The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

The Game of Thirty by William Kotzwinkle

William Kotzwinkle is funny.  His wonderful novel, The Midnight Examiner, is one of the funniest books, certainly the funniest detective novel I’ve read.  Why he doesn’t have a wider audience is beyond me.

Mr. Kotzwinkle doesn’t break new ground in his mystery novels: he’s not a pioneer of anything in particular.  What he does is springboard off of accepted tropes of the genre, things seen in many other books, into the heights.  While he doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, he does it so well, better than we’ve seen in such a long time, that reading him feels like something new.  Finding him when I did, especially in The Midnight Examiner, wasn’t like finding the next Raymond Chandler, it was like finding Raymond Chandler funny cousin.

His novel The Game of Thirty features the very Chandleresque detective Jimmy McShane. Formerly with an investigative arm of the military police, McShane left the services to avoid a promotion which would have taken him away from investigating cases and put him behind a desk at the rank of colonel.  I liked him from the start.

McShane’s narration includes things like this:

Usually on nights when people try to murder me I drink extra-dry martinis.  Now I drink mineral water.  This was spiritual progress.

While I love the  little gems like that which Mr. Kotzwinkle drops throughout The Game of Thirty. I’m agnostic enough to stick with extra-dry martinis, myself.

The Game of Thirty concerns the murder of a wealthy Manhattan antiquities dealer.  His daughter hires McShane to take over the case once the police investigation goes cold.  We know, even McShane knows, that she will lead the detective down a rabbit hole of high society scandal before the story ends.  And she does.

While the first two thirds of  novel are a witty aside laden thrill-ride, the book becomes problematic towards the end.  Kotzwinkle is no stranger to the salacious. Since The Midnight Examiner is about the people who work on a national tabloid reporting the most scandalous news available when they are not making it up outright, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when The Game of Thirty entered tabloid territory, or tabloid adjacent territory.  But after the investigation exposes a child prostitution ring, the book ceases to be funny.  It also ceases to be serious, too, oddly.

When the victim was a very wealthy antiquities dealer, McShane was free to be as acerbically witty as he wanted.  The reader is also free to laugh along with the fun.  But once the victims become eight-year-olds, neither of us can enjoy the story in the same way.  We have to be serious.  But Mr. Kotzwinkle strayed too far into the extreme for me to take him seriously.   I can accept the notion of a child prostitution ring, but one of the level Mr. Kotzwinkle describes in The Game of Thirty strains credulity.  And it really wasn’t necessary, either.

In spite of the problems with where The Game of Thirty ends up, the journey rewards the reader more than enough to make it all worthwhile.  Late in the book, one of McShane’s clients, a diamond merchant, looks wistfully out the window towards New Jersey and says, “We’re born, we have a little heartburn, we die.  What’s it all about?”

It’s about the moment just before the heartburn begins, my friend.  That good pastrami, whether it’s real meat or metaphorical, that we eat for the sheer pleasure we know it brings even when we know we’ll pay a price afterwards.  Heartburn isn’t such a high price.

I’ll be back for more William Kotzwinkle.  He is one good pastrami sandwich.

 

Rereading this review, which I first ran on Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012, made me laugh. I hope you also found that bit at the end funny.  I was so young an innocent in 2012, so full of hope. We all were, weren’t we?

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.

 

Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

Drive by James Sallis

Drive is the best movie I have seen in a long, long time. I loved it so much I watched it twice in a row.

And then went out and got the book.

The book is very good, but the movie is better.

The story concerns a young man who works by day as a stunt driver for movie productions in Los Angeles and by night as a driver for various criminal gangs.  There is no better driver around.  All he does is drive.  He does not carry a weapon, he does not participate.  He’ll drive you to an agreed upon destination, wait exactly five minutes, and then drive you safely away.  If you take longer than five minutes, or if anything goes wrong, he’ll leave.

He is neither hero, nor anti-hero really. He just drives.

Until he meets the young woman who has moved in next door with her young son.  He soon becomes involved in their lives on a level he has never experienced before.  Maybe it’s love, maybe not.  Before he has a chance to find out, the woman’s husband is released from prison and moved back in with his wife and son.  The driver helps him with one last job, robbing a pawn shop, that goes horribly wrong.

Both the book and the movie have this same basic plot structure and the same set of characters.  The movie also has a sense of visual style that I’ve found missing from most films I’ve seen lately.  The use of color, the warm tones, the way the costumes, settings and color palate resonate with 1980’s style serve to create a noir shadow world.  The script contains very few words.  The driver and the girl next door hardly speak at all.  Instead images and music tell the story.  The music reminded me of the 1980’s French noir film Diva, not because the music was like the music in Diva, it wasn’t, but because of the way the director took unusual music that really shouldn’t be there, but managed to make it all work very well.

The book is different enough from the movie, and good enough to earn my recommendation and to win Mr. Sallis one more fan.  In the original story the driver is a much more fleshed out character.  We get his complete back story along with glimpses into aspects of his daily life and thought processes that the movie leaves out.  There is less of a romance in the book, more of a man on his own just trying to survive.  We also get a different take on the bad guys, one that sheds more explicit light on what the movie only suggests.

There is a sequel to the novel that I just may check out someday.  I’d like to know what Mr. Sallis has in store for his hero. But it’s my sincere hope that it’s never made into a movie. The film version of Drive stands alone and should always stand alone.  There’s no way Diva II would have done anything but cheapen  the first movie.  Here’s hoping Hollywood either knows enough to let Drive be or never notices it enough to bother.

See it.  Read it.

Drive.

 

Looking back today at several clips of the movie on YouTube it’s possible that I may be gushing over the film a little bit more than it deserved.  Back when I first ran this review in early 2012 I was thoroughly in the thrall of Drive. I kind of want to go and watch it again today to be honest.  But, I’ll admit, I may have over-stated its greatness  a little bit, but just a little bit.  

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The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

Journalist George Stroud is assigned to find a missing man.  The missing man is a suspect in the murder of a powerful magazine publisher’s mistress.  The missing man was the last person to see her alive.  He’s also the only man who knows that the powerful magazine publisher is the real killer.  He’s also the journalist George Stroud.

How can the journalist escape from himself? How can he keep his identity secret from his boss while finding enough hard evidence to put his boss behind bars?

There is much to enjoy in Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock.  As a detective story, the book provides a  plot line that I’m surprised to say I’ve not seen done before or since.  The ‘detective’ who is also the ‘suspect’ under intense pressure to find himself while also certain that he must conceal himself in order to stay alive.

George Stroud, the journalist/detective, is a suitably damaged hero, suitable for a dark piece of 1940’s American noir fiction.  He had more than enough of the requisite acerbic wit.  He sees his position in the publishing corporation he works for, probably meant to be a stand in for Time Inc., as being that of a cog in the works of a big clock than will go on turning the handles of time no matter what anyone does.  Stroud lives in a kind of corporate hell.

Stroud’s marriage offers some respite, but even that is not enough to keep him from pursuing his boss’s mistress.  The first fifty or so pages of the novel follow their affair, leading the reader to suspect the novel will be a tale of doomed love, much the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho does, but the story turns to one of murder just as the 1960 movie did.

I’ve written before that one of the issues I have with historical fiction is that rather than read a modern perspective imposed on the past, I’d rather read work from the period written by the people living in that period–let the past speak from its own perspective.  The Big Clock does this very well.  I think one could easily compare George Stroud’s work-a-day world to that of Mad Men, the television series set in an early 1960’s advertising agency.  Both stories deal with similar issues.  (I can only speak of the first six or so episodes of Mad Men here, since that’s all I managed to watch)  While Mad Men is free to be much more frank about issues than even a piece of pulp fiction like The Big Clock was in 1946, authors in the 1940’s didn’t shy away from much.

You’ll find everything in the work of the period that you’ll find in historical fiction, maybe with not quite the same level of cursing, but it’s all there.

Meanwhile, there’s a murderer to bring to justice.

 

This week I have been re-running reviews of noirish novels from my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  It’s been fun.  Lots of enjoyable books, so far.  Lost of books I forgot about until rereading the reviews.  I’ve been migrating all of my old reviews over to this newer blog since I started James Reads Books.  It’s taken several years.  I have been at this blogging thing for a long time now.  

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

The main character, Jack Leavitt, deserves no sympathy.  True, he was born into a terrible situation, orphaned by his mother who abandoned him to the state in secret just to keep his father from ever finding him.  He grows up under very bad circumstances; faces young adulthood without anyone to help him steer a path through the mean streets of Portland and Seattle where the early sections of the novel take place.  That he ends up in prison, even in a high security prison like San Quentin, is not a surprise.  He never had a chance.

But he still deserves no sympathy.  Racist, sexist, able to take the bad hand life has dealt him and turn it into something much worse again and again knowing full well that the choices he makes are the wrong ones, Jack is unlikely to be the sort of character many readers willingly identify with.

Yet, his story moved me.  Jack’s failed attempts at redemption and  his final acknowledgement of his own failings in life, and in love, didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but they’ve left a strong impression all the same.  I wish Jack could have come to a better end, even as I understand exactly why this was never possible.

Don Carpenter paints a picture of the American under-class that we ought to see more often.  At present, close to 2% of Americans are either in prison, on parole or on probation, yet we rarely see them as characters in serious fiction.  Crime fiction, yes, but not in literature.  Except in the case of cross-over works like Hard Rain Falling, a mix of crime and literary fiction, Great Expectations if Magwitch had stolen Pip away  and raised him himself.  That Hard Rain Falling was published in 1966 puts it squarely in the Ken Kesey school of literature, social outcasts trying to make their way in the word.  The world of Hard Rain Falling is one of pool halls, wild parties, reform school and prison.  But even in this hard edged world, Mr. Carpenter’s hero manages to find love, though he cannot call it by its name until far too late.

But he never really does find redemption.  The closest he comes is a sort of acceptance, a willingness to face his life on its terms.  That this small bit of cold comfort in his hard-scrabble life make Jack Leavitt’s story a moving one is a testament to Mr. Carpenter’s skill as a novelist.  I never heard of him before NYRB Books sent Hard Rain Falling my way, but I’ll be on the look out for more.

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in late 2011. Since then I have come to rank it as one of my favorite reads of all time, all of my lifetime at least. I continue to purchase NYRB Classics, too, in the hopes that I’ll find another random book as wonderful as Hard Rain Falling.  Every once in a while, I do.