Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Detective, by Loren D. Estleman

Hard-boiled detective Amos Walker of Detroit takes on a seemingly simple case: pay the suitor of an heir to walk away. The case quickly goes wrong, however, and Walker instead finds himself working for himself.

In his quest he comes across a former baseball hero, a suspicious land owner, a mob-style union organizer, and several other unsavory, interesting, and less-than-savory characters. The threads to the mystery seem to keep diverging and Walker can't just walk away. He has to tie them together, even if it means his life.

Walker doesn't believe there is much to his life anyway. His closest friend is a police detective with whom he trades unkind barbs and who has taken away his illegal gun more than once. He has no love life, no close family, not even a cat. What he does have is his skill and determination. That, along with his skill with words, is what keeps the story moving.

The dialogue at times is priceless. In fact, it was the rapid-fire verbal intercourse that held me most. The story hangs together well. The escapades are unbelievable, but we want to believe anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Songs of Innocence, by Richard Aleas

I had not heard of this series until the day I bought this book. I was looking specifically for this one and could not find it under the author's name. Fortunately, a Borders employee recognized it as one of this series and he found it on another shelf.

"Hard Case Crime" publishes old and new pulp mysteries, in low-cost editions. Many current mystery writers have written for the series, taking on a type of mystery that they might not usually do, the kind of hard-boiled detective genre. The covers feature original art created for the story. When I saw the painting on the cover I realized first that it resembled the pulp fiction covers of old and second that most modern-day cover art comes from sources like Getty Images and is not created for the specific work.

Songs of Innocence features a detective who also featured in Aleas's first novel, Little Girl Lost. In that episode, detective John Blake was indirectly responsible for the death of one woman and the near-death of another. His guilt has now led him to leave detective work altogether and take up working as an assistant at Columbia University (one of the places I wanted to attend as a young'un, by the way) and to take some writing classes.

He meets the gorgeous but sad Dorothy Burke, called Dorrie, in a class, and one thing leads to another. In this case it isn't just sex that follows but a mutual support arrangement, given that both are prone to depression and thoughts of suicide. They even make a pact that one will not off herself without first calling the other.

So when Dorrie turns up dead in her bathtub, apparently a suicide, Blake is skeptical. But generally keeps his thoughts and his investigation to himself.

Of course his investigation does not stay secret. It invites inquiry by a wide range of bad guys and Blake is at times beaten up to prove it. His investigation also ferrets out ugly secrets from others Blake had not included on his list of possibles. In the end, it becomes too much, far too much.

I was a bit uncertain about the "notable book" status of this book as I was reading it, although it certainly does have an edge of reality and depth you would not normally find in a pulp novel. The end, though, explains it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Shadow Catcher: A Novel, by Marianne Wiggins

When I read a book like this I wonder how did she do it? How did she come up with the idea, the words? How did she escape sentimentality and embrace such beauty?

The Shadow Catcher is the intertwining of the story of Edward S. Curtis, famed American Indian photographer, and the story of Marianne Wiggins' own hunt for how her own father lived and died. Both the story of Curtis and the story of Wiggins are fictionalized, blending the truth with the maybe-truth, the alternative truth, what might have been, what could have been.

The story of Curtis is certainly about the man who was less a hero of the west than a gifted fame-seeker. It is more, I think, though, about his wife Clara, whose own children abandoned her when she divorced their larger-than-life yet always absent father. The story of Clara is one that so tugged at my heart that I had to stop to catch my breath.

The story of Wiggins' father ultimately becomes the story of the man who refused his own identity and took on another's. Is every story really about someone else?

Toward the end of the book Wiggins answers the question, "what did he do with his life?" by saying he did what all of us do. I'll leave the answer for you to read.

This is book 16 of the 20 I pledged I would read this year from several "notable books" lists. In this case, the book was on the Christian Science Monitor's and Publisher's Weekly lists of best books of 2007. If I had not pledged that I would read twenty I wonder if I would have gotten to this one eventually.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Person of Interest, by Theresa Schwegel

More a story of a man and a woman than a mystery of deaths in Chinatown, this novel is in that select category of mysteries that go beyond the genre.

Craig, a police detective, is working undercover to capture the gangs in Chinatown responsible for a slew of deaths from illegal drugs. His obsession with the case takes him beyond the limits of the department and into his own savings. He spends nights and days gambling, trying to pick up the leads he needs, and often sleeps in a sleazy motel.

Meanwhile, his wife Leslie struggles with their teenage daughter Ivy, who is increasingly going out of control. She feels she has not been part of a real couple for a long time and feels the pull of attraction to, of all people, her daughter's boyfriend Niko.

Each of them observes and draws conclusions, usually wrong, about the other. Their destructive tendency to keep their observations to themselves threatens to destroy the family.

Craig's efforts undercover finally yield what appears to be the perfect lead. He pushes his superior to follow through, to be ready for a big bust. Craig's obsession with the case does appear to be as unhealthy as his superior officer says it is, even though we can sympathize with his desire to end the deaths.

Gradually, Leslie is drawn unknowingly into Craig's world and even her life is threatened.

The characters of Craig and Leslie are beautifully drawn, the emotions, the drives well explicated. I wanted desperately for the two to find each other again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Possible Side Effects, by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs reads his own book in this CD edition.

I think listening to the author affects my perception of the work, and that perception is not, perhaps, as good as it might otherwise be.

Burroughs is an experienced reader, yet his technique is odd. His phrasing is out of sync with the meaning of the sentences, as he breaks where one would not normally break, emphasizes words probably not emphasized in speech. It is as if he is reading someone else's work, and for the first time.

The other book of his that I listened to was Wolf at the Table, and there is a significant difference between the two, both in the way the stories are told and in the way they are read. Wolf is the unadorned truth. No humor in it at all. It is the story of Burroughs' relationship with his father, who was a man who liked to play games with his son's head and who had little regard for the feelings or sensitivities of others. His father was a monster, and that book makes that very clear.

By contrast, Possible Side Effects is a series of stories of Burroughs' life, taken out of sequence and at times embellished as needed for comedic effect. There certainly is overlap, as they are both based on his own memories, but Side Effects is humor, even though at times a bit edgy humor.

Burroughs' reading of Wolf at the Table is unrelentingly somber, dark, and so meticulously spoken that it is as if Burroughs cannot let go of a single word without clinging to it first. I found his reading hard to take. His reading of Side Effects is lighter, even though it clearly comes from the same place. It is easier to take because he does not seem to dwell on words the same way, doesn't stretch them out until they nearly spring back. Yet the phrasing is similar, the stopping in odd places, the overall almost flat tone. In both cases he takes on the voices of other characters at times and his speech patterns and accents are very much alike in these cases, in the two books. It struck me, though, that in the case of Side Effects he does not actually speak the way these characters would have. It's disconcerting.

The stories range from all-out funny to near-yucky to creepy, frankly, and reveal inner torments underneath the humor. In these stories Burroughs talks frankly about his own physical ailments as well as mental aberrations. The stories tend to be about excess, about going too far. The times Burroughs strikes out against his parents or grandparents he does so in ways we associate with out of control juveniles. He throws the worst epithets at his hated grandmother. He single-handedly covers his childhood kitchen in flour, pots, pans, butter, meat from the freezer, and heaven knows what else. The very excess of it all is perhaps what makes it funny - as well as edgy. And it makes us wonder what it's like to be inside that head. Maybe that's why I keep coming back for more.