Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Of Brothers and Big Shots, Crime and Coney

Like many readers, I expect, I first heard of Kevin Baker following the publication of his 1998 novel, Dreamland. That book, set in New York City in 1910, was “a wild amusement-park ride on a continuous loop,” to quote from Thomas Mallon’s review in The New York Times. Dreamland, he continued, “is historical fiction at its most entertaining and, in a number of spots, most high-handed.” Kirkus Reviews, meanwhile, focused on the book’s “generous display” of historical detail:
The various facets of New York and Coney Island, where the ornate park of the title is located, are scribed in intimate detail: the notorious jail The Tombs, City Hall, the Triangle garment factory, immigrant housing, whiskey bars, and strip joints, all are nicely animated. Meanwhile, dozens of characters stroll through these various locales: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York and observe the vulgarity of America; Trick the Dwarf tells of the bizarre and the humane at Dreamland -- the dwarfs and the bearded ladies -- which is the most familiar world he knows; and Esther, a garment worker alienated from her immigrant family, takes an active role in the labor movement. Also on hand are Gyp the Blood, a small-time criminal; Big Tim, the Tammany politico, plus Kid Twist and Sadie and Clara.
Before it was engulfed by flames in 1911, Dreamland was one of Coney Island’s most grandiose, and in some ways most eccentric, public entertainments. Baker’s own Dreamland was hardly less ambitious, and made me hungry for more of his work. Fortunately, the author has satisfied my appetite on a fairly regular basis ever since, releasing Paradise Alley in 2002, Strivers Row (featuring a fictionalized Malcolm X) in 2006 and, in 2013, The Big Crowd -- which was finally issued in paperback this fall.

A fairly exceptional New York history blog called The Bowery Boys explains that The Big Crowd turns on the mystery of the 1941 “suicide” of Abe Reles, aka Kid Twist, a successful mob hit man who died, tumbling from a hotel room window, while in police custody -- and in the midst of testifying against some of the city’s most notorious gangsters. However, the emotional center of The Big Crowd is largely dominated by Charlie O’Kane, a bigger-than-life character based openly on William O’Dwyer, a former district attorney who won national celebrity through his prosecution of organized-crime figures, and was elected in 1946 as New York City’s 100th mayor -- only to later be brought down by controversy having to do with police corruption.

The Bowery Boys opines that “while their biographies are nearly the same … O’Kane is a lustier, more mysterious figure, escaping America and becoming an almost godlike figure [and a U.S. ambassador] in Mexico City.” It’s to Mexico, then, that Charlie’s much-younger brother, Tom, with the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, goes in the early 1950s to ask the former mayor questions about his possible involvement in Reles’ demise. His hope is to stand up for this brother he once idolized and clear Charlie of wrongdoing. But Baker’s yarn offers no such easy satisfactions. What he finds in Mexico City is a sibling trying to put his best face forward, but haunted by the troubles and compromises of his past. Charlie is also contending with an estranged and headstrong second wife, Slim Sadler -- a quondam model increasingly dissatisfied with her Mexican exile -- for whom Tom O’Kane has long had feelings, but who’s presently carrying on too publicly with a matador. Reviewing The Big Crowd for The New York Times, author Scott Turow pointed out that “All the O’Kanes -- Charlie and Tom and even Slim -- are patterned after real people: the former New York mayor William O’Dwyer; the fashion model he married while in office, Sloan [or Sloane] Simpson; and O’Dwyer’s brother, Paul, an activist lawyer who was once elected City Council president. Baker is clearly trying to unravel the enigma of how a figure like William O’Dwyer could fly into office on the wings of hope only to find himself sunk in scandal.”

(Left) Author Kevin Baker.
(Photograph by Nina Subin.)


Accomplishing that task leads Baker to skip about through the early 20th century, and across borders, as he retraces Charlie O’Kane’s rise to power, the uneasy relationships he establishes with powerful and corrupting figures in New York City, the costs of his ambition and the depths of treachery to which some people will sink to exploit his weaknesses.

I had the opportunity recently to address questions, via e-mail, to Kevin Baker about his latest novel, and didn’t hesitate to take it. We discussed his interests in historical fiction, the rich immigrant story of William O’Dwyer and his brother, crime and social optimism in post-World War II Manhattan, and a great deal more.

J. Kingston Pierce: You weren’t born in New York City, but rather in New Jersey. Yet after attending Columbia University there, you never left. Was there something about old Gotham that made it easier for you to imagine your future there than anyplace else?

Kevin Baker: Actually, it was much more the New York of the time, 1970s New York, that drew me. The city had many problems then, but it was also a very exciting, vibrant place to be; a very cheap place for an aspiring writer or artist to live.

I had ties to the city already. My mother was born in Washington Heights, my father on Fordham Road. I had some idea of what it was like already, and I couldn’t wait to go live there.

The love of its history only came later, as I began to know, and wonder how it had come to be what it was.

JKP: Your official bios all seem to leave a huge gap between your earning a degree in political science and your becoming a novelist. Can you briefly explain what happened during those “lost years”? Did you ever use that political science degree?

KB: Hardly! Columbia was (and is) a great, great school. Going there was one of the best decisions I ever made, but I regret that poli sci degree. I would have been better off, I think, majoring in straight-out history, or English. But thanks in part to the college’s core curriculum, I was exposed to any number of great thinkers and writers I had no inkling of when I went there as an 18-year-old -- which is why the core is so important.

No, the “gap” just reflects my doing whatever sort of work I could -- largely freelance writing, copy-editing, proofreading -- while I tried to write and sell fiction. I began writing five pages a day on a novel the week I started college, thinking I would surely publish my first book before I graduated. Instead, it took me 15 years before I sold a lick of it!

JKP: I’m not sure that E.L. Doctorow opened up these floodgates with Ragtime (1975), but there are certainly many historical novels nowadays featuring real-life characters in either starring or secondary roles. Do you think this is a valuable trend? And are there risks that novelists run in featuring historical figures in their fiction?

KB: That’s a very good point, I think Doctorow did indeed open up the floodgates with Ragtime. He’s really been the father of modern historical fiction, I think. One thing I love about his take on the genre is that he’s completely unapologetic about any of it. He feels the fiction writer should write about whatever he pleases, and I think he’s right about that.

This gets back to the whole argument over just what “historical fiction” is, and I think we’re very wrong to separate it, and ghettoize it as we do in this country. It’s just as legitimate as any other form of fiction, and in fact through much of history it’s been the dominant form of fiction.

The ancient Greeks didn’t keep writing about, say, Odysseus, as “historical fiction,” the Romans didn’t write about Aeneas as historical fiction. These were central, founding myths of their societies, and assessing them, and reassessing them was a critical element in how they debated what their society was, and what it should be.

Sure, the genre’s been mightily abused over the years through bodice rippers, and bad detective stories, and hero-worshipping … but what form of literature hasn’t been? Why shouldn’t we be able to write stories about prominent, or simply intriguing, public figures of the past?

Naturally, one needs to think it out, because as the famous L.P. Hartley quote goes, the past’s another country, they do things differently there. I would never have a real-life figure saying or doing something in opposition to all that we know about him, or get too far off in flights of fancy about what he might do.

But then, we all paint from life. Why is it legitimate to, say, write a contemporary novel based on one’s father, but not to write a historical novel based on a founding father?

JKP: There’s always a tendency, when writing a novel based on extensive research, to include as much of that research as possible in the finished product. How do you combat such a tendency in your own fiction-writing?

KB: I don’t combat it very well! I find that’s always difficult -- and I think that’s where Mr. Doctorow and I differ in our approaches. I was told by one of his former students that he advises, “Do as little research as you can get away with,” when writing historical fiction, and certainly that works for him.

For me, I find it’s always the things I wasn’t looking for that say so much, and that’s why I’m happy to do so much research. For instance, in this case I had no idea that Sloane Simpson, the real-life second wife of William O’Dwyer, actually learned how to bullfight while they were in Mexico.

Or the whole story of William McCormack, the “Mr. Big” in the book. He was a fascinating individual, and he wielded enormous power in New York, controlling the largest port in the world with an iron fist. But he was virtually unknown by the public in his own time, and is pretty much forgotten today.

Characters and details like that are not something you even necessarily know are out there when you start, and they become vital to the work. They not only tell you so much about a time and place, they also fill in all the gaps, and complete the puzzle of your characters.

But I do tend to get carried away with it, which is where I have to fight myself. And fortunately, I’ve always had terrific editors to help me, in this case Andrea Schulz and Nicole Angeloro, at Houghton Mifflin.

JKP: So let’s talk about Mayor O’Dwyer. When did you first become interested in his checkered career? And what was it you found most interesting about him?

KB: I first became interested in him when I discovered, many years ago, that he was the (much) older brother of Paul O’Dwyer, who was such a political icon in New York for so many years: the last fighting liberal, always taking on one cause or another, no matter what the odds.

(Left) Mayor William O’Dwyer

And when I learned that William O’Dwyer had more or less had to live in Mexico in exile for years, I thought how can it be that Paul had this disgraced older brother? Accused of some very serious things -- of having helped to kill probably the greatest mob witness of all time; of being a tool of the mob, of the political machines when they were at their most venal and corrupt. What sort of conflicts must there have been there?

I went into this initially to tell a story of two brothers. The fact that the real-life Paul O’Dwyer would never say a word against his brother in public, always maintained his innocence, only whetted my appetite.

What I found most interesting about William O’Dwyer was that he has this great immigrant story behind him, somebody who came here as a seminary dropout with no money, worked his way up as a hod carrier, a cop on the beat. Went to law school at night, became a district attorney, even a war hero. He comes back from World War II and gets elected mayor, marries the hottest fashion model in the country after his wife dies … and then it all unravels.

It’s the classic immigrant story -- all gone wrong.

JKP: Has this novel made you reassess your views on O’Dwyer?

KB: He was much deeper, much harder to read than I imagined. It was not so much that he was a deeply complicated man -- because he wasn’t -- but that he did a great deal of dissembling throughout his life. You peel back layer after layer, but he remains evasive, and I suspect he did even to those closest to him.

There is, I would say, something ultimately false about the man. Something slightly fabricated. One of the themes I tried to get across in the book is that he almost seemed like a cinematic creation -- a sort of cardboard cutout of the crusading D.A., the all-American boy, the immigrant boy made good.

And yet, under any close examination, it all crumbles away. He was constantly erecting façades of himself, I think, to shield his real self from the public, from the people closest to him, his wife and his brothers, and I think in the end he may have believed in those make-believe O’Dwyers himself.

JKP: You brought up “the classic immigrant story.” Because New York was very much a city of immigrants, you’ve touched on that experience in all your novels set there, I think. But The Big Crowd really exploits the subject. How did you intend to use the history of immigration as a theme in exploring New York City’s mid-20th-century development?

KB: Well, it’s somewhat different from the earlier, 19th-century waves of immigration, because now the Irish, especially, have a solid foothold on the city.

Previously, in books like Paradise Alley and Dreamland, I was writing about how Irish and Jewish immigrants came here and had to really fight their way up with nothing. By the time Charlie O’Kane gets here, a few years before World War I, there’s already a power structure, there are very strong Irish political machines in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx.

He has to sort of plug himself into it -- which is no easy thing, but not quite the life-or-death struggle being an immigrant was.

Yet at the same time, it’s a moment when the old Irish-dominated machines were fading. They had been what [W.E.B.] Du Bois calls “folkways,” means to help the Irish survive, and fight their way into the power structure of this country.

But as Charlie comes to power himself, the machines are losing their reason for being. The country’s gotten rich, there’s more opportunity, there’s a social welfare state in place. People can go to college, they have Social Security, they don’t need the machine to get them a job, or give them the proverbial turkey on Christmas.

Now, all the other immigrants want in, as well. New York by this time is no longer a city that can just be run by a few men in a room, and it never will be again. It can no longer be run just on some understanding between a few powerful politicians and businessmen, maybe a mob boss or two.

We’re all Americans now -- and everybody wants in.

JKP: As you said before, this is very much a novel about brothers, two quite different people with different approaches to life, who wind up supporting and disappointing each other. What was it about the relationship between Tom and Charlie O’Kane that you found most curious or illuminating? And did the story of these brothers unroll differently, during the course of your writing, than you’d originally expected it would?

KB: It was somewhat more complicated than I had originally envisioned -- which I think is good.

I think a lot of the dialogue they’re having is about what it means to be a moral person. How do you get the power to do anyone any good, without first getting corrupted? What do you owe to your family and friends, and what do you owe to the people all around you, to the city in general?

Tom is much more the idealist, at least at first, and Charlie is trying to show him practical ways to get power, and to do good with it. But you know, it’s so easy after awhile to confuse what you’re doing for the people, and what you’re doing for yourself.

JKP: What do you see as the role of Slim Sadler in this novel?

KB: Slim is based closely on Sloane Simpson, who was a fascinating individual, somebody who came from old money and very high society. Her father was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, one of her mother’s family was a Founding Father, they had cattle empires, and banking empires.

But then her father lost all his money, and she had to go make a living as a model. And she was very good at it, she was considered a great actress on the runway. She moved in very high circles in New York society, and really loved that life.

She was 23 years younger than O’Dwyer when they met, and she became his second wife, with all of the complications that such circumstances usually entail. She was always flirtatious, and gregarious, and he was very jealous, and that just aggravated everything.

(Right) Sloane Simpson in Life,
May 29, 1950


Then, down in Mexico, she was very unhappy in this sort of straitened, exiles’ existence they were living. She loved the country, and she loved the culture, but she couldn’t stand being boxed up with this jealous, bitter old man, and she started acting out -- learning to bullfight, having affairs.

The real Sloane did not do all the things I have the fictional Slim Sadler doing in the novel, which I feel a little bad about because I really liked the real Sloane. She sounds like she was a remarkable person, a real fighter and a hell of a lot of fun. But she said about herself, “I’ve had the morals of an alley cat” -- she really did have a penchant for getting into trouble.

I think what she represented to William O’Dwyer, and to both O’Kane brothers in the book, was the promise of America. She was the golden girl, from money and position, and to get her was to attain the dream.

But then of course, when you do get her, you find out the dream’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s a bit of a lie, and all you can do is worry about losing it.

JKP: The Big Crowd makes postwar New York seem like a particularly optimistic place. Or is that your romantic side coming through?

KB: Oh, I think it was a very optimistic place! You have to understand, New York was the only great world city that had not been bombed or occupied during the war. It had emerged, almost overnight, as the leading city on the world scene, replacing the old European capitals as the leader in art, and literature, and fashion.

It was absolutely dominant economically -- far and away the world’s leading financial center, the country’s largest wholesale and retail center, with over a million manufacturing jobs still. Something like 40 percent of the nation’s commerce came through its port. It had easily the highest buildings in the world, the largest population of any city, anywhere.

It was incredibly vibrant, incredibly exciting -- and incredibly cheap. It was still a great middle-class and working-class town, where you didn’t have to have a lot of money to experience all sorts of things: go hear the best jazz in the world, see some of the greatest art -- watch Willie Mays play baseball.

That scene I have in the book, where Toots Shor, the legendary saloonkeeper, walks arm-in-arm down the middle of his restaurant one night with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey on one arm, and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby on the other, that really happened. And Toots Shor’s was not some exclusive nightclub, it was where pretty much anyone could go, and did, and I think it was extremely exciting for people to be in the middle of this, and see everything that was going on.

At the same time, there were still people who were excluded from the big party, still restrictions on all sorts of people, that would have to be addressed. Black people still weren’t allowed into most of the leading hotels and restaurants, women were still second-class citizens, gays and lesbians were still outcasts. Columbia, like all the Ivy League schools, had quotas limiting how many Jews could be admitted. Italian-Americans, such a young Mario Cuomo, could not get an interview with white-shoe law firms.

So there was all that which needed to be dealt with, and there were fissures of corruption spreading all underneath this lovely structure. And the men at the top were still refusing to deal with it, still clinging to their own power, and enriching themselves.

JKP: At the same time as this is a book about siblings, and politics, and familial relationships, it’s a story about urban crime. Were there depths or misconceptions of the New York underworld of that period that you were hoping to address?

KB: The misconception about organized crime is that it’s generally not that organized, or as powerful as people make it out to be. But this was the period when the crime families in New York had more political influence than they ever had before, or ever would again.

Historically, gangsters had been controlled and used by the politicians in New York. But with Prohibition, the mob made so much money that, once [Mayor Fiorello] La Guardia left office [in 1945], they were all set up to turn the tables. Now, it was the gangsters who provided the money that kept Tammany Hall going, and they called the shots.

This didn’t last, and in a place the size of New York City there are always competing, countervailing political forces and influences. But while it did, the criminals did tremendous, long-term economic damage to the city. For instance, they really brutalized and impoverished the tens of thousands of men who worked on the waterfront, and they stole so much that they pretty much wrecked the old port.

JKP: As someone who loved Dreamland, I was delighted to see the character of Kid Twist pop up again in The Big Crowd. But this isn’t the adult version of that criminal tyke from Dreamland, is it?

KB:Thank you! But no, this is not the same Kid Twist.

It was the longtime habit of New York gangsters to “honor” one another by taking on the name of some particularly famous, dead mobster. Hence, Arthur Flegenheimer was rechristened “Dutch Schultz” after a previous thug.

There were, incredibly enough, two Kid Twists, and they both met their end on Coney Island.

JKP: The “Kid Twist” in The Big Crowd is, in fact, Abe Reles, a mob enforcer who eventually became a government witness against Murder, Inc. and died mysteriously in a fall from the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island. Despite a grand jury concluding that Reles had perished accidentally, there seems every reason to believe that he was murdered by his former gangland pals. From your research, what do you think happened to Abe Reles?

KB: Oh, I think he was definitely pushed! The idea that he was trying to escape, or play some prank, as the police speculated at the time, is just ludicrous. Reles was a seriously ill man, and he was desperately afraid for his life. There is no way that he was trying to lower himself down from a ninth-story window on a set of tied-up bed sheets -- something I make plain in the novel.

He was a terrible little man, a top assassin for Murder, Inc., the legendary Brooklyn mob, who was thought to have killed over 60 men during his career.

Murder, Inc. was a sort of early triumph of niche marketing in the underworld. These were gangsters, Jewish and Italian, who hired themselves out to do hits for bigger mobs, all over the country. The advantage of this was that the target, especially in another city, would never see you coming.

They were truly ruthless, horrible men. But they were very much small-fry -- just low-life killers. O’Dwyer, as D.A. of Brooklyn, broke them up. Thanks to Reles, the most successful mob witness in history, he sent seven members of Murder, Inc. to “the Dance Hall” -- the electric chair -- up at Sing Sing, including “Lepke” Buchalter, to this day the only mob leader ever executed in the United States.

Reles gives invaluable testimony against these individuals, his old friends, and clears up dozens of murder cases around the country. But then, just as he’s about to testify against Albert Anastasia, who really is a big deal, the muscle William McCormack uses to control the longshoremen’s union and thereby the Port of New York … out the window Reles goes. Despite the fact that he was being held in a wing of the Half Moon Hotel, out on Coney Island, with a 17-man, ’round-the-clock police guard, behind an iron door.

As everyone wanted to know at the time, how could this have happened? Who did it? Was it crooked cops? The other four mob witnesses Reles was being held at the Half Moon with? Who ordered it? The mob? McCormack? O’Dwyer?

Again, there’s something very phony about everyone’s role, all through it. This case became the heart of the Kefauver Hearings, the first, televised corruption hearings in history, and they held Americans riveted to their brand-new television sets -- and helped wreck O’Dwyer’s reputation.

Was he involved? Who did it? It’s the greatest mystery in the annals of the mob.

I offer a solution that is very closely based on the real facts of the case and, I think, holds up pretty well. Read it and find out!

JKP: I know you’re penning fiction here, but is it really credible that a district attorney would assign Tom O’Kane to investigate his own brother in relation to Reles’ “suicide”?

KB: Yes, that does strain credulity, I’ll admit. But I wanted Tom to have some real power over his brother, maybe even life-or-death, in this matter. I wanted the stakes to matter.

And, I wanted to introduce the legendary Manhattan D.A. of the time, Frank Hogan. I see this book as the first of a planned “City of Gold” trilogy focusing on New York in the 1950s, with Tom investigating three of its iconic scandals: the Reles murder and waterfront corruption; college basketball point-shaving cases; and the quiz show fix.

JKP: I have to admit, as I was reading The Big Crowd I kept remembering Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Is Charlie O’Kane your Willie Stark?

KB: Thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment! But where Penn’s Willie Stark, being based on Huey Long, is much more a force of nature, someone whose ambition and ruthlessness puts him on a fatal course, Charlie O’Kane is much more a hesitant character, a man whose fears about the terrible nature of the world as he saw it in the Depression and World War II, whose self-doubts and whose vanity leaves him prey to being manipulated by more pitiless, determined men.

JKP: I was intrigued to see, in a short post you put together for the blog My Book, the Movie, that you’d like to see Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in the role of Charlie O’Kane. That would be wonderful casting, I agree. But have you actually seen any Hollywood interest in The Big Crowd? Have filmmakers taken much of an interest in your previous books?

KB: I think Bryan Cranston could play anything, and particularly a politician, after seeing him not only in Breaking Bad, but also in that wonderful Robert Schenkkan play about LBJ, All the Way.

I haven’t heard much about [Hollywood interest in] The Big Crowd yet, just a few murmurings. I’ve had some more serious bites regarding Dreamland. But in general, I’d say all my books would be better as TV shows than movies, because they take place over time, and they’re pretty intense investigations of specific times, and conflicts, and crimes. And I’d be fine with that, I love what’s going on with TV right now.

JKP: What other novels do you think do an especially fine job of illuminating New York City’s history?

KB: Oh, there are so many! My favorite Doctorow is World’s Fair, although I also loved The Waterworks and Billy Bathgate. Peter Quinn wrote a great novel about the draft riots, Banished Children of Eve, that everyone should read. I greatly enjoyed the old Louis Auchincloss novel The Embezzler. I’m sure I’m forgetting some great ones …

JKP: And I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: What are you writing next?

KB: Right now, I’m finishing up a history of New York City baseball, tentatively entitled The New York Game, for Pantheon, which has been very patient about it. Then, I’m writing a history of the United States between the world wars, for Houghton Mifflin, so it’s real segues into non-fiction for a time.

But I have many more novel ideas, a couple of which I noted above, and I suspect I’ll be returning constantly to New York and its past.

ALSO CHECK OUT: A video profile of Mayor William O’Dwyer.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Biography: The Good Luck Cat by Lissa Warren

Depending on who you listen to, the Internet is alternately ruled by cats or made of them. Either way, it is well established that denizens of the Internet like a good cat tale. And, honestly, they don’t get much better than what can be found in Lissa Warren’s The Good Luck Cat (Lyons Press).

The author’s father was gifted a retirement companion, a Korat cat called Ting with whom he would bond and who would, in many ways, become the very heart of the family. Warren covers the introduction of the cat into the family with affection, while explaining her own long-standing affinity for cats:
Bilbliophile. Ailurophile. I like books and cats. Lovers of the written word do seem naturally drawn to cats. Perhaps it’s because reading is a solitary activity but feels less so when a cat’s bside you. Not even my favorite books could hold my attention like Ting, though, with her delicate purr and appreciative licks -- and propensity for trouble. I don’t know what it is about cats that makes people like them better when they’re naughty. But they are, most certainly, the biker boyfriend of the animal world: You know you should stay away, but you can’t.
Ting’s incorporation into her new home was rapid and complete. More than a decade later, Warren’s father died of a heart attack. Less than a year after that, his constant companion, Ting, was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition. Warren and her mother determined to fight for the little cat’s life, unwilling to lose yet another member of their small family. And it is work that prepares the two women for yet another diagnosis still to come.

The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat is gorgeously written and generously shared. And it is a beautiful tribute not only to a beloved and much missed father, but also to feline companions everywhere who give far beyond the obvious to the people who adore them. ◊


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

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This Just In… Cornered by Alan Brenham

He’s haunted by the memory of a kidnapping case gone wrong…

Not wanting history to repeat itself, Detective Matt Brady struggles to solve the disappearances of seven young women, but he quickly finds himself pitted against a criminal organization that knows as much about police procedure as he does -- an organization that will do whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of him.

His troubles are compounded when a young veterinarian injects herself into the investigation and is targeted to become victim number eight. When he tries to protect her, he finds himself in the crosshairs of a professional cop killer.

Can Brady solve the case in time to save his new love, or will this investigation be the death of both of them?

You can order Cornered here. Visit author Alan Brenham on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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The Democratization of Women’s Legs

Did the advent of the popularization of nylons over stockings revolutionize literature? An article on The Guardian Books Blog suggests so:
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first limited production by DuPont of nylon stockings, and though Lewis has his fuddy duddy disdain for them, I’m going to claim a bigger and better significance. Nylons (and later tights) meant the democratisation of women’s legs. Until they became widely available in the 1940s, there had always been a sharp division between silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).
But when stockings appeared on the scene, everything changed:
In Ulysses (set in 1904, published 1922), either James Joyce or Leopold Bloom has a lot to say: there’s Gertie and her stockings, Zoe and her garters, the display of “rays of flat silk stockings” in the department store and Molly Bloom’s “silkette stockings”. This was a silk-effect material, which AA Milne noted as inferior in his 1922 crime story The Red House Mystery, when a shopping trip to buy silk stockings for his sister throws the jovial narrator into a fret: “Could I be sure I was getting silk and not silkette … ?”
In her memoir The Laughing Torso, Nina Hamnett has brightly coloured stockings in pre-first-world-war Paris, and some with chessboard squares. But she tells us that Gertrude Stein wears grey woollen stockings (she was a bohemian, you see). And Hamnett herself lamented to a market seller that she couldn’t afford silk. He said it would be “an investment”, and she was “flattered that he mistook me for a lady of loose morals”.
You can see the full piece here.

This Just In… Puzzled by the Clues by Jean Sheldon

When long time friend, Professor Charles Bohn, is found dead supposedly by his own hand, Anna Owen suspects foul play. The Owen gang investigation heads to the professor's home but stalls when a mysterious prowler runs into Anna as he tries to escape through the back door.

The search uncovers a single clue, a discarded crossword puzzle that at first appears to reveal nothing. As they consider giving up, Nic deciphers the professor's message and discovers a trail of corruption involving high profile leaders from private industry to police and city and state officials, a discovery that puts the group in grave danger.

While the investigation continues, news from Nuremberg brings to light the death and destruction caused by the Third Reich's sinister agenda. Word of the atrocities spread, appalling many and wearing on the protective layer of innocence preserved by a few, but not all citizens are disgusted or surprised. When the case takes two of our heroines undercover, they learn that efforts to create a superior race did not end in a bunker in Berlin.

The second Nic & Nora Mystery, 'Puzzled by the Clues', follows both the blossoming relationship of Nic and Nora and that of Anna and Allen. Characters at the heart of the Owen gang and those on the perimeter, offer humor, wisdom, and the belief that there is always hope. As Anna points out, "Maybe after two World Wars, people are beginning to understand the insanity of hate."

You can order Puzzled by the Clues here. Visit author Jean Sheldon on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Crime Fiction: Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steve Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Frank Wheeler Jr.’s new novel, The Good Life.)

Longtime mafia hit man Sal Cupertine knows that once somebody “dictates the terms of your survival … you’re a dead man.” By that measure it would seem that Sal, the protagonist in Tod’s Goldberg’s wise and witty new novel, Gangsterland (Counterpoint), is as dead as them come.

After being set up by his mob-boss cousin to make a drug deal with three federal agents -- “Donnie Brascos,” as he calls them -- Sal murders those agents to avoid being captured, and is thereafter (for his own good) swept out of Chicago and sent to Las Vegas, the city that keeps “meth hours” and where a newspaper column reports on gangsters like “they’re members of a boy band.” Sal’s given a new face and a stack of texts on Judaism, and is told by his handlers (owners, really -- it seems cousin Ronnie sold him to the crooked Rabbi Kales and his even more crooked son-in-law, strip-club owner Bennie Savone) that if he wants to live he is now going to be “Rabbi David Cohen.” Resilient, and with a wife and son back in Chicago to whom he plans one day to return, Cupertine/Cohen gets the message. In the meantime, the FBI is calling him dead a bit too hastily, and a renegade ex-fed, whose poor planning was somewhat responsible for the massacre of those three other agents, sets about to “clear his name.” Cohen sits tight and tries to figure the angles as a new member of the “Kosher Nostra.”

Rabbi Kales attempts to inculcate Cohen into his faith in order to make this whole arrangement work. And at some levels Cohen connects, seeing his choice of obedience to a crime family that considers him an expendable commodity, always looking over his shoulder for a gun barrel, as farcical when compared to the existential plight of the Jews -- “pursued for being born,” as Kales tells Cohen. In the criminal world Cohen left behind, human relations is a “Ponzi scheme.” No one is trusted and all are eventually betrayed, killed by anyone who thinks they might be a threat or a potential witness.

Kales knows Cohen is a horrible man who’s made “terrible choices.” But Cohen is a jaded observer of human nature, and he knows that for Kales to have been given his own congregation by his criminal son-in-law, he had to make some pretty egregious choices himself; the means will always justify the ends, especially where criminals are involved. “If you did a little bad for a greater good and the only people who got hurt were people who decided to get involved with a bunch of gangsters, wasn’t that a net positive?” Cohen ponders. Of course it was. And some of the choices Kales has made allow Cupertine/Cohen to return to the game of being a criminal and making money, which is what he does best other than killing people. Much to Cohen’s surprise, Kales’ family-run funeral home also happens to be a crematorium for mafia murder victims and an illegal organ-harvesting operation. A professional killer could make himself of use there.

Bennie Savone gets the new Rabbi Cohen as “Jew’d up as possible” before presenting him to the congregation. For a stone-cold killer, Cohen doesn’t do a bad job at his unexpected new job, even when he’s counseling Bennie’s wife, who knows her husband is an outright crook and is ready to leave him. Cohen begins at times, in offhand ways, to see the world as a series of Talmudic parables, and his new learning “fill[s] his brain with whole new pathways of thought,” whether he likes it or not. Cohen hasn’t gone soft, just perhaps a bit more introspective; but as a hardened realist, he still views his new perspective as a bit “ludicrous.”

In Goldberg’s story, wisdom is tempered with humor and irony, as when Cohen makes up for his lack of book-learning and quotable, comforting tidbits from holy texts by drawing on popular-culture sources, finding “that if he paraphrased Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen it generally had the same effect.”

In Las Vegas it’s not difficult to see that many crimes are not immune from the ameliorating vicissitudes of time. “You didn’t need a gun to rob someone anymore, you just needed a spreadsheet,” says Cohen. Las Vegas to him is now a theme park, he thinks -- Gangsterland, where tourists put on gold chains and black silk shirts and ape Tony Soprano. Cohen isn’t going legit -- just maybe a bit more legit. And with cousin Ronnie in touch, and hopes of getting Bennie and Kales out of the way fast, he begins to plot the rest of his life. ◊

READ MORE:The Best Place to Hide a Body? Just Ask Writer Tod Goldberg,” by Michael Shaub (Los Angeles Times).

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

New This Week: I’m the Man: The Story of that Guy From Anthrax by Scott Ian

Scott Ian must be one of the hardest working guys in metal. The rhythm guitarist cofounded the iconic metal outfit Anthrax with some high school buddies in 1982. That formation would lead to the beginning of the thrash metal movement along with Megadeath, Slayer and Metallica.

It was Ian who got the idea to get together with rap supergroup Public Enemy back in 1991 to record and then tour. He was also one of the founders of Stormtroopers of Death which fused hardcore punk with thrash metal for the birth of crossover thrash. In 2001, Ian became host of Rock Show for VH1. He hosted 48 episodes, interviewing many iconic guests including The Cult, Tenacious D, Ozzy Osbourne and others.

There’s more. Quite a lot of it. Ian is accomplished and passionate and seemingly always up for a challenge. What you might not know is he’s also tremendously funny, with a bright take on life that not only seems unexpected in a heavy metal icon, but that shines through every page of I’m the Man (Da Capo) Ian’s newly released biography. As he writes early on in I’m the Man:
I didn’t get into music for pussy. I got into it for music. Sure, there were girls along the way, but not like there were for those '80s hair bands. For the longest time, thrash metal was a dude scene; if there were any chicks at the show, they were usually dragged along by their boyfriends. Basically, I’m a guy who made a name for himself by working my ass off.
It sets the tone. Anthrax fans will enjoy Ian’s candid insights and surprisingly charming take on his full metal life.

Now 50, the metal legend is married to Pearl Aday, daughter of Meat Loaf and an accomplished musician in her own right. (Ian supported her on guitar on her album, The couple have one child, a son Revel Young Ian, born in 2001. ◊

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This Just In… Echoes of Light: Book One of the Luminous Legend by Jeffrey Pawlak

When a malevolent force descends upon the kingdom of Tordale, young Alamor is called to seek out the most sacred source of magic ever known -- the Radiant Gems. To acquire them, he needs to tap into the dormant magic within his spirit. It is an endeavor that he has failed at once before, and that failure has haunted him ever since.

If Tordale is to know peace again, Alamor must overcome all of the doubts and fears that have cast his life into turmoil. He will journey to all corners of the realm -- Sleekleaf Forest, the Arid Reaches, the Tower Mountains -- while meeting creatures who wish to help his cause, and monsters who will try to end it. Along the way, he may discover that there is an even greater power than magic in the world.

You can order Echoes of Light here. Visit author Jeffrey Pawlak on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Cookbooks: 250 Best Meals in a Mug by Camilla V. Saulsbury

The fact that this book is even called for is a sign of the times. Single family households who barely have time to eat, let alone shop and cook, want solutions to keep their bodies going. After all, knowing all of your take out numbers by heart can only get you so far. Enter 250 Best Meals in a Mug (Robert Rose).

To be clear, for the most part, these recipes are real and whole foods. As the author points out, “Most of these meals can be created from scratch in less time than it takes defrost a processed store-bought meal.”

So what can you make in a mug? As it turns out, pretty much everything from Manhattan Clam Chowder to Moroccan Date and Chickpea Tagine, Quiche, Chile Rellenos, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Paella, Risotto, Tabbouleh, Shrimp and Grits and even the delectable Mexican beef stew, Caldillo.

The emphasis here is on individual portions that will get you right through your day, from breakfast to dinner.

Another tightly written volume from Saulsbury, who is the author of several others from Robert Rose. ◊

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.

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This Just In… Here I Stand by Jillian Bullock

The extraordinary true story of Jillian Bullock, a young, African-American woman who grew up during the 1960s and 70s with her mother, Janet, and her white stepfather, Jake, a member of the Philadelphia Italian Mafia and film enthusiast.

After his death, and when her mother kicks her out, Jillian becomes homeless at age 15. In order to survive the streets, she resorts to drugs, criminal activity and prostitution. However when she gets pregnant at 16, Jillian knows she must work to transform her life, not only for the sake of her unborn child, but to fulfill Jake’s dying wish for her to become a filmmaker and a screenwriter.

Jillian fights to get off the streets, kick drugs and complete high school. She defies the odds by getting an internship at the Wall Street Journal while she studies communications and film in college, and raises her young son. Jillian continues to work to fulfill her stepfather’s dream and dying wish for her to become a screenwriter and filmmaker.

You can order Here I Stand here. Visit author Jillian Bullock on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Cover Designers Challenged

Book cover designers might want to mount up in order to participate in Edinburgh-based Floris Books’ second annual contest to discover “talented new cover designers and illustrators.”
The Prize challenges amateur designers and illustrators across Scotland to design the cover for a new edition of the classic Scottish children’s novel The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell McLean. The book will be published by Floris Books -- complete with a cover designed by the winning artist -- in autumn 2015 as part of their Kelpies range of Scottish children’s novels. 
The winner of the Kelpies Design & Illustration Prize will receive £250, and will work with Floris Books to produce the book's final cover, which will have worldwide exposure.
First published in 1955, The Hill of the Red Fox is a classic Cold War spy novel set on the Isle of Skye. Floris are looking for an action-packed winning design that will bring the book's sense of intrigue and mystery to life for a new generation of readers.
You can read more here.

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This Just In… Saints in the Shadows by Alana Cash

Maud Strand has an idyllic life with her parents in New Orleans, surrounded by family and friends. From childhood, she has had prophetic dreams which benefit Adele, the family housekeeper, who does a little gambling. Maud attends Catholic schools and explores the occult as a teenager.

In college she’s traumatized by the sudden death of her father in a car accident. She and her mother both wallow in grief for a year, but Maud begins to feel alienated from her mother, Celia, especially when she starts dating a tourist from Montana. When Celia begins talking about remarriage, Maud moves to New York.

Maud has a secret, something she can’t remember, and this secret is running her life. And, she’s angry because on the day her father died, she believes someone stole his trumpet from the front seat of his car.

In New York, Maud meets Lina Sandor who makes her living as a psychic under the name Madame Budska. But Madame Budska is no ordinary psychic because her New York clients are a billionaire hedge fund manager, a political kingmaker, a studio head, a TV talk show host, and a crazy college professor.

After a few months, Lina asks Maud to take over the psychic business while Lina goes away for a couple of weeks for what she calls “the big reveal.” Very reluctant at first, Maud finally agrees and begins training for the job. Madame Budska teaches Maud to “listen until you hear” and “look until you see.” And as Maud does that, she has powerful dreams that give her deep insight into the behavior of the influential people she is meeting.

What Maud wants is to be able to dream about the dead so that she can talk to her dad. It’s this desire that leads Maud through a dark tunnel from which she must learn to escape on her own.

You can order Saints in the Shadows here.  ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Former Trump Exec Denies Drugging Competitor

The trouble with writing a book about lies and liars is that it may be tough to verify your source material. You can see this perfectly clearly in Vanity Fair contributor Vicky Ward’s The Liar's Ball: The Extraordinary Saga of How One Building Broke the World's Toughest Tycoons (Wiley), which will be out August 20.

Former trump exec, Abe Wallach, denies ever drugging a rival to help make a real estate deal happen. From The Real Deal:
In the book, which is about the sale of the GM building, Ward recounted a story in which Wallach allegedly drugged a rival during a long-haul flight to Asia. 
“I swear on the grave of my parents, that story is not true,” Wallach told The Real Deal.  
Instead, he explained, Ward took the story from Wallach’s written memoirs. The memoirs, he said, contained embellished and, in some cases, fabricated stories that he inserted in order to entice a publisher to someday buy his manuscript. “The key thing most publishers told me was, ‘You need to jazz up the book,’” he recalled. “So I started looking at what I could do to jazz it up.”  
Wallach said he showed Ward his draft to help her piece together some of the facts for “Liar’s Ball.” He claims that she quoted portions of his book, but presented his stories as truthful, which some are not. And, he said, she got the story about the sleeping pills from a chapter on the Plaza Hotel, not the GM building. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

This Just In… Thirteen Days in Milan by Jack Erickson

Sylvia de Matteo, an American commercial photographer and single mother, is taken hostage by terrorists during a political assassination at Stazione Centrale, Milan’s main train station.

Moments later, a Paris-bound train with Sylvia's ten-year old daughter and fiance aboard departs the station without Sylvia.

Sylvia is seized at gunpoint, thrown into the back of a van, blindfolded, beaten, and driven to a warehouse where she is imprisoned in a cell.

When the terrorists discover Sylvia's father is a wealthy Wall Street investment banker, they demand a ransom for her safe release.

You can order Thirteen Days in Milan here. Visit author Jack Erickson on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Biography: John Marshall: The Chief Justice who Saved the Nation by Harlow Giles Unger

One gets the feeling that Harlow Giles Unger gets material for new book topics while researching still other books. What else could explain this prolificacy? Unger has delivered truly stellar biographies year after year on such diverse characters as John Quincy Adams and George Washington, to name just two.

While Unger is not the only biographer dealing with material steeped in American history these days, he is certainly in the very top tier of those who do. Not only that, despite a publishing schedule that has seen Unger produce more than 20 books, his work remains highly readable and even interesting. As anyone who has read historical non-fiction will tell you, that’s a tall order. Even for someone not publishing as frequently as this author does.

In John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved a Nation (Da Capo), Unger puts his laser sights on the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Marshall, who served in that position from 1801 to 1835. As Unger’s subtitle suggests, some of Marshall’s decisions were pivotal… though mostly unpopular and he remains the longest serving Chief Justice in American history.

Unger looks at the whole of Marshall’s life and concludes that some of the decisions he made on the bench would have far-reaching effects. Some of them impacting us even today. Beyond his work on the bench, Marshall made other contributions to society.  He was an officer in the Revolutionary War and distinguished himself mightily. He was a member of Virginia's constitutional convention, a lawyer, a congressman, diplomat and was for a tim U.S. Secretary of State.

Unger’s book is a fair, lucid and highly readable look at the life of a quietly remarkable man. ◊


Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

This Just In… Waking Reality by Donna LeClair

In 1963, the State of Ohio v. Bill Bush murder trial turns the lives of an ingenuous family into nightmarish chaos after a police sergeant viciously murders three members. Waking Reality divulges the astonishing way authorities force protective custody, the distressing repercussions, and startling revelations. It is a story of life at its best and worst.

Spanning 50 years, the author splices suspense and fairy tales into a spinetingling memoir that is equal-parts family saga, psychotherapy and jigsaw puzzle. Waking Reality stumbles down the dark alleys of America and into the invisible lives of the homeless while rummaging through the lonely streets of rejection and into the raw trap of abuse and addiction. Constantly transforming, it travels inside a living breed called family and the ties that bind them.

You can order Waking Reality here. Visit author Donna LeClair on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

New Crime Fiction Festival Will Launch in Vancouver

In Canadian book-publishing circles, Alma Lee’s name is synonymous with successful book-related events. This is because back in 1988, Lee was one of the first out of the box with what has become an international phenomena: the literary festival.

Lee stepped down as creative director of the internationally renowned Vancouver International Writers Festival in 2005, in part for health reasons. Since then, she’s had a liver transplant followed by a successful recovery. Where some might take the opportunity to grab a deep breath, Lee has launched herself at yet another project that shows every sign of being world class and internationally recognized: CUFFED, the Vancouver International Crime Fiction Festival. The first CUFFED will take place March 11-13, 2016, on Lee’s old stomping grounds, Vancouver’s Granville Island. “I know it seems far away,” Lee says about the dates, “but believe me from starting something like this from scratch, I know how long it takes.”

And Lee and company aren’t messing around: starting from the beginning with  a stellar venue, strong support from the publishing community and writers including Linwood Barclay, Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine and others.

Though some will feel the shift from running a literary festival to one focused on crime fiction is an intense about-face, Lee doesn’t think so. “The more I talk to people and friends about reading, the more I found out that people are really keen on crime fiction, so I don’t think we will have difficulty in finding an audience.”

Beyond building a potential audience, Lee herself loves the genre and has always been a strong supporter. “Many people think [crime fiction is] a “guilty pleasure.” Not me. I am an eclectic reader, but crime fiction is a pleasure, not one I feel guilty about. I think some of the best writers are writing in the genre.”

You can read more about CUFFED on its Web site. Feel like supporting the festival’s growth? A crowd-funding campaign has been set up here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Stars of the Party

Earlier this year, Kirkus Reviews announced the creation of the Kirkus Prize, “one of the richest annual literary awards in the world.” Flavorwire explains that “in order for a work to be eligible, it needed to receive a Kirkus star (denoting quality) and to be published between November 2013 [and] November 2014. The judges ended up sifting through quite a few books: 266 fiction; 225 nonfiction, 446 children/teens; and 70 self-published Kirkus Star titles. The winners will be announced at a special ceremony in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, October 23, 2014.” Below are the finalists.

Fiction:
The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster)
Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)
All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu (Knopf)
Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton (Houghton Mifflin)
The Remedy for Love, by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books)
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead)

Nonfiction:
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch (Yale University Press)
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Holt)
The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, by Armand Marie Leroi (Viking)
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty (Harvard University Press)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau)

Young Readers’ Literature:

Picture Books:
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans)
Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, by Kate Samworth (Clarion)

Middle Grade:
El Deafo, by Cece Bell (Amulet/Abrams)
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Young Adult:
The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, by E.K. Johnston (Carolrhoda Lab)
The Freedom Summer Murders, by Don Mitchell (Scholastic)

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Good Life by
Frank Wheeler Jr.

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steve Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Kevin Cook’s non-fiction work, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.)

Sometimes to do the right thing, a lawman must cross the line and do dirty with the bad guys, and nobody knows that better than Sheriff Earl Haack Jr., of Linden, Nebraska. Plainspoken and direct, his daddy was a lawman who gave him the job and taught him to be a cop in the way that makes the most sense in a world that will never be tamed. “Remember, Junior,” Dad said. “Order comes first.” This means that to keep the right side of the law safe, a cop sometimes has to step over the line and bring the fight to the criminals -- and take some of their profits in the process.

Frank Wheeler Jr.’s The Good Life (New Pulp Press) is a modern-day Western in which the classic land-grab of ranchers and railroads routing dirt farmers and other decent folk has been updated. Now we’re given feuding drug dealers at war with each other over territory, while they go up against politicians looking for election-year publicity and underpaid police wanting a piece of the action. Junior does a good job keeping the animals in line and lining his pockets, but when it comes to women, he’s a bit fleeceable.

While serving as a detective in Denver, Colorado, he busts an Argentine college student named Camila for cocaine possession. It’s love at first offense, and Junior ends up marrying her. But she was in the deal for a green card only, and carries on an affair right under Junior’s nose. Camila eventually leaves Junior to return to South America, nearly wrecking him. Camila also knows how some cops can work with drug dealers, and that Junior is one of those people. She’s always thinking.

Junior’s in the middle of cleaning house when he’s tipped off that Nebraska’s attorney general needs a big bust he can show proudly to voters in advance of his upcoming re-election fight, and he intends that bust to take place in little Linden. The problem is that Junior already took out the AG’s fall guy. Junior’s plan was to quietly make the local drug establishment go away, then put his own people in to run the organization. Now he must steer the state police to a new target, a guy in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital. Just as he has his head together, though, Camila shows up again, ostensibly because her wealthy father cut her off, but also packing plenty of the coochie-coochie that Junior can’t resist. Even so, Junior learned his lesson and he’s not buying it. When an assassin breaks into Camila’s apartment and uses her as a human shield, Junior sees it as a “gift from God,” and attempts to line up a shot that will kill them both. This story hinges on why she returned to Junior, and when she’ll play her hand.

What’s hindering Junior’s shady organization is a spy on the inside. The obvious suspect is Camila. A stranger comes to town and Junior takes notice, casting more doubt upon her. But when hog-tied and helpless, Camila comes clean. She tells Junior she represents a South American cartel that’s looking to move in and play ball with Junior -- Camila assured the cartel that she’d get her husband on the team. She owes El-Perro Negro, her boss in South America, for the death of his young cousin. But there is an insurance policy: a thug named Andres -- the stranger -- who’s in Linden to make sure Camila does the right thing, and he must be dealt with.

As far as Junior is concerned, feeding the state police the middle man in Lincoln, as well as his supplier in Chicago, in order to do business with the source in South America sounds like a good plan. In the meantime, there’s a mole to locate as Junior and his half-brother, Mikey, and second cousin Eddie continue to cull the weak, the unwary and the useless. The dealers Junior thinks he can use are asked to leave the country for a while. When they return they’ll have jobs.

The imagery in The Good Life is of Nebraska during harvest time, all corn stubble and chill, and like the best of Hemingway, death lingers in the background, built into the scenery. “Air smells like chaff,” and the reaper is on the prowl, hanging in the breeze. There’s some great good-ol’-boy repartee here, and the beauty of this genre, or at least of country boys cracking wise, is the brevity and pith of their observations and wit.

Junior Haack is a realist, and takes the course of action that makes the most cold-blooded sense, whether it’s beating the screw-up Mikey to knock some sense into him, allowing Camila -- the woman who hurt him so much -- to return to his life and (by his standards) change it for the better, or murdering and dismembering the competition. Despite everything, he’s still able to get a good night’s sleep.

Says Junior: “What I’ve come to understand about murder is its necessity. And if something is necessary, why regret it?” ◊

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can’t We Just All Get a Long (List)?

Two quite different long lists of book prize contenders have been announced this week. First off, we have the rundown of nominees for the 2014 National Book Award for fiction, as reported by The New York Times:

An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)
The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol (Norton)
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
Redeployment, by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken (Dial Press)
Orfeo, by Richard Powers (Norton)
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley (Knopf)

The Times adds that “Five finalists in four categories--young people’s literature, poetry, nonfiction and fiction--will be announced on Oct. 15, and the winners will be recognized at an awards gala on Nov. 19 that will be hosted by Daniel Handler, a.k.a Lemony Snicket.”

Meanwhile, The Rap Sheet brings word that the British Crime Writers’ Association has released its long list of nominees for the 2014 Dagger in the Library award, intended to honor “an author’s whole body of work to date, rather than a single title.” The contestants (chosen this year by readers voting online) are listed below, together with the names of their usual publishers:

M.C. Beaton (Constable & Robinson)
Tony Black (Black and White Publishing)
Sharon Bolton (Transworld Publishers)
Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
Mari Hannah (Pan)
James Oswald (Michael Joseph)
Phil Rickman (Corvus)
Leigh Russell (No Exit Press)
Mel Sherratt (Thomas & Mercer)
Neil White (Sphere)

A short list of Dagger in the Library nominees will be announced on November 3, with the winner slated to be revealed during an event in London in late November.

READ MORE:What Do This Year’s Wildly Disparate National Book Award Longlists Mean?” by Elisabeth Donnelly (Flavorwire).

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Crime Fiction: Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot
by Reed Farrel Coleman

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Lee Goldberg, the author of Mr. Monk Gets Even and -- with Janet Evanovich -- the forthcoming Fox and O’Hare thriller, The Job. Goldberg and business partner Joel Goldman recently launched the Brash Books line of crime novels.)

Robert B. Parker died in 2010, but his characters Spenser, Jesse Stone and Virgil Cole have lived on in new books by other authors. Ace Atkins pulled off a miracle by writing two Spenser novels that could have been mistaken for the work of Parker himself … and in his prime. Michael Brandman’s three Jesse Stone novels were awful, not just bad attempts at imitating Parker, but horribly written books by any measure. Robert Knott’s first Virgil Cole book, Ironhorse, was a decent western, but unremarkable and certainly not up to Parker’s level (his second Cole book, Bull River, was a definite step up and, wisely, a few steps away from attempting to imitate Parker). And the less said about Helen Brann’s Silent Night -- a misguided attempt to finish the book Parker was writing when he died -- the better.

Now along comes Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot (Putnam), a new Jesse Stone novel composed by Reed Farrel Coleman. I should admit a personal bias right off: Coleman is a friend of mine and I am a fan of his work. When I heard he was taking over from Brandman, I was thrilled. I had high hopes for what a writer of Coleman’s skill would bring to the series, and those hopes have not just been met, they have been exceeded. I’m sure I am not going to be the first, or the only, person to declare that he has saved Jesse Stone. His new tale is not only better than Brandman’s three Stone books (which isn’t setting a very high bar), but even better than the last few Stones written by Parker himself.

Coleman has saved Jesse Stone by embracing the character, not by imitating Parker’s writing style. He’s done it by making Stone his own. He has fleshed out Stone’s world, and his inner life, in so many ways. His first smart move was making the crime story in Blind Spot personal, one that goes to the root of Stone’s character, and that allows Coleman to reboot this series, to reintroduce the protagonist, his past and his relationships, and tweak them a bit along the way. He leaves the Stone series in much better shape than Parker left it (and let’s just pretend the Brandman novels were a bad dream, OK?).

This new book begins at a reunion of players from Stone’s short-lived time in professional baseball. The reunion occurs at the same time as a murder in Paradise, the small Massachusetts town where Jesse serves as chief of police. I won’t go into a summary of the plot, but I will say it gives Coleman ample opportunity to explore Jesse’s character in interesting ways.

There are many references in the story to past Stone tales -- a gift to longtime fans, though Coleman is not pandering to them. He’s anchoring his first Stone yarn in the old, paying his respects but saying “we’re moving on.” Those references to past events and characters are the only nods he makes to Parker. You won’t find any imitations of Parker’s distinctive writing style and banter, something only Ace Atkins has dared (and brilliantly succeeded) in copying. Coleman wisely writes in his own voice, one tweaked a bit to suit Jesse Stone but close enough to Parker’s sensibilities that it feels comfortable, familiar and just right.

My favorite thing about Blind Spot is seeing how Coleman makes everyone human, especially the bad guys, which is not something Parker ever did. The bad guys in Parker’s novels were often punching bags for either his supremely confident heroes’ fists or their wit, but they were not living, breathing people.

For Jesse Stone fans, Blind Spot is cause for celebration and, based on the final pages, perhaps some apprehension, too … at least until Reed Coleman’s next Stone novel is released. ◊

(This review appeared originally in Lee Goldberg’s blog.)

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

New This Week: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wonder if David Mitchell likes the fact that when he publishes a novel, it’s an event. I mean, suddenly everyone is talking about his work. Everyone is either full-on loving it or not getting it at all. If I think about the rush for advance copies last June, when Random House gave away a few hundred copies of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, it’s probably a good indicator of the pandemonium that’s just ensuing now that the book has hit the shelves.

The Bone Clocks is a book about family, seen mostly through the life-lens of a girl named Holly Sykes. Holly is a force of nature. In its most basic terms, this novel is the story of her life, told in six big sections -- each a novella on its own. Holly narrates the first and the sixth, and the others are handled by people whose lives intersect hers at critical moments for both her and the novel’s development.

Mitchell, true to form, has folded in the normalcy of Holly’s life -- and really, the normalcy of all his characters’ lives, even if for them normal isn’t what it is for us. Conquests of success, sex, an advantage, an explanation, true love. His characters are after all sorts of things, but it’s Holly’s own search for meaning that drives this book -- and her life -- forward. In that sense, she’s everywoman. We learn about her escapades as a teenager, the disappearance of her brother, her experiences with mystical beings she doesn’t understand, and the success and notoriety she earns after she writes a book about the voices she hears in her head. And about those voices: They provide the entrée into the novel’s deeper layer, about an occult war between mystical beings who hold the keys to immortality.

As he did with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell assembles his story in multiple layers. There’s what we read about, what’s going on day to day -- and then there’s what really going on, the stuff of year to year and lifetime to lifetime. This layer illuminates a new set of characters and provides more information about what motivates the characters we already know. The present and the future are bound by the time between them. In the same way, there’s what we know and what we don’t -- and something binds them, too.

The Bone Clocks is about all of that. It’s about the here and now, and it leaps forward to decades from now, when the world has morphed into something we recognize yet is also very different. In that sense, it’s also a post-apocalyptic novel. On top of all this, but unmentioned in the novel itself, is the fact that characters from other Mitchell novels make appearances. Sometimes cameos, sometimes major roles, these appearances are the threads that begin to bind his works together into a larger whole. Much as Mitchell’s novellas comprise his novels, it’s starting to look like his novels comprise something much larger.

I could go on and on about the terrain The Bone Clocks covers, but you should discover it on your own. No spoilers here. As I was, you’ll be mesmerized by Mitchell’s sentences. He knows how to create one and how to use one. Reading him is like watching a master craftsman build furniture. Whatever its form, he gives it his all -- and his all is hypnotic.

The Bone Clocks is a wondrous, wonderful work. A testament, after all of its astounding literary pyrotechnics, to the simplest thing: family. For Holly Sykes, family is everything. This book is about its power, its pull, its push, its intoxications, and the nameless magic that inspires us to shape our lives the ways we shape them. ◊

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gone Over Gone Girl

It seems to us that the hype for the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 debut novel exceeds pretty much anything we've seen for a while. Right now it almost seems possible that the film will do as well as the book. (Which was very well, indeed.)

Next up in the ever-growing lineup of Gone Girl stuff to look at is this television spot for the film, which opens October 3rd. The spot offers more glimpses of a steamy Ben Affleck and a few more clues: did Nick do it? Or not?

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

(Editor’s note: The following short review was written by Hannah Stevenson, who comes from Bridport, Dorset. She studied undergraduate English Language and Literature at the University of Chester and is currently working on a Masters in English at Exeter. Her main research focus has been the similarities between very different styles of detective fiction, such as hard-boiled and Scandinavian crime tales.)

Fans of the Harry Potter series will doubtless already be tearing through J.K. Rowling’s latest foray, The Silkworm (Mulholland), which she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After the lukewarm reception given her first non-Potter novel, 2012’s The Casual Vacancy, Rowling has moved on to crime fiction, with this new book being the follow-up to her first Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013).

Once more we’re placed in the company of Cormoran Strike, the illegitimate son of a rock star, who’s now a wounded military veteran turned perfectly dysfunctional detective. The Silkworm finds him accepting the case of a missing writer, Owen Quine, whose delusional wife is tired of taking care of their disabled daughter alone. The ensuing investigation turns up many people who resent the self-centered Quine, but it’s Strike’s hunch regarding a house Quine co-owned with an ex-friend that finally leads this sleuth to the gruesome discovery of the author’s mutilated corpse. As police begin probing the homicide, they settle their focus firmly on Quine’s spouse, whose attitude is both surly and distracted.

Delving deeper into the mystery, Strike discovers that the circumstances of Quine’s murder copy those in the final scene of a libelous, unpublishable novel he’d been working on -- one that threatened to disclose the carefully concealed secrets of many people within his circle, including members of the publishing industry. Myriad suspects thus come into play, from the author’s embittered agent to the staff at Quine’s publishing house. Quine had more enemies than friends, it appears, and as Strike tries to move forward with the case, he is hindered at every turn by those adversaries, all of them fighting to prove their own innocence and question someone else’s.

Rowling’s real skill here is to be found in the way she sets her tale. She elicits a brilliant sense of the ingrained grime of Quine’s world, moving Strike through a succession of identical offices, apartments and posh Devonshire townhouses. Free of the need to distinguish one of those places from another, she can let her animosity toward nearly all of her characters filter through more clearly.

Although The Silkworm is no groundbreaker, it is certainly a solid literary effort, one that’s likely to leave fans hungry for a third Strike outing. ◊

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