Friday, September 19, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Good Life by
Frank Wheeler Jr.

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steven 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).


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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