly the same experience. Each page was a slice of pure pleasure, and I’ve been thinking about why for more than a week, and I just don’t have the answers in any way I can articulate.

It’s partly that Constance Kopp, the point-of-view character, is a total original in my reading experience. She’s a strong woman, yet she’s the product of women-need-to-be-protected-and-diminished culture of her time, and she’s not necessarily looking to upend the social order. She’s smart and yet constantly doubts herself because that’s what she’s been conditioned to do since birth. She’s defiant and yet seems to be constantly seeking permission to defy.

And she’s clearly born to be a police detective, and she’s clearly the last person to see it or appreciate it. Or accept it.

The story: When the Kopp sisters run afoul of a politically powerful silk-factory owner, they find themselves the target of a sustained campaign of harassment, to the point that Constance and her younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are nearly driven to leave their isolated family farm and accept their loving subjugation of their older brother. Nearly, and yet they can’t quite accept the idea that three women alone can’t take care of themselves, and Constance can’t quite keep herself from asking uncomfortable questions about how certain men treat certain women that draw her closer to truths that few people are prepared to see exposed to the light.

The more I thought about GIRL WAITS WITH GUN and CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, what I decided they had in common was an infectious high-spiritedness that never came across as goofy, implausible or manic-pixie-dream-like. Both novels speak to the person in all of us that craves adventure, craves disruption of the ordinariness we in many cases have worked so hard to bury ourselves within. None of the characters in either books are heedless or reckless or ridiculous, yet they can’t help but find themselves leaning into a mess even as it gets messier, heeding a true calling being broadcast on a frequency they can’t yet identify.

Near the end of GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, Norma Kopp, whose whole life is dedicated to making it as small and manageable and safe as possible, finally gives up on hoping Constance will be the same: “You’ve had such a high time running around playing detective. Why don’t you become one of those?”

And what’s more exciting, and relatable, than that?


The visceral-reaction thing cuts both ways, too.

I first read the next book in my queue thirty years ago. In 1988, I was in my early twenties, close to the end of my college career, and desperately eager to assert myself to the world as not just a grownup, but an alpha-male adult. I desperately wanted women and I desperately wanted women to want me, to want to defer to me, to want to be rescued by me.

The first sign that I was not destined to be that kind of man came while reading THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, the first of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-detective novels. Elvis Cole was everything I thought I wanted to be, only he made what I thought I wanted to be seem like the most repellent thing in the solar system.

Elvis Cole is a man. A man’s man. A ladies’ man. A man who grabs asses without invitation, who talks down to women, who seduces them so casually you aren’t even sure it actually happened. He’s full of sub-Catskills snappy patter and stiletto judgments, and is apparently supposed to be sympathetic despite all of this because of coy, leg-baring hints of a tortured past rooted in Cole’s Vietnam service. (I guess Crais forget to make him an alcoholic as well, and I’m surprised the critics didn’t ding him for inadequate trope adherence.)

The women he meets? They fall mostly into three categories: shrews, simpletons and sexpots, all paralyzed with displays of facile psychoanalysis and over-the-top flights of unsolicited knight-errantude. As a result, Elvis Cole comes off as a completely cartoonish avatar of male aspirationalism, as frontloaded and overloaded a “hero” as Spenser or Stone Barrington or Lucas Davenport.

No wonder THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT was a runaway success at the time — it was as loud and aggressive as Gordon Gekko wearing a screaming yellow power tie in a room full of Robert Bork supporters. Also, I should add, it’s a good novel, well-written, more than competently plotted, and achieves what it sets out to accompish.

But.

I closed the book in 1988 with one clear thought: I don’t want to be anything like this asshole. If this is the way to get women, I’d just as soon go Full Metal Celibate. And so I guess my 1988 self should thank Crais for helping disabuse me of this moronic Reagan-Republican idea of male exceptionalism and starting me down the road toward being what I hope, three decades later, has been something better.

I’m reliably assured by many friends in the crime-fiction community that the series eventually got a lot better, that Crais became a better author and Cole became a better character, and that I should give those subsequent novels a shot. I reread THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT with the intention of doing that, to see if time had mellowed my memories of my 23-year-old’s mindset.

But, two things:

One, I don’t want to spend another minute inside this misogynist’s mind. It was a genuinely unsettling and unpleasant place to be.

And two, with so many crime-fiction series openers just waiting for one-one-thousandth of the attention that the Cole/Pike novels have gotten, why give a second chance to someone who so thoroughly shit the bed the first time? The second first chance was bad enough.

Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.


Thanks for stopping by and reading Unlawful Acts.