Friday, November 30, 2012

Slaughter's Hound, by Declan Burke

I think sometimes the form of the crime fiction series lulls us into thinking we know what to expect out of its novels. Indeed, this is usually half the intent. Drumming up a little business for the brand. Personally, I have nothing against this formulaic approach. When a series has gone on too long, I just stop reading it. No harm, no foul.

I suppose, then, I was looking forward to the second Harry Rigby book for the usual, but as it turns out, the wrong reasons. As anyone who read Eightball Boogie will know (and you really should read it first as this one has some spoilers for that earlier one), that story ends leaving Harry in some challenging straits, and a lot of time has passed since then as this book opens. So let's just say it's kind of the opposite of the Sue Grafton series, where Kinsey Millhone can remain the same age through several volumes of the alphabet series, or maybe even more.

Time, then, has passed, and it has not passed well for Harry Rigby. He is currently driving a cab and running various errands, not all of them on the licit side of the line. One of them involves bringing some grass to an old friend. It gives nothing away to say that that friend takes a fatal dive off a tall building, because it happens within the first two pages. The rest of the book concerns the whys and wherefores of this fateful fall. 

This is a dark tale, and it gets progressively darker as it goes along. In the middle, it reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and also of his Irish literary descendent, Declan Hughes, with its tale of doomed families and the ruin that attends them. But there is a kind of go for broke quality to this book that I haven't really found in the aforementioned illustrious writers' work, and it took me till nearly the end of the book to realize that Burke has laid it all out for us in the very title of the work, and in a helpful author's epigram, in which he notes that the great warrior  CĂș Chulainn's name really means Hound of Ulster and that he owned a number of war hounds called archĂș, who were known for their love of slaughter.  So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen--a quiet stroll by the river this is not. Instead, it is a tale steeped in the tradition of the Irish myth cycles, where deeds are great, but, well, bloody. So don't say I didn't give you fair warning.

But now that I have, don't be scared off. This is also a smart, and funny--yes, funny--tale of contemporary Ireland, and Harry is down and out partly because a lot of people are. It's just that he reaches a deeper level of loss than most, which propels him on a grim trajectory that in retrospect seems fated, as that of mythic heroes always do.

Burke is also a writer of gorgeous sentences, and just so I don't leave you the impression that the book is all havoc, let me end with the beginning...

(filched from his website)
"It was  a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a new pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see, mid-June and almost midnight and balmy yet, the kind of evening built for a long walk with a woman who likes to take long walks and not say very much, and that little in a murmur you have to strain to catch, her laughter low and throaty, her humour dry and favouring lewd, eyes like smoky mirrors of the vast night sky and in them twinkles that might be stars reflecting or the first sparks of intentions that you’d better fan with soft words and a gentle touch in just the right place or spend the rest of your life and maybe forever wondering what might have been, all for the want of a soft word and a touch gentle and true.
It was that kind of evening, alright. That kind of place.
You ever find yourself there, say something soft, and be gentle, and true.
Me, I found myself hunched over the charred dwarf that had once been Finn Hamilton, parts of him still sizzling in a marinade of oily flesh and melting tar, and all around the rank stench of singing hair and burnt petrol, seared pork.
Midnight, and balmy yet."

Now do yourself a favor and go out and find the rest.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Land of the Blind, by Jess Walter

I work in an indie bookstore, and we're always looking for ways to stay open and to change with the times simultaneously. So as of this month, we as well as a host of other indies will actually be selling ereaders, as well as offering ebooks, which was the last phase of this sort of transition.

At this point, I don't think there's much value in debating the presence of ereaders in our lives. As a reader and a writer, I mostly just hope that people will keep reading, rather than using their increasingly sophisticated devices for more distracting, alluring things.

But I do sometimes wonder if people understand what they might be losing in being willing to give over physical books entirely. Here's a small example. I'm already a fan of Jess Walter. I loved Citizen Vince, his interesting spin on what a gangster in witness protection would do when for the first time he tries to figure out how to vote in a presidential election (not this one, by the way), and thought The Zero was one of the more thoughtful novels to come in the aftermath of 9/11. I haven't gotten around to his later works yet, though I hear he moves from strength to strength and hope to get to them soon.

But it was an earlier work that called to me a couple of weeks ago. It was just spined in the used book box, and of course I got on to it partly because it was Walter, but there was something more to it than that. I don't know why an individual book can suddenly command our, or at least my attention. But I have found this to be the case many times over my life. There's just a sense that now is the moment.

Like I say, this is an early work of Walter's, and maybe it isn't even the best place to start if you haven't read him already. But maybe it is. The story revolves around several characters and is told through two lenses. One is a world weary police detective, a woman, who is going through something a little bit more than job burnout. A man, who she initially thinks is just another crazy, is taken in because he has been found wandering around in a derelict but soon to renovated hotel in downtown Spokane, Washington. Largely because she too is at a sort of crisis point in her life, she resists just sending him on his way, and allows him to stay at the station writing his confession. Not sure what this 'confession' is really about, she conducts her own investigation in the meantime.

Through the confession, the story soon veers back to childhood. I resisted this a bit at first, because I wanted to stay in the present story, but such is Walter's skill that he can suck you into any story he wants to tell you. This backstory of  childhood hierarchies and friendships and betrayals is plotted perfectly to keep you reading. It is also and incidentally a portrait of what life is like in the other cities of our country. Spokane is always positioned in the minds of the characters as 'not Seattle', and in the midst of the nineties high tech boom, this is not insignificant. One of the many virtues of the book is the evocation of eastern Washington.

Looking through some reader reviews before I wrote this, I'm reminded that there are parts that are hard to take when it comes to scapegoating and bullying of children by their peers. I'll only say that there are people who forget their childhoods and people who reflect back on them. I'm willing to bet that Walter is one of the latter.       

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Cold Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty--American style

Now that The Cold Cold Ground has finally arrived in California, I thought I'd repost the meandering review I wrote of the book when it came out in England at the beginning of the year. It really is one of my favorite crime novels and I encourage people to seek it out for any number of reasons. Plus, I can put up the American cover.

Let's cut to the chase here--I love this book. "Love" isn't usually a word I use in describing my reaction to a crime novel, although even an occasional reader here on this blog may have deduced that I am a mad fan of Adrian McKinty's writing. I'd tend to say exciting, well-written, fast paced--things like this. But for reasons both idiosyncratic and more universal I do love this book.

Let's get the subjective part over first. The events of this novel largely take place in Belfast and neighboring towns in the spring of 1981. McKinty was still a child during this historic, tragic moment of Northern Ireland's recent history--and lived through them as a child--but I was a youngish adult, traveling through England and Europe for the first time. I didn't get to Northern Ireland, of course--probably wouldn't have even dared if I'd thought of it. But the Hunger Strikes which form a part of the background of this story were much on the mind of everyone in England that we met, that and the Royal Wedding, as well as the assassination attempt on the Pope and other things that mark this novel as accurate to its specific moment. So, for me, there is an odd nostalgia that goes along with this story, and it had an almost uncanny ability to restore the memories of a long forgotten time. It helped, I suppose, that we visited our old professor in Yorkshire, and he had some very definite opinions about Ian Paisley and Margaret Thatcher and everyone who was involved in Northern Ireland at that time, so that I was not completely ignorant of events, as normally I very well might have been.

But beyond all this, the real reason I'm crazy about this book is that it's actually the one I've wanted McKinty to write since I first began reading him. In Dead I Well May Be, we get a tantalizing look at life in Northern Ireland as the story opens, where we meet Michael Forsythe signing up for some illegal work in Belfast. No sooner do we start to settle into that life, though, than Michael finds himself fleeing the country entirely. Dead I Well May Be is a wonderful book, but there was a part of me that felt when we abruptly find him again in Harlem in a whole new life that I had been a bit cheated of something. The Northern Ireland that Michael Forsythe slips out of is not quite the Northern Ireland of 1981, but they are older brother and younger brother to each other. There is a bomb at the beginning of Dead I Well May Be, there are more than one in The Cold Cold Ground. One thing that most of us in the world are fortunate enough not to have experience of is what its like to try and live a normal life alongside of such violence with such random victims. This book, despite being a story about a crime, begins to tell us that.

The hero of our tale is Sean Duffy, a Detective Sergeant who has recently been transferred to Carrickfergus, a small coastal largely Protestant town within close reach of bellicose Belfast, but still separated enough to have its own culture and concerns. The police station is small and would be more likely to focus on insurance fraud and bicycle theft if it had its druthers, but the police force isn't exempt from getting out in full riot gear if Belfast or some other hot spot calls for support.

Duffy is a Catholic in a community that is self-protectively Protestant and could and sometimes does become hostile toward him. He's also a university trained man who was set for an academic career when one of Belfast's more violent moments touches him too deeply to ignore and sets him on the course that leads him to join the police. In other words, he's more than one kind of outsider. His stance, therefore is somewhat distanced as compared to others, and and he refuses to lead from a knee jerk partisanship in his reaction to events. (Although this doesn't make him a stranger to flareups of anger in other circumstances.)

The plot is a tight police procedural, with a couple of crimes floating around and investigating these takes Duffy and his team into many neighborhoods of Belfast and environs. Places like the Falls Road will sound familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of The Troubles, but McKinty knows both what they are and what they have been better than most. Here's how Duffy describes Rathcool to a colleague as they walk its "drab tenements and crumbling 1960s tower blocks.":

Rathcool comes from the Irish Rath Cuile meaning 'in the centre of the fort'. Once this was a royal palace for the kings of the Ulaidh. Now look at it. Concrete towers and row upon row of soulless terraces.

Most people could look it up on Wikipedia and then tell you of the recent history of Rathcool. Some might even give you that Gaelic meaning. But not everyone will give you the deep history of a place as they are describing the site of a run down tenement. Its the book's depth as well as its breadth, geographic and otherwise, that sets it apart.

Although Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer and things occasionally blow up in the background, don't be misled into thinking this is a grim tale. There's always humor running through McKinty's work, sometimes quietly, sometimes a groan-making pun. His ironic stance on situations that others have invested heavily in positions on always makes you look at things a bit differently.

Carrickfergus is a little world. I'm glad McKinty came back to it, at least for awhile.

(If you'd like to get a sense of the opening paragraphs, here is a LINK.)