Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 24, 2012

Goodbye Maxine

I haven't been on FriendFeed for a while and logged on last night expecting links to Maxine Clarke's latest reviews and her insightful comments on other posts. Instead, I was stunned to learn that she has passed away. Like most of us in the crime fiction blogging community, I never met Maxine in person but I consider her as much a friend and colleague as if we had been neighbors.

I first encountered Maxine through her blog, Petrona, in early 2008. It didn't take me any time to recognize that this was a blogger I could learn from. I owe much to Maxine: she commented on my blog posts; she encouraged me when I decided to get more serious about reviewing crime fiction; she invited me to the friendfeed Crime and Mystery Fiction Room; she added my blogs to friendfeed. But, above all, she was a friend to book bloggers and readers.

She demonstrated that the amateur book reviewer can make a significant contribution to the book world. I know that she helped me to expand my interests in crime fiction and my library is larger because of her.

She is missed.

Here are some of the tributes to Maxine from other bloggers.

My Friend Maxine at Eurocrime
Memories of Maxine at The Rap Sheet
In Memoriam — Maxine Clark at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
Vale Petrtona at Reactions to Reading
Maxine at Do You Write Under Your Own Name
Tribute to Maxine Clarke / Petrona at Mrs. Peabody Investigates
Petrona is Gone at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan
Maxine Clarke at Aly Monroe
In Memoriam, Maxine Clarke at Material Witness
Maxine Clarke (Petrona) at The Games Afoot
and there are many more

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Escape by Perihan Magden

Hard-edged crime fiction is what you will usually find me reading. Then a book like Escape comes along to remind me why I need to widen my interests.

An unnamed mother and daughter flee from an unspecified threat. For the daughter, living in hotel rooms around the world is the only life she has known. When the mother says danger is near, they escape, heading to the airport, taking only what will fit in backpacks. Whatever they accumulated during their stay they leave behind, baffling the hotel staff.

There is an underlying metaphor of the life of the mother and daughter in this book, Felix Salten's Bambi. The mother only calls her daughter Bambi or baby. Bambi is their Book of Prayer, their book of signs. The mother says "the dangers in Bambi are just like our own." If all you know of Bambi is the Disney film, get a copy of Salten's book. I did, and it is a brilliant framing device for the story.

Escape is narrated mainly by the daughter looking back at her life on the run. Interspersed with the daughter's narrative are first person observations from hotel staff and other outsiders. What they see and conclude are a dramatic contrast with the words of the daughter. Do we have a reliable or unreliable narrator?
Perihan Magden

With only 208 pages, I first thought that Escape was going to be a simple, straightforward story but I soon recognized that it is a deceptively complex,  "slow reveal" novel where the reader is engaged in putting pieces of a puzzle together. The daughter's reminiscences and those of the outsiders are not told linearly so that events in one chapter will link to actions in later or previous chapters.  This shifting interpretation of events contributes to an active and satisfying read.

There is crime and there is mystery in Escape but I wouldn't call it a crime or mystery novel. It is more   an exploration of a strange, perhaps (or not) abusive relationship, a love between a mother and daughter so isolated, so encapsulated that the outside world doesn't have a chance of breaking in.

I enjoyed Escape, so much so that I read it twice and skimmed it once. Questions remain, there isn't a tidy resolution, but it is a very satisfying read and a book that I recommend.

Escape was translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Daken. I'm not sure how you evaluate a translation if you haven't read a book in the original language but for me, the language in Escape was natural and flowed. It didn't come across as stilted or with unusual word choices.

I received Escape as a review copy and it is available from Amazon in print and Kindle.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Tomislov Bokšić, AKA Toxic, top hit man for the Croatian mob in NYC, is on the run. His latest target inconveniently turns out to be an undercover agent FBI agent. His spotless record ruined, Toxic has to leave his good life — prime apartment, large screen TV, voluptuous girlfriend — is directed by his boss to lay low with the LPP (lowest possible profile) in Zagreb. At the airport he finds the FBI watching his departure gate and he has to improvise. Unfortunately this is at the expense of the Rev. David Friendly who happens to be alone in the men's room with Toxic. With Friendly's clerical colar, passport, and ticket, Toxic is soon on the way to Reykjavik, Iceland.

I've been sitting on this review for a while but not because I didn't like it. On the contrary, I love it and look forward to reading more by this author. Rather I've been perplexed how to start, what tone to take, how to describe The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning.

Someone is likely to be offended by something in this book —religiously, socially, politically, sexually, nationally, and some -lys I haven't thought of — it has them all. It also has a dark, off-the-wall humor that had me snorting nearly every page and annoying my wife by insisting on reading passages.
Munita [his girlfriend] was living in Peru until her family got killed in a terrorist bombing. Then she moved to New York and found a job on Wall Street. It so happened that her first day of work was 9/11. On our first trip to Croatia together, she witnessed two killings. I have to admit that one of them was by my own hand, but the other was totally accidental. I thought it was quite a romantic scene, actually. We were having dinner in Mirko's restaurant when the guy sitting at the table next to us got a bullet through his brain. Some of his blood splattered into Munita's glass of wine. I didn't tell her. She was having red anyway.
I love the way those lean, crisp sentences lead to a punch line that is as disgusting as it is dark humor.

Toxic is an unlikely likable character: he thinks back with some fondness on his days as a soldier in the Serbo-Croatian war where he shot more people than are in his family tree; he take pride in his clean record of one bullet, one kill; he likes a nice post-killing nap. But with his  trains of thought that might take off at odd tangents, his wry comments and observations, the reader enjoys the ride as Toxic tries to understand the Icelandic people and culture and perhaps make a new life for himself. Helgason does indulge in good-natured fun at the expense of his fellow Icelanders: referring to Icelandic as the lunar language after seeing the stark landscape in the in flight magazine; mangling the pronunciation of names; shock at the low crime rate; the lack of guns. He made me want to visit Iceland.

This style of writing is difficult to do well. The dark humor can easily come across as forced and fall flat. It takes a deft hand to keep the humor fresh and edgy. This is the author's first book in English but he is able to take the venerable "stranger in a strange land" trope and give it a sharp, witty, and occasionally grotesque edge which is no mean feat since the first person narrative voice means that this is a character driven monologue of Toxic's musings.

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is a fun read. It is mostly on the light end of crime genre but with sharp edges that keep it interesting. Amongst the dark humor, the author includes passages that illustrate how desensitized we have become to violence. I suspect that some people will find this jarring and out of place but I like an author willing to go out of bounds if it gives insight into a character. Helgason is an author on my watch list and I wouldn't mind if he found a way to return to Toxic's world.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Granny Smith Investigates by Gary Dobbs

It is a fact without dispute that the British village is one of the most dangerous places a person can live. Many dark secrets are harboured and murder is likely at any moment. If a village fete is in progress you can be certain someone's a goner.

Sometime during the Gilfach Village Fete (in Wales), Edith Sullivan is brutally murdered. Edith had been seen arguing with her husband Stanley so the police, led by Chief Inspector Miskin, consider Stan their prime suspect. Mary Alice Smith, AKA Granny Smith, is having none of it. Besides the fact that Stan was sinking pints with her husband Arthur all evening in the beer tent, she just knows —neighbors for 20 years after all— that Stan isn't capable of murder. When the police —"we know what we're doing"—don't take Granny's observations seriously, she has to prove Stan innocent and find the guilty party herself. What did Edith see at the fete that shocked her? What's the story with the engagement of Sheila and the much younger, semi-retired but "dishy, sex on legs" London solicitor Nigel Charlton.

Granny Smith Investigates answers the question, "how might Miss Marple turned out had she been born in the 1950s instead of the 1860s." She is referred to as "Miss Marple on steroids" several times in the course of the s generally disregard the proven crime solving record of the amateur sleuth. You can deduce that Granny isn't exactly like her fictional counterpart but how she differs I will leave to the reader to find out. More fun that way. Just keep in mind that she would have been an adolescent in the 1960s.

As in Gary's other writing, he puts great care in crafting his characters, gives them dimension, then puts them in a setting where their personalities fit the story. A second novel is due out later this year and Gary promises a more "densely plotted whodunit" but not at the expense of the characters. I'm particularly interested to see what he does with Gerald, Granny's son. I keep thinking about the character Daffyd in the BBC comedy Little Britain.

Dobbs says that he hadn't read much in the cosy genre before he wrote Granny Smith Investigates but he hits the tropes and his modernized approach to the genre is great fun. He adds "broad humour" which you don't find much of in the Miss Marple mysteries. He considers the genre in this post, What is a Cozy Crime? About his approach to the cozy Gary writes, "I'm reading more and more cozies now and so I'm starting to understand the genre boundaries - all the better to hop over them". I'm looking forward to seeing how Gary places his stamp on this venerable genre.

About the author:
There are some curious aspects to Gary Dobbs you have to account for when introducing him. He is, variously: a Welshman; he writes novels set in the American West (as Jack Martin); he is a bit of a Ripperologist (A Policeman's Lot/The Rhondda Ripper and on Amazon); he's an actor who has appeared in Doctor Who and Torchwood (swoon), and has a good role in the horror film The Reverend; and on Jan. 1, 2013, he will hang up his taxi license and become a full-time writer. I did a three part interview with Gary back in 2010 which is due for an updating. He blogs at The Tainted Archive.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Kindle edition, published by Mulholland Books, 2011.
Mulholland now has 9 of Jim Thompson's available as e-books and they intend to make 25 of Thompson't 29 books available in this format.
Pop. 1280 was originally published in 1964. The top cover is from the Mulholland Books edition. The one below is from the my well-worn 1990 Vintage/Black Lizard edition.

I relied on Robert Polito's Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson for background for this post.

Psychotics, criminals, people you really don't want to take an interest in you, Jim Thompson (1906-1977) captured them all in his stories. You don't read Jim Thompson expecting a happy ending. What you get is existential nihilism. The man could write noir and his impact is still felt. There is a nod to Pop. 1280 in James Sallis' Cypress Grove (read closely, you might miss it). Gloria Denton in Megan Abbott's Queenpin has the same noir genes as Thompson's Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. There is even a band named Pop. 1280 (think apocalyptic punk).

Pop. 1280 is the first person narrative of Nick Corey, the high sheriff of Potts County in an unnamed Western state in the early 1900s. Most of the action takes place in and around Pottsville, the county seat, with a population of 1,280 souls—down to 1,273 by the end.

For the first 6 chapters we see Nick as a harmless, lazy, spineless, aww shucks oaf who gets by with a joke, a slap on the back, and not making a fuss. Nick says he figures he has it made " long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'." The tone is light, even humorous.

Nick is also a man with prodigious appetites. A typical meal might be "...half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy." He never describes himself but the reader  can't help but imagine Nick as a big if not obese man.

His other appetite is women.
"I'll tell you something about me. I'll tell you for true. That's one thing I never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift—just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches—when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of 'em there were." 
Despite, or perhaps because of this, Nick ends up blackmailed into marrying Myra, a horrible woman who brought her half-witted peeping tom "brother" Lennie to the marriage with her. This doesn't stop Nick from having an intimate relationship with Rose Hauck, a woman married to the town drunk and neer-do-well, Tom Hauck. And he'd really like to get back together with Amy, the woman he was going to marry until Myra came along.

When the story opens, Nick has problems —"And yet I was worried. I had so many troubles that I was worried plumb sick." His immediate problem is the disrespect he gets from two pimps in town but he is also worried about the coming election and, of course, his women problems. He's off to see Ken Lacey, the sheriff a couple of counties down the river, who has given him "valuable" advice in the past. Ken is a condescending bully but Nick is at his toadying best when he asks Ken how to handle the pimps.

Nick's approach to problem solving is covered in a dark but often humorous way and it is a treat to see how Thompson moves the story along.

Thompson's first major success was The Killer Inside Me, a dark, violent, misogynistic first person narrative. His last was Pop. 1280. They have similarities but I think Thompson found his finest expression in Pop. 1280. It might be close to the perfect noir story.

Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey both represent Thompson's love/hate relationship with his own father. "Big Jim" Thompson was a successful lawman in the Oklahoma territory. He was a big man who, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey, presented a good old boy front to the world. He was also crooked, fleeing to Mexico after being caught embezzling jail funds. Despite his down home, country boy manner, Thompson had a first rate mind. One of his favorite tricks was to play along with someone treating him like an ignorant redneck then hit them with learned expositions on medicine, history, and philosophy. Both Lou Ford and Nick Corey have a sharp intelligence that they are careful to hide. As Nick says "who wants a smart sheriff?". These two stories show Thompson's contempt for his father. Polito points out that the title, Pop. 1280, is probably a sly reference to his "Pop" Thompson.

Pop. 1280 is beautifully and subtly constructed. The reader sees Nick drop a word here, nudge someone there to bring his plans together. Often something Nick says or thinks doesn't register until  later in the story. I've read Pop. 1280 many times and I still managed to find something new as I prepared this post.

Nick Corey is psychotic but where Lou Ford is cruel and sadistic, Nick is a manipulator. He believes he has a messianic mission to fulfill and knows he needs to arrange his environment to continue his mission. His mission – "to punish the heck out of people for bein' people. To coax 'em into revealin' theirselves , an' then kick the crap out of 'em." There is some violence but nothing approaching the scale of The Killer Inside Me.

Pop. 1280 is also a savage attack on corruption, racism, mistreatment of children, and the treatment of the working man. At one point,  Nick neatly skewers a detective from a fictional agency clearly meant to represent the Pinkerton's.  About the railway strike of 1886,
"Now, by golly, that really took nerve," I said. "Them railroad workers throwin' chunks of coal at you an' splashin' you with water, and you fellas without nothin' to defend yourself with except shotguns an' automatic rifles! Yes sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!"
Nick is most vulnerable and sympathetic when talks about his own childhood and the abuses against children and women. Thompson does something you might not think possible, that maybe one of his psychotics isn't all bad, that maybe soes do some good. As long as you don't become part of his plan, that is.

Pop. 1280 is my favorite Jim Thompson novel. It's one I read at least once a year with the same enjoyment as the first time I encountered it and I highly recommend it.

Film adaptation:
Bertrand Tavernier took Pop. 1280 and set it in colonial French West Africa in the 1930s. He called it Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate). It is an excellent adaptation and faithful to the main story line. Tavernier's commentary on noir is a reason to purchase the DVD.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Bad Girl by Michele Jaffe

Kindle edition, 2004. Ballentine Books, sold by Random House Digital, Inc.

Crime fiction is my preferred genre and I'm drawn to the hardboiled and noir styles. But I look at all genre fiction, including romance, because the way the genres can be blended to appeal to multiple audiences is interesting. For example, Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb), a noted romance author, has created the Eve Dallas/In Death... series which mixes the science fiction, romance, and police procedural crime fiction genres. A blending of genres can be tagged as a crossover story.  And this brings me to why I read Bad Girl. I had to drive a 16 ft. rental truck from Florida to Virginia recently and among the podcasts loaded on my iPod was the DBSA Romance Fiction Podcast, put together by Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Jane of Dear Author. Sarah and Jane episodes on ebooks and publishing— a topic that interests me as a reader and as a librarian— which is what drew me to the podcast. DBSA is smart, insightful, and funny and I dropped Sarah and Jane a note to tell them I enjoyed their work. I mentioned my preference for crime fiction and jokingly suggested that I was going to read Tool Belt Defender. Jane seriously responded that Michelle Jaffe's Bad Girl would be a better crossover for me to start with.

This isn't so much a review as the reaction of a hard core crime fiction reader to a romance/crime fiction crossover novel and what I perceive as the romance tropes found in the story. Romance readers should feel free to correct me where I miss the point. I've deliberately avoided reading anything that could affect my perceptions.

A couple of things upfront about this post. First, I enjoyed the book. Jaffe writes an entertaining story and is excellent plot, characters, and details. I'll probably never be a serious reader of romance but it can be a fun detour. Second, I have two warnings. Jaffe violates a great taboo for many readers — harm and implied harm to children. The harm is described after the event but is still difficult to absorb. She has two explicit sex scenes, one short and icky, one extended and racy. If harm to children and any suggestion of sex bothers you then this book might not be for you. Third, there may be spoilers ahead. I'm not going to identify the big bad but anything else is a fair target.

Plot Summary:
Chicago "Windy" Thomas and her daughter Cate move to Las Vegas where Windy has been recruited to head the criminalistics department. She will be joined soon by her fiancé Bill. Six weeks into the job, Ash Laughton, the head of the Violent Crimes Task Force, asks her to take a look at a murder scene to see if she has any insights. The murder is particularly hideous with a mother and three young children the victims. From the level of violence Ash feels that this isn't the first time the murderer has killed and it won't be the last. Ash's fears are borne out and he and Windy are launched into a high pressure race to find a pattern, a motive, the killer.

Jaffe emphasizes the investigation over the romance which appealed to me. Windy has a solid background having worked in the FBI's crime lab for six years and was a sheriff for three. I give the author top marks for the criminalistics part of the story. She plays it straight without tossing in a lot of shiny forensic toys. When asked if she had seen CSI: "Had she ever. Windy dreamed of equipment like the stuff they showed." Windy is shown to have first rate analytical and observational skills and confidence and pride in her abilities.

I always like learning something new and here I learned about leuco crystal violet. All readers of police procedurals and forensic stories and watchers of Dexter know about using luminol to detect blood. After looking at the crime scene photos — like Sherlock Holmes and the dog barking in the night — Windy is drawn to what she doesn't see — the kitchen  in this case. Recognizing the limitations of luminal in that location, she elects to use LCV. Jaffe gives an excellent description of Windy and her technician working the kitchen. This scene is used effectively to show "new kid" Windy winning over the grizzled veteran. I also learned about electrostatic lifting to find evidence in carpet.

The murders are horrible and disturbing to think about. Some readers might think they verge on torture porn but Jaffe is no more extreme than many crime fiction writers and better at it than many.

I do have a couple of minor nit picks. What kind of organization does she work for where she has been on the job for six weeks and hasn't met all the people who work for her AND she has to be asked to look over crime scene photos? I would have thought one of her first tasks would have been to get to know the abilities and limitations of her crime scene technicians. And why didn't she already know that this gruesome murder had occurred?

Worse is something that might have crime fic readers poised to hurl book at wall. Windy was recruited for the job but presumably she had at least one interview. Which makes it inexplicable that she could take the job while promising fiancé Bill that she wouldn't work crime scenes and she wouldn't work nights and weekends. We are supposed to accept that Los Vegas would hire a first rate criminalist but not expect her to take an active part in investigations. Now I understand that this is a necessary plot device to build tension between Windy and Bill but the crime fiction reader in me made an obscene exclamation when this came up.

And this leads me to ...

I said earlier that Windy is highly competent at her job. She worked for the FBI. After her husband died in a wind surfing accident she left the FBI to become an acting sheriff where she was so good that the government officials didn't bother to look for a replacement. But she is trying to Bury Her True Nature which leads to Emotional Conflict. She is proud of her abilities but she also thinks she should be the perfect mother from a 50s tv show —bake cookies, go to soccer games, be the good wife to Bill. There is some good Angsting going on. I give Jaffe credit for giving Windy a background that explains her insecurities. Her parents left Chile to escape the brutal Pinochet regime. They tried to pass on to Windy what they consider important survival skills from their life in Chile: be safe, be a good girl, don't be noticed. There were times when I wished that Eve Dallas would drop in from the In Death series and give her a boot in the ass to straighten her out.

Adding to her conflict is Bill, the Emotionally Stifling Fiancé. Bill is Mr. Safe, Mr. Bland, Mr. Unimaginative. The moment Windy thinks to herself "Bill always knew exactly where everything he wanted was" I know he wouldn't last. He isn't abusive but he wants to shelter Windy. He says "Babe, I love you so much. I just want to take care of you. Protect you." Gah! I wonder if romance readers are wondering at this point why she hasn't kicked him to the curb and recognized that she really needs the Roguish Yet Sensitive Ash.

Upon meeting Windy, Ash is Immediately Smitten. Up to to then, his only relationships had been with married women in cheap motels. Ash is also unusual in that he is independently wealthy having sold a software package that he knocked off for fun for $30 million. So he doesn't have to work and can afford a complicated and fast sports care. I wonder if Jaffe is giving a nod to John Sanford's Lucas Davenport who is also a cop who sold a computer game for a bundle and drives a Porsche? After meeting Windy, Ash is more likely to go home, strip to his underwear, and paint. He won't admit it but he Longs for a Family.

We've all recognized that Windy is very attracted to Ash and eventually comes to the Realization That He Is The One which leads to a Can We Still be Friends scene with Bill where he reveals his True Nature (I think he could have become abusive). At this point Windy has what I can only describe as a Gloriously Liberating Breakthrough. She hops in the shower, puts on her fancy underwear (Bill preferred plain white cotton), dons her leathers, jumps on her Ducati motorcycle for the first time in years, and roars off to have wild monkey sex (Sarah used this expression in one of the podcasts). This is wonderfully over-the-top and a definite You Go Girl moment.

In case you haven't put it together, the bolded words are what I think might be romance tropes. Let me know if I'm wrong or missed any.

I'm not good at the "if you liked..." type of recommendation and don't do it often. But as a crime fiction reader, I would say that if you like J.D. Robb's books then this might have appeal. I happen to like those books myself. I think there is enough romance to appeal to readers of contemporary romance. And people who read the big name crime authors whose books occupy several shelves might also like it.