High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

As a reader, I’m kind of a sucker.

It’s easy to take me by surprise. I didn’t see any of it coming in Gone Girl. Life of Pi  came to me from far out in left field.  And I admit it, it never even occurred to me that he would sell his precious pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful hair pin.

My jaw has hit the floor in shock so many times, I should grow a beard to cover up the bruises.

So the emotional twist at the end of Jennie Rooney’s novel Red Joan struck me to quick completely by surprise.  Neither I nor the novel’s heroine had any idea what was coming.

Red Joan is structured in a series of flashbacks, which is what gives the novel its tension.  Joan, an elderly English widow, is interrogated by agents of MI-5.  She is suspected of spying for the Soviets, passing them secrets about England’s work on the atomic bomb. As she is questioned the novel goes back to Joan’s youth.  She did work on the atom bomb, something she never told her son nor anyone else due to the Official Secrets Act.  She did travel with communist sympathizers back when Stalin was an ally.  She did fall in love with a man who became a Soviet agent and she did become an agent herself.

Red Joan worked for me as a spy thriller, as a character study, as something of a romance and as a portrait of a particular time in England when someone really could believe that giving the Soviets top-secret information was the right thing to do.

And then the ending broke our hearts, Joan’s and mine.

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.  

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

In 1947, an excellent thriller needed only four characters: two women, one a respectable policeman’s wife the other a woman of questionable character, and two men, one a police detective the other a serial killer.  With these four characters and a small supporting cast, Dorothy Hughes created an excellent noir thriller In A Lonely Place that can more than hold its own against any of her male contemporaries.  I’d argue it can hold its own against anyone writing crime novels today, as well, and it may end up one of my top ten favorite reads this year.

The Los Angeles of In a Lonely Place is in the grip of a serial killer, a strangler who has murdered one woman every 30 days for the past six months, when Dickson  “Dix” Steele decides to contact his old war buddy Brub Nicolai.  The two have lost contact since the war ended and they each returned from England.  Brub is married now–his wife Sylvia is nervous about the strangler and worried for her police detective husband who has been working the case for months.  Dix tolerates Sylvia while milking Brub for details about the strangler case claiming they will help him with the detective novel he is writing, secretly excited by the thrill of being so close to the police officers who are hunting him.

Dix stays in the apartment of another war buddy, Mel Terris, who has left Los Angeles for a job in Rio.  His neighbor is Laurel Grey, twice divorced wanna-be movie star.  The two quickly fall into bed and then into love, but Laurel knows that Dix is broke, living on the charity of a rich uncle, and the terms of her divorce are such that she loses all alimony if she remarries.  Their affair is doomed long before she begins to suspect Dix has not told her the truth about where Mel Terris has gone.

Although In a Lonely Place is about as bare bones as a detective thriller can get,  Dorothy Hughes creates a tension filled, page turning noir story without depicting a single death.   The reader learns that Dix is the killer by the end of chapter one.  The rest of the novel follows him as he grows closer to Brub and becomes more involved in the investigation of his own crimes.  Knowing that he is the killer gives each scene in the book an undercurrent of dramatic tension that builds nicely as the pages turn.  All the narrator has to do is tell us Dix is alone in the room with Syliva, and the reader becomes concerned for her.

It makes for a fun book?

But why is it a feminist book?  (My edition is part of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York’s Femmes Fatales series of pulp fiction re-releases.)  For one thing, while she is not well know today, it’s clear that Dorothy Hughes can write a detective story as well as any of her male peers.  Take this description of Laurel from her first meeting with Dix Steele:

She was like all women, curious about your  private life.  He laughed at her; she’d find out only as much as he wished.  “An old friend,” he laughed.  “Pre-war.  Princeton.”  Princeton meant money and social position to her, calculation came quickly under her skin.  She was  greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire.  “I’m from New York,” he threw in carelessly.  It sounded better than New Jersey.

She was fire and a man needed fire.”  Okay, that’s a bit cheesy, but it’s true enough and certainly a driving force in noir fiction of the pulp era.  There’s an undercurrent of sexuality in noir pulp that exploits as much as it illustrates the moment in American history that produced it.   But how does In a Lonely Place advance a feminist critical stance?

In her afterward to the novel, which is well worth reading, Lisa Maria Hogeland makes the case that Ms. Huges is critiquing Dix’s misogyny as she depicts it.  Take the quotation above and the way it links the hatred of women with lust for them.  The novel stays focused on Dix throughout, though it is not a first person narrative and no attempt is made to offer a psychological explanation for Dix’s psychopathology.  Ms. Hogeland believes this is itself a feminist writing at a time when bad mothers and early experiences with women were often  blamed for misogyny.  Think of how sorry we are meant to feel for Pyscho‘s Norman Bates once we learn how terrible his mother was.  Additionally, Ms. Hughes never places blame on Dix’s victims.  They are never “that sort of girl” like the victims in 1970’s  and 80’s slasher films so often were.  Even Dix himself never puts the blame on his victims, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That crimes against women are solely the responsibility of the men who commit them was a strictly feminist notion in 1947, it may still be today.

Ms. Hughes never depicts Dix’s crimes on the page which Ms. Hogeland reads as a feminist stance in that this makes it impossible for anyone to enjoy their depiction.   Watching the murder of a woman is not  part of the fun in In a Lonely Place the way it is so many detective thrillers.

Ms. Hogeland argues that Dorothy Hughes present three possible motivations for Dix’s crimes.  Early in the novel he is presented as a veteran having some difficulty readjusting to civilian life.  A former pilot, he is nostalgic for the life he lived during the war.  Even at that time the psychotic war veteran was a familiar trope in pulp fiction.  Before he knows who the killer is, Brub argues that the strangler is a killer because he kills, refusing to look further than that for a motive.  By the end we discover that Dix’s murders began when he killed the first girl he ever loved out of jealousy.  Whatever the reason for his crimes, Ms. Hogeland believes that what matters in the end is how normal Dix appears to be.  The fact that he is not visibly different from the men around him is meant to bring the masculinity of the late 1940’s itself into question.  It’s not a comforting idea.

Dorothy Hughes published 14 crime novels during a ten year period, ending her work to take care of her ailing mother. She continued to publish criticism and biographies of the mystery genre and its authors until her death in 1993.  Today only two of her books remain in print.

Maybe a publisher could  re-issue them with fancy covers and new titles, say “The Girl in a Lonely Place.”  I’d love to read more of Dorothy Hughes.

 

Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are,  C.B. back in late 2011, thrillers with the word ‘girl’ in the title continue to sell very well.  What does that say about modern readers?  Why are so many still captivated by “the girl”? Will we ever grow up enough to be as equally interested in “the woman?” 

That bit of snark aside, I admit I had totally forgotten this book until I read the first paragraph above.  Then it all came back to me.  It’s a terrific book.  I highly recommend it. And I highly recommend taking some time to re-read your old blog posts.  You’ll be surprised by how much you have forgotten and by how much your remember.