Saturday, August 24, 2013

Silent Thunder, by Loren D. Estleman

I don't know about you, but my what to read next method is neither orderly nor logical. I have stacks of books that I want to read in my house, and mental lists of things I mean to get to, but, unless its something I'm required to read for a book group or some other objective, my choices tend to be impulsive, spur of the moment things.

So after mourning in passing the announcement of Detroit's bankruptcy in mid July, I was eager to find a book by an author recommended by a guy I'll call Joe V. over on another blog. He recommended the Amos Walker series of Loren Estleman because of their Detroit setting.

Until quite recently, and for a long time, I worked in a bookstore, and had more than a passing acquaintance with the mystery section there. Estleman's name was quite familiar to me, but somehow I had never gotten around to him. There are a lot of authors like that in the book biz--you think you know something about them, simply because you've noticed them on the shelf. Sometimes the fact that they are prolific, and Estleman is prolific, works against them--you tick it off as you shelve it as "another Estleman". It's a fairly neutral thought, but all the same you've written the author off without really stopping to examine why.

But I was wrong about not being interested in Estleman, as I often am about authors I haven't read yet, but have somehow managed to categorize anyway. Silent Thunder was an absorbing read. Amos Walker is a Chandlerian sort of detective, but never seems derivative. In this book  he hired to help keep Constance Thayer from being imprisoned for the murder of her husband, which she has already confessed to. Seems like a bit of a longshot of a case, but that doesn't stop Walker from taking it. The fact that her husband turns out to have been storing an unholy amount of weaponry in the basement does make it seem she may have a fighting chance.

One of the rewards of genre fiction that non-genre readers don't understand is that a long running series, whatever the ups and downs of individual books, gives a writer a long time to focus on the object of his or her interest. Quite often, one of those interests is place. So we have Tony Hillerman's evocative Navajo mysteries set in the Four Corners region of Arizona and New Mexico, and Janet Evanovich's comic Stefanie Plum series sending a love letter to Trenton, New Jersey (it would have seemed unlikely until she did it, but that's what talent's for). And then there is Estleman's sustained meditation on Detroit. Perhaps it's only from this perspective that the writing seems elegiac. Even when this book came out in 1989, there was a sense that the glory days of a great city had long since passed.

One of the great things about having a private detective as a protagonist is that they do get around. Amos Walker crosses many lines in his circumnavigations of the city and environs. One thing that surprised me, though it shouldn't have, is that just outside this industrial city is farm country. I say it shouldn't surprise me because much the same is true of Chicago, with which I am more familiar. Estleman also gives us a nice gradation of the different suburbs surrounding the harsher city core.

Unlike many recent bestsellers, where action counts and good writing not so much, Silent Thunder gives us many beautifully observed passages without letting the pacing suffer. He has a wonderful descriptive style, that gives us many nicely delineated portraits of the many characters that come and go throughout the book. I'd say that these portraits are not particularly generous to women, but then they aren't particularly generous to men either.

Silent Thunder is the ninth in this long running series (Estleman is currently up to number 22), but as Joe V. said, it doesn't really matter where you start. Just grab one and plunge right in.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Walker Percy on Elmore Leonard

''Most thrillers,'' says Elmore Leonard, ''are based on a situation, or on a plot, which is the most important element in the book. I don't see it that way. I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to each other, and the plot just sort of comes along.''

As all mystery and crime fiction readers will know by now, Elmore Leonard has died at the age of 87. I've been an intermittent reader of his work over the years, and always enjoy it when I do. I have nothing particularly new to add to the eulogies, but I thought I'd post a link to a piece Walker Percy wrote on Bandits for the New York Times book review some years ago. I was probably more of a Walker Percy sort of reader than a crime fiction reader at that point, and I think Percy may have shifted an unconscious snobbiness I had about genre more than I really knew at the time. Reading Leonard helped too.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Magdalen Martyrs, by Ken Bruen

I see that it's been far too long since my last reading of a Jack Taylor novel, but don't take that as a mark against these terrific books. You could make a case for just sitting down and reading all the Taylor books in one go, as they are really just the picaresque adventures of one ne'er-do-well Irish ex-garda (or cop, if you haven't heard the word). A case could be made for a sidekick in the form of his garda coat, which he refuses to return. But though I don't show restraint in all that many things, I do tend to pace myself a bit with authors I like, as I don't like the idea of running out of their books before they can write more.

Bruen's vision may be a little bleak for some. I'm sure that many Americans have had an experience of Galway, the setting for the novels, that was not much like this one. It's a nice city for tourists. When I was there, we stayed in a castle, visited a few of the city's many bookstores, heard some trad music and watched the street performers. All that. However, unlike Colin Dexter's vision of Inspector Morse's Oxford, which has fictionally wreaked havoc on what is by all accounts a pretty peaceful town in reality, I feel fairly certain that Bruen's vision of Galway and by extension Ireland itself is a real one. Not the only one, but a real one. The Magdalene Laundries with their institutionalized abuse of "wayward" young women and which this book takes its title and elements of its plot from, were real. Jack Taylor's hatred of priests (except for one surprisingly sympathetic one he meets in this book) is not just an odd character quirk but based on a culture where Catholicism held unchallenged sway for far too long. (And that's not meant as a jab at Catholicism per se, though it is a jab at unmitigated power wherever it's found.)

I should mention that these books are funny, though funny in the way that jokes were funny in, say, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution. If you can't take your humor a little dark, then this is not the author for you. And it's not so much about jokes, as the way Taylor (and presumably Bruen) observes life.

The thing that most stands out for me with the Jack Taylor books is that Jack, though an alcoholic, a druggie, a failed cop and in some ways, a failed everything is still first and foremost a reader. I think there are few portraits of the reader as such that are rendered so convincingly. Taylor finds his way through life by the light of books, and if you think that's meant as some sort of moral prescription for the reading of books, you'd be wrong. Books don't make Taylor a better person. They are simply one of his strategies for survival.

As a reader, rarely will you find a fictional work that opens so many doors to other books. In fact, the case is usually with fiction that the author pretends that all these other rooms don't exist. With Bruen's books, you feel like you could quite easily wander off into the world of Thomas Merton or George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane, all of whom have chapter heading quotes (and I have to wonder, does Bruen match the quote to the story or the story to the quote or what exactly?) and never get lost, because you would still be exploring the same vast literary house.  

Long may these rooms and passages connect.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dan Kois' mass market marathon

One of my all time favorites.
In the not too distant past, and for a long time, I was the mass market buyer at the bookstore I worked at. Even when I started the job, the mass market book phenomenon was already beginning its long decline, though it didn't seem like it to me at the time. By the end of my employment, mass market was being written off by all but a couple of publishers. Although I haven't conducted a thorough investigation, what I hear frequently is that first, trade paperbacks killed them off, and then it turned out that genre fiction, which most mass market books are at this point,  lent itself very easily to being transformed into ebooks. They both have something of the same consume and dispose quality in people's minds.

Cheesy cover, great book.
Even when I began, though, mass was always a bit looked down upon by many of my coworkers, and I have to say I never really understood that. If you didn't like mysteries or sci-fi or romance, there were still always a strong line of classics that were to be had cheaply in this format. Jane Austen, Salinger, even, rather unbelievably, considering its density, Les Miserables. But even current literary efforts often took this form. So  I never really understood the condescension towards the format.
I'll read a book in almost any form, but I do have a fondness for mass market. So I was very pleased to see Dan Kois embark on a mass market marathon over at Slate this month. In celebration of his efforts, I checked out the used book shop at our local library yesterday, and picked out a couple of classics off the shelf. I was spoiled for choice, really.

What kind of rubbish was it? The Americans and The Aspern Papers/ The Spoils of Poynton, both by Henry James. 50 cents a pop.

Just to illustrate my point.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Guns of Brixton, by Paul D. Brazill

Did you happen to see Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? If you liked that film than I'm pretty sure you will like this fast paced story as well. Brit Grit with a double shot of humor is the way I'd describe it. The madcap plot (which begins with someone's brains being blown out, so don't say I didn't warn you) carries on at too fast a pace for me to summarize here. The humor tends to be of the ribald variety, but it operates on other levels as well--puns on popular culture, nods to more high tone cultural references. The overarching style is irreverence. Brazill doffs his hat to no icons.

"I need a break. I'm getting tired of London."
"I thought they said that if you are tired of London that you're tired of life?"
"Yeah, well they had obviously never been to Chiswick on a Saturday morning when all the yuppie mums are dragging their spoilt brats around after them. The bland leading the bland in The Land of the Twee."

Like that.

I should also point out that Paul writes some of the best short reviews on Good Reads and elsewhere that I've come across. They are succinct and accurate but also generous. They do what the best reviews tend to do, which is to make you want to read what he's just read, even if it isn't what you would have picked up on your own. So check them out.

(This blog post was originally posted on Good Reads.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban

"Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come."
                                                     --Wallace Stevens
                                                      (from Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction)

The journey through books can sometimes be an uncanny thing. As I was reflecting on my recent read of Turtle Diary, I was thinking how apt this epigraph was. It only gradually dawned on me that it was the epigraph of an entirely different book, which I was more or less concurrently reading. On the face of it, the books bear no relation to each other. Turtle Diary is a short novel told in intertwined voices by two more or less lonely people living separate lives in London, circa 1975. The Particulars of Rapture, where the epigraph actually resides, is an extended and scholarly meditation on the book of Exodus by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. And yet it turns out that one book has very much to say about the other.

Turtle Diary is not a love story, at least not in a conventional sense. And it has a rhythm that we do not expect from more conventional tales. Things that we might think impossible to accomplish are managed relatively easily, while things that might seem quite manageable are actually nearly impossible for our protagonists. They are conscious of need, but they are also conscious of their own necessities. A middle-aged life, as both of these characters make clear, is already at least "half-baked". It can't be molded into just any old shape anymore. The near solid edges have to fit together. Salvation must come in an unconventional form, as it does for the Israelites in Egypt. It gives not much away to say that for William G. and Neaera H., the deus ex machina comes in the guise of sea turtles.

William and Neaera are not exactly opposites--rather too much alike in some ways, William thinks. But they do represent masculine and feminine principles all the same, and according to Wallace Stevens and to Avivah Zornberg, the particulars of rapture are dependent on this mysterious embrace of opposites. Although other things happen in the book, it is their particular comingling that will launch change.

Zornberg, I think, has much to say about what precisely is ailing these two. It isn't just loneliness, although that is an aspect of it. In her understanding, Egypt in Exodus represents the place of constriction, paralysis and silence.

"This is the fundamental issue of Exodus: how to be redeemed when Egypt, that enervating soulscape, has one in its pincer grip? From such a perspective, Israel in Egypt cannot be redeemed--no separation is possible..."No slave ever escaped Egypt" (Mekhilta) What makes release possible, or, in midrashic language, what makes the people fit for redemption? What is the turning point in the history of unarticulated misery? And what, again in midrashic language, is the secret of redemption?"

How one person--or one people--escapes this pincer grasp is what both these books set about to find out.

When I bought this novel, the salesclerk happened to have read it and spoke enthusiastically about it, but said, it is bleak, though. I told her that bleak didn't bother me. What's odd, though, now I've read it, is that, though it does indeed have its bleak moments, it's nowhere near as bleak as another Hoban book I've read, The Mouse and His Child. And that was a children's book. Talk about your constriction and paralysis. But as John Clute is quoted as saying in an intro to Turtle Diary, all of Hoban's adult books are tales "of glorious escape from physical and psychic bondage".   And, spoiler alert, even a clockwork mouse in a children's tale has some hope of that sort of redemption.

(The illustration above is from the edition of the book illustrated by Hoban's then wife, Lillian.)