So a few nights ago I was wandering around my home town, singing the theme from True Detective at the top of my lungs and wondering what the hell happened to my Batman pyjamas. An acoustic accompaniment surged up from the brickwork and echoed along the inky blackness of the Leeds/Liverpool like the ghosts of dead navvies playing for their souls. And then I woke up, lurid trouserware restored. You can't get away from Nic Pizzolatto's enthralling tv series even in the embrace of Morpheus. Having reached episode three, further research revealed the writer and brainchild behind the series had written a fairly well received novel. So here it is. It tells the story of Roy Cady or rather Roy tells his own story. He's a bagman for a New Orleans loan shark named Stan Ptitko. Roy gets a double life changing alarm call in the shape of lung cancer and an attempt to set him up for the big sleep by his own boss. What our unreliable narrator steers our gaze away from is just how bad a man Roy Cady is, his job description often going way beyond threats with menaces. Roy is very good at making other people dead. He survives his date with death, killing everyone at the double cross and along with the only other survivor, a young prostitute, the two of them hit the road.
It would be a stretch to describe the book as a crime thriller though it certainly occupies the framework of a crime novel but like its protagonist it wants to be something else. Pizzolatto is far more committed to exploring human nature. Roy is the archetypal killer. It's the man's one true tallent. And he wants to change. Wants to draw a line. He's confronted with his own mortality which forces him to look into the shadows of his own character. He sees the young prostitute, Rocky, as being something still unminted. She's the vamp - the femme fatale but Roy still sees the archetypal ingenue or at least the possibility. If he can't save himself, then maybe he can save her. But Rocky has her own dark secrets and motivations that confound Roy's expectations. The crime novel has never been a genre that disregarded the philosophical but generally it would be used to colour the narrative and add depth and substance to the characters, rather than actually being the focus, with the plot and narrative falling behind to mere backdrop. There are some big ideas and complex philosophical conundrums going on that Galvaston with its always sunny beach and Motel populated with broken or lost humanity, somehow serves up the time to explore them in a pulp sized burp of fiction. And like in True Detective, Pizzolatto uses the passage of time to show a more complete picture of the life tracks involved. People change and one smiling snapshot in the sun tells nothing at all. The author's writing is insightful, colourful, entertaining and challenging. Some of the early chapters are filled with some eyebrow lifting metaphor and imagery but it soon gets reigned in as Pizzolatto finds his stride. A true page turner.
one holds on to its forth star by the skin of its teeth. The cleanness
of Pronzini's complex plotting is mired under a snarl of coincidences
that form the overarching theme of the book. It doesn't quite have
anywhere to go though and our nameless hero is reluctant to wrestle with
the metaphysics of relentless fate so it ends up simply with our hero
puzzled and deflected by the coincidences. Nameless is certainly off
his game even though he's out from under the shadow of that wracking
cough and the incipient threat it promised during the first batch of
novels in the series. The tangles in the case he's investigating come
unravelled more from the paranoia of the perps than from any real
deduction on his part. Major plusses are the locations. San Fran rising
up though the fog. Bodega Bay, location of Hitchcock's superbly noirish
(screenplay by Evan Hunter) The Birds is easy to call up, even after the
woes of rampant commercialism that Nameless/Pronzini rail against
having supposedly spoilt the isolated remoteness of the place. In
the end Pronzini has a last attempt to make something of the rash of
coincidences but unless you step over the genre boundary into horror à
la Final Destination or the Omen and add a supernatural element it's got
no real bite. Frankly I was more disturbed by Nameless's seemingly
encyclopaedic knowledge of nautical terms.
After the last couple of slightly under par books, McBain blasts back with one of the best so far. It's a really snappy read with plenty of the author's trademark forays into the philosophical but also with a strong theme running throughout examining the degrees of ruthlessness that men will employ to follow their dreams. Think Shakespeare à la McBeth in a shoe factory. The book opens during a long scene at a board meeting where several share holders begin plotting to gain control of the company so they can produce a cheaper shoe. Doug King ridicules their plans and storms out of the meeting, his own plans already in place. Plans that are immediately threatened by both treachery from within and the kidnapping of his son from without. But worse is to come when it's discovered the kidnapped boy was not his son but rather the Chauffeur's boy; the dilemma of whether to still pay the ransom and financially ruin himself or to save himself and let the boy die being one that would have social consequences just as final.
The entire precinct are called out to hunt the kidnappers, though the police angle on this one is secondary to the King family and the Kidnappers. Carella carries most of the police angle with a little support from Meyer and the boorish Parker, though even Lt. Byrnes comes out from behind his desk to lend a hand. It all gets very tense. The plot was used and expanded upon in the highly regarded Japanese film 'High & Low' by the brilliant Akira Kurosawa.
Ed Mcbain's 9th in the ever entertaining 87th Precinct is a bit of a departure, lighter than usual with McBain in a playful mood throughout. The plot is slight of stature with Steve Carella responding to an unsubstantiated threat to his soon to be brother-in-law's life on his wedding day. A threat that comes with company, in the tiny but dangerous form of a black widow spider. As plot devices goes, McBain might have to beg pardon for his cliches. But never mind that. Once the ball is rolling McBain goes to work. He populates every blind corner and opportunity with the threat of impending death, has suspects crawling from every shadow and he has a ball doing it. Carella drafts in two of his off duty colleagues, Kling & Hawes with girlfriend in tow, and tasks them with keeping vigil during the big day. Carella himself attends with his heavily pregnant wife Teddy. Even with impending murder lurking, the tensions and distractions of a good wedding can keep even the most professional detective's senses blunted. Before long things escalate and Meyer Meyer and O'Brian are also drafted, tracking a trombone case all over the city.
I've mentioned in previous reviews McBains attitude to editorial directives. Cotton Hawes was one such directive when his publishers deemed Carella too old and too married to persistently carry off the hero's role. Subsequently McBain proceeded to create a young hero, Cotton Hawes, that he would delight in sending up and humiliating at every opportunity. At the same time in 'Til Death, the author spends nearly an entire book introducing the extended family of the detective he was directed to ditch, developing Carella's relationships and history yet further. 'Til Death is a bit of an oddity in the series, being several steps closer to being a theatrical farce than to the gritty police procedural we are used to, but as ever McBain's easy prose, the banter and snappy dialogue coupled with the carefully nurtured cast of regulars makes for a short though enjoyable interlude in city cop life.
The Case of the Tell Tale Hands.
A rather dull and pedestrian story to begin an anthology with, Watson uncharacteristically documenting the intricacies of finger printing rather than injecting any excitement or urgency into the proceedings. At the half way stage I was almost hoping for the introduction of a Pygmy or two. Holmes seems perpetually on the verge of calling all and sundry, including Watson, blithering morons. The only lighter moment in the whole affair is the alacrity that Watson displays in choosing Ilfracoombe over Tenby as a holiday destination. The Case of the King's Evil.
This one was much more to my liking. The plot, though not too murky in it's complexity, is still interesting enough to hold the interest, mainly due to how Holmes handles affairs, maintaining a teasing attitude with Watson throughout, which all stems from how the case initially requested aid from the good Doctor and not the better than good detective. The case takes the pair to Norfolk to discover what happened to two brothers, lighthouse keepers both, who have gone missing after a witnessed fight. There are good descriptions throughout of the estuary, the mudflats and the treacherous tides and quicksand under foot. There is a particularly suspenseful sequence out on the mud flats, the tide rushing in, as Holmes pushes bullishly toward a solution with Watson in reluctant tow, the latter seemingly with more mind to the danger the environment poses than the other. I must admit to a fairly rabid fetish in myself for lighthouses, so combining my Holmesian obsession with such is a double whammy. Good stuff. The Case of the Portuguese sonnets.
Back to more dull ramblings among the murky doings of forgers and extortionists. Too much time is spent with the mechanics and history of forgery, which reads sometimes like a light skimming session on Wikepedia. Hired by Robert Browning's son Holmes travels to Venice, which as a location is largely ignored in favour of dusty rooms filled with poetry, documents and manuscripts from a whole host of figures from Byron to Whitman, as he immerses himself in the dubious art of the forgerer. Yes I chuckled several times at some of Holmes' stock put-downs as Watson and Lestrade so obligingly set themselves up but beyond that my main state of mind, despite being doubly armed with a hot Nespresso and a box of Jaffa Cakes, was boredom. Holmes needs an adversary to outwit or a problem to solve, lives to save or judgement to fall. The Case of Peter the Painter
This one is jam packed full of the things that make a good Sherlock Holmes story one of the all time high marks for cosy reads. It's got a little of everything. Holmes has a visitor and he can't resist showing off his 'method' for Watson by applying it to the woman who calls. The woman in question tells a story of a sick daughter, yellow canaries and foreigners up to no-good. Holmes is on top note. Watson not so much. Unfortunately, at this point it becomes apparent that Donald Thomas' schtick has turned up wearing Doc Martens; Thomas loves to tie in the story with some historical incidence - in this case the clashes between police and Russian Anarchists notoriously remembered as 'the Houndsditch Murders' in which three policemen were gunned down dead and several more wounded and the Siege of Sydney Street in which Winston Churchill was at hand leading armed police and a detachment of Scots Guard against a heavily armed group of robber/anarchists. Watson gets heavily side-lined as the two Holmes brothers get pally with Winston but at least it gives him time to get some quality reading done in the form of Scott's Heart of Mid-Lothian. Although this is one of the better stories by Thomas I still think it had potential to be better without being diluted by the author's little history essays. 'The Siege of Sidney Street' also appeared in Barrie Roberts' 'Sherlock Holmes and the Railway Maniac', the first of nine Holmes novels which I heartily recommend. The Case of the Zimmermann Telegram.
The title is all you really need to know. If you have an interest in the Zimmermann Telegram then google some bibliography and save yourself having to read some historical commentary masquerading as a Sherlock Holmes story. Taking place during the 'His Last Bow' era, the story features Sherlock as our secret master decoder and Watson as a secret agent. Sound good? It isn't. No narrative whatsoever, just a very potted spotty history of the exploits of Room 40's codebreakers during the Great War but with Holmes as the prime mover. It occurred to me that the whole story might be another coded message which I eventually managed to decode. It reads thus: FEEL FREE TO SKIM THIS RUBBISH. Unfortunately the message revealed itself too late.
I do like a good anthology. But I do much prefer a mixed author anthology. In a mixed author anthology Donald Thomas might have been represented by the very agreeable 'The Case of the King's Evil', whereas here, in a single author anthology, his faults are highlighted by their repetition and by the inclusion of stories that are of variable quality. Many of these single author anthologies by authors attempting the Holmes pastiche have their highlights but are also of variable quality. It really underlines just what Doyle achieved to maintain such a high level of consistency throughout all 56 of his Sherlock Holmes short stories.
Walt Longmire, Wyoming's Absaroka County Sheriff, is visiting his
daughter in Philadelphia, killing two birds with one stone as he keeps
his best friend Henry Standing Bear company setting up a cultural
exhibition. Dog comes too. Walt has hardly had time to raid the freezer
for a few bottles of Yuengling before he gets the news that his daughter
has been in an incident that leaves her with a serious head injury.
Investigating the incident seems to trigger a chain reaction of violence
and dead bodies, along with a series of cryptic notes. Walt also
gets to meet Vic's family, though in typical Walt fashion, you know that
old fashioned guy sort of fashion, it's Vic's mother who gets the most
invitations to dinner. The mystery degenerates into a bit of Treasure
Hunt following those notes and Walt really needs to take more care with
his physical wellbeing and stop getting run over or having bits shot
off. Even among all the city folk he manages to keep a hold of his wry
humour, along with the cowboy hat. It's not all about the fisticuffs and
firearms though; there's a well played running theme about friendship
and the love between father and daughter with a touching little pay-off
set up in the first chapter and cashed in during the epilogue. This
is your classic fish out of water escapade. It's Tarzan's New York
Adventure, Sherlock Holmes in Washington,.... well maybe not but maybe
it could be an episode of McCloud. "There ya go!"
Taking a last minute protection detail from a colleague, ex Indianapolis cop and former P.I. Frank Behr doesn't know what he's letting himself in for. Now working for the Caro group , a security firm, Frank spends most of his working days at a desk, compiling security checks for contracted firms and organisations. He's bored to tears but circumstances and a pregnant girlfriend don't leave him too many other options. The security detail turns out to be a lot less routine that it should have been and he's ambushed in an underground car park by a lone shooter with some very fancy weaponry. Frank foils the hit but the shooter gets away... and beyond a lot of pats on the back nobody seems to want to investigate. Now this is where I have my only quibble with the book. Motivation. Frank's motivation. Usually the plot dictates that the protagonist has to take the case or bad things are going to happen to them as a result. This one has nothing of the sort. In fact it's quite clear from the outset that poking your nose into things is going to cost you at the very least your job, and it's going to paint targets on your back, your girlfriend's back and one for that little unborn life too. He's confronted several times and asked just what are his motivations and the best he can offer are vague notions of things being personal and even just outright boredom. Maybe, as somebody suggests, he's just a glory hound. Other than that the book is very entertaining; a twisty corporate shenanigans plot, a lethal Welsh hitman, lots of action and a hero who won't lie down. This is the third in David Levien's series featuring Frank Behr and my copy was titled The Contract even though it's previously been published as 13 Million Dollar Pop, though I guess that doesn't translate too well outside the States. Review from an advanced readers copy.