Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Heckler

'She came in like a lady, that April.'
McBain follows the poetic line with a calm, hopeful beginning in this 12th visit to Isola. He brings an air of shy innocence to the intro chapter with the cool, pale personification of the early Spring month being a gentle lady that cheers the populace with her approach. But on with the mayhem.
Carella is trying to solve the case of a close range shotgun killing - the victim stripped down to his socks. Meyer Meyer investigates a spate of threatening calls. It's good to see Frankie Hernandez getting a fairer crack of the whip than his first appearance.
This one really is a corker, with a villain who towers above the usual brand of none to smart lawbreakers, a Moriarty figure, a master of probability and percentages, who flaunts his complex scheme, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories, one of which Detective Kling coincidentally reads in the squad room -  "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League".
 McBain's writing is great here with so much going on from the absurdly intricate caper to the captivating collection of characters that doesn't end with just the regulars. Speaking of regulars - where's Cotton Hawes got to? Not that I'm missing him at all. From the gentle beginning, through the tangled investigation, true suspenseful tension and climactic finale I've got to say this was one of the best so far.
My edition had a fascinating little afterword by McBain on the book and the series so far. Miss at your peril.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Hell is Empty

 When you open the show with some law enforcement types transporting a bunch of psycho killers across country in a van you pretty well know what's coming. One of those law enforcement types is my old buddy Sheriff Walt Longmire and the country is the foothills of the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming, alreaded well blanketed in winter's snow and there's more on the way. Deputy Saizarbitoria (Sancho) is working his way through a bunch of book lists provided by his friends and colleagues (the full set of lists is published at the back). Currently he's mired in the substantially weighty tome of Inferno. Before long the prisoners turn the tables and wreak havoc before high-tailing it into the mountains. Walt sets off in pursuit, with Dante's masterwork his most constant companion. Now at this stage I'd usually start grumbling about Johnson breaking the Longmire formula again by dropping the usual ensemble cast into their off stage limbo waiting for their curtain call at the epilogue but this one is really well done. Yeah it's pretty much a solo piece following Walt's pov, with a few cameos from a few familiar faces but it's far from being a cliched thriller despite the somewhat stock-plot opening. It's actually very well realised, fusing the themes and philosophical ideas of Dante's allegorical satire with Walt's relentless strivings to save the innocent, get up close and personal with his spirituality and basically come to terms with his own place in the world. It's a voyage of self discovery as much as a cops and bad guys chase through the snow. 
It works on both levels though. It's also a big plus that the chase up the mountainside actually takes place in a real place. There really is a Cloud Peak and it's just as Johnson describes.
In the previous book the author gave the readers what they wanted; a full ensemble, a light humourous tone and no damn flashbacks. Walt's propensity for getting a bit beaten up was duly sent up but in Hell is Empty Johnson takes things to a new level and it's no joke. But Walt's wry style of humour is still there. Walt wouldn't be Walt without it. 
I do wonder though how things would have turned out if Sancho had plumped for The Poems of Emily Dickinson.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady

Enola Holmes returns, hunted by day by the Great Detective and haunting London's befogged cobbles by night in her alter ego as the Sister of the Streets, doling out charity disguised as a nun. She maintains daytime alter egos as Miss Ivy Meshle, and Mrs Ragostin the young wife of the imaginary Doctor Ragostin - seeker of things lost. One of the first consultee's turns out to Doctor John Watson in connection with a missing girl. The story incorporates plenty of Victorian talking points regarding social issues for young readers to discuss or investigate further; social Darwinism, Marxism, emancipation. Mesmerism and some not fully developed theories about the dangers of correcting which hand the Lady Cecily uses and connections with multiple personality disorders aren't perhaps as clearly expounded as they could be. Beyond the social horror of poverty in Victorian England Enola cuts a rather lonely figure herself. She has few confidantes and those she has are handled with caution lest she give herself away to her brothers. Her skills with codes and cyphers almost surpass Sherlock and her sketching of caricatures help her along like early mug-shots. A much improved adventure that tries to be fun, establishing a fresh identity amongst so much obvious historical hardship.

Monday, 16 June 2014

A Century of Noir

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins team up to bring us 32 Noir stories from the last century. Collins makes it clear in his intro that the term 'Noir' wasn't the term he or Spillane were aiming for when they set out to put this book together. Tough guy fiction, hard-boiled crime and detective stories was the preferred line, though in the end the collection defers more to reputation than any strict adherence to genre. Most of the stories were born out of the shadowy literature churned out for a voracious post-war public hungry for dangerous thrills, tough guys and femme fatales but from the opening vignette by Chester Himes it soon becomes clear that many of the stories step out of the target genre's darkness in order to let the author's shine. The result is a collection of stories by folk who carved some sort of pulp noir niche for themselves without having to strictly draw from that niche.
Chandler and Hammett should headline a book like this with a story featuring Marlowe, Sam Spade or the Continental Op but neither could be included due to clearance problems. Some other notables get more of a crack at the whip than others with whole novellas being included like the ground breaking Race Williams detective from the 1920s. Many of the stories include the author's trump card detective to showcase their skills but there are also quite a few that take the literary side-step for something unexpected; Gil Brewer's The Gesture being a fine example of a short with a late perspective change that turns things completely on their head; or Fredric Brown's trick ending for Don't Look Behind You; or the balsy genealogist from Donald E. Westlake's Never Shake the Family Tree. Norbert Davis pitches in with an unlikely detective with Chill Blanes, backwoods superstition with Dorothy B. Hughes, chuckles at Lawrence block's animal cruelty psycho dealing it back. There is certainly a deal more fun being had here in a supposed Noir collection than really should be happening.
The editors both contribute, with a decent Nathan Heller effort from Collins, and an entirely forgettable piece of crud from Spillane. Great to see Bill Pronzini serving up another Nameless Detective story - fine work as always. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone story make me open to reevaluating her skills after I dismissed the female detective's debut novella.  These sorts of collections are great jumping off spots into the darkness, with famous names aplenty but frustration lurks behind many of the names in the form of out of print or hard to locate series.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

It's always great to be back with the boys from the 87th Precinct even when McBain struggles to work a worthy plot line.Hapless beat cop Richard Genaro makes another grisly discovery in the form of a severed hand. McBain turns up the extreme weather (its raining constantly) while he scrambles to fit a story to the discarded appendage. Carella leads the investigation whilst Hawes attempts to charm the local Strippers. Kling adds support. Other than plot this one has Teddy and Carella moving into new digs with the newly born twins. The too brief inclusion of Frankie Hernandez as a Puerto Rican detective. And Carella resorts to violence in the squad room as local bad egg Detective Andy Parker crosses the racism line. It's far from the classic of the previous volume King's Ransom but still time well spent.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Fiver's Dream

Due to inevitable health issues this is probably the last year for me at my Bunker Hill abode. All that's holding me here now are a bunch of those invisible bureaucratic legal tangles we humans love to cast about ourselves. Anyhow it gives me a bit of time to say farewell to all the neighbours that have made the place such a fine retreat. Remember that Summer you came to stay for a few days - the garden never forgot, that's for sure. So good-bye buns. Keep on filling that hill with life and long may your afternoons be sunny and predator free. Keep a good eye, and twitch that nose, and always have one ear to the ground. Stay safe folks. I hope Fiver's dream never comes this way but I fear that one day they'll run out of green bits to paint white and even Bunker Hill will fall. Until then..... stop chewing your toes while I'm speechifying... bye buns.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sherlock Holmes had a sister?

Having decided to hoard the latest escapades of Flavia De Luce for hopefully better days ahead I cast my nets and twitched my literary feelers seeking a palatable substitute. It's never been totally dismissed that Sherlock had a canonical sister. He mentions a possibly hypothetical sister several times in The Copper Beeches. The debates go on. It's been a while since I dipped my toes in the YA sea. I've had lots of fun in the past when I have dived in but these days there does seem to be rather more fish than sea. Enola is certainly no match for Flavia (she doesn't even give her bicycle a name for heaven's sake) and Nancy Springer's Victorian England doesn't convince as seamlessly as Pullman's Sally Lockhart books. The author does have great fun with various Victorian minutiae, most notably with Enola's clothing in her various disguises. Enola turns her lack of womanly curves to her advantage by taking advantage of all the vacant storage space with her 'improvised wearable baggage' compartments. The main push of the storyline is taken up by the disappearance of our girl's mother, who vanishes so completely even Sherlock is at a loss. Enola decides to track her down with the aid of her mother's cyphers and a skill for caricature sketching, as much to prove to her disparaging brothers her true cranial capacity. Boarding school and learning to be a proper lady certainly doesn't appeal so she stuffs her baggage compartments full of loot and survival items and sets out on her un-named bicycle in pursuit. It's a short read but entertaining with enough chuckles and even a few Holmsian tingles when Enola and Sherlock collide for me to come back looking for book 2.