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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. 1

I’m rejoining Unlawful Acts as a reviewer in a different format, with weekly roundups of what I’ve read recently. Some are old novels, some are new. Some are from small presses, some aren’t. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Hopefully I’m able to steer you to something you haven’t yet read, or make you think about something you have read in a different way.

Either way, I pledge to:

  1. Show my work; and
  2. Never pull my punches out of political considerations; and
  3. Not be an asshole. Or;
  4. A sycophant.

If this approach costs me friends and publishing opportunities, so be it.


She Was the Quiet One, Michele Campbell 

A well-designed house is of no value if the foundation is made from cheap materials that reveal rot upon inspection, and the same is true with well-crafted thrillers whose holy-shit twists are built upon a premise that can’t be believed.

I’m irresistibly drawn to stories set at boarding schools, having graduated from one myself—not a posh New prep academy in New England like the one in this novel, but a Seventh-day Adventist school in the Pacific Northwest populated across the economic spectrum—and this one largely did not disappoint. The characters are well-developed, the pacing is perfect, and the happy thrum of pleasurable uncertainty propels the pages forward.

It’s not easy to summarize She Was the Quiet One, but suffice to say that it involves bullying, social media, sex, gaslighting, power politics, reputational histrionics, a lot of suspicious late-night texting and, of course, murder. All rendered almost exclusively within the halls of one girls’ dormitory at a New Hampshire prep school whose students are as obsessed with who’s screwing who as who’s getting into what college.

The only problem is that its premise is rotten: there’s just no way, in 2018, in a time in which we’re hypersensitive about imbalances of sex and power between men and girls, boys and women, that a prep school as obsessed with image as this one is would place a devastatingly handsome young man in charge of the “slutty” girls’ dorm. It’s so implausible that it fatally undermines everything follows, and everything in this novel centers around Heath Donovan.

Once suspension of disbelief has been suspended, there’s no getting it back, at least for me. No matter how good everything else about the story turns out to be.


The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, When The Devil Comes to Call, The Devil at Your Door (a trilogy), Eric Beetner.

I’m a big fan of Beetner, a self-described “pulp hack” who puts out some of the smoothest, sharpest hardboiled crime fiction around.

But the problem with this trilogy of middle-aged-hitman-hits-the-bloody-highway-with-teen-girl tales is somewhat the same as the fatal flaw in She Was the Quiet One: I’m being asked to accept a premise I can’t quite believe. In this case, it’s that hitman Lars, who sometimes fucks up but never freezes up in the course of his wetwork no matter how existentially adrift he feels, freezes up inexplicably during a hit nearly two decades in the making. And that freeze-up is what throws him together with Shaine, the victim’s teen daughter. I’ve read the trilogy twice, and I can’t get past the idea that this is a plot contrivance that undermines Lars’s established character.

That said, these three novels are full of cheerfully zippy mayhem, with Lars and Shaine settling into a semi-familial mentor-apprentice relationship as they carve a complicated cross-country swath through the mob connections that mark Lars’s personal and professional history. The prose rides shotgun with the Tarantino-esque splattergasms to standout effect: “He tried to step around the larger pieces of gore and squishier spots on the carpet, the unknown fluid like some combination of stomach acid and skunk spray” and “She never imagined hope would smell like the inside of a corpse” are lines fairly representative of the three novels. (I could have done without the second-novel storyline of a crazed mobster who refuses to dispose of the bodies of his slain parents—ostensibly out of respect—as they bloat and putrefact, but at least it’s something I’ve never seen before.)

The other flaw, in my eyes, is the obvious reluctance to develop Shaine as a fully dimensional character. Every time Shaine seems ready to shake off the trauma of almost being killed, over and over, and take a step into living an age-appropriate life, Beetner bends her back into the pureé-intensity-level plot. I came away feeling like there was a lot more about Shaine I should have been able to get to know.

I’ve long felt Beetner, one of the great hard workers in small-press crime fiction, is deserving of the wider audience that a major publisher could bring his way. But I also feel the Devil trilogy, frothy fun that it is, is not his best calling card for making that case. He’s done better work—his Criminal Economics and his two Rumrunners novels, for instance—and he’ll do better work in the future.


Split Images, Elmore Leonard

When Dutch died in 2013, the internet was carpet-bombed with lists of “Ten Best Elmore Leonard Novels,” and Split Images turned up on very few of them. I get that; he wrote a lot of novels, and very few of them were subpar, and as with Edgar Award nominations each year, a lot of worthy work is going to get short shrift.

But Split Images, from 1982, merits reconsideration. It neatly balances Leonard’s two favorites locales—Detroit and Florida—in a light-on-its-feet tale of a rich man who’s discovered a taste for murder, the retired cop who signs on as his advance scout, and the current cop who figures out the scheme but isn’t sure how to put a stop to it.

And the best part isn’t even that—it’s the surprisingly uncynical love story that gives Split Images its heartbeat. Detroit police detective Bryan Hurd and freelance crime writer Angela Nolan really, really love one another, from the moment they set eyes on one another in a coutroom, and for once, Leonard neither winks or nudges at the reader as he allows those three magic words to be spoken.

The effect is quietly astonishing, and then we’re back in the funky, jivey, slouchy crime story, wondering as always in a Leonard novel who’s going to screw over who and who’s going to be standing at the end. And, of course, who’s going to be telling the weirdest little semi-non-sequitur stories while waiting with someone to do something, the way we often spend much of our lives but rarely see rendered in fiction. And we’re still a little happily stunned by these two smart, sweet, street people who are happily stunned to find that they found their forever person. Even if forever falls short of that.


Cold Cuts, Steve Brewer

Someday some smart someone is going to smartly reissue select Steve Brewer titles, Black Lizard-style. Though he’s not a high stylist or a stylish nihilist, Brewer, for more than two decades, has put out one or two crime novels a year, and they’re never anything less than well above average—tightly plotted, lightly dark, slyly funny, packed with characters you can’t help but care about despite their lack of conventionally sympathetic qualities. The man just never misses, and how many authors can you say that about?

Brewer’s latest, another set in his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, is a case in point. Though it ostensibly centers on the smuggling of bologna across the Mexican-American border (build that wall!), it’s really a character study in plotted clothing. Chief among the cast of memorables is Lucky Flanagan, a lifelong loser and competence-challenged criminal who takes on the sketchy smuggling job so he come up with the funds to finagle his way back into the hearts and home of his ex-wife and daughter. I also really liked Inez, a state meat inspector who misses nothing in her job and everything in her life, because she’s (possibly) on the autism spectrum.

There’s plenty of bad guys and satisfyingly high stakes, but this is at heart the story of semi-lovable misfits with semi-colliding agendas. What a shocker: Steve Brewer does it again.

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 Jim Thomsen’s first of many Shoulder Wounds.