What a book!

September 15, 2010

Love on the Docks

Filed under: Fiction,Hard-Boiled — WB Kelso @ 11:58 pm
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It was by pure accident that I found myself reading John D. MacDonald’s The Beach Girls. Inadvertently finding itself into a basket at the local broken spine while a certain non-observant buyer was picking out some Ross MacDonald mysteries off the shelves — because who doesn’t love Lew Archer, am I right?,  I didn’t discover it until long after it was paid for and tossed into the massive to read pile. This accident proved fortuitous, however, and I can now add another author to the must read list.

Despite the salacious cover — standard fare on these old Gold Medal pulps — the grist of this story is a sociological and anthropological study of the hard-drinking and hard-fighting denizens of a a rundown harbor in South Florida; the charter captains, the deck hands, and the women they leave behind, and what all these people do when the sun goes down, the moon comes out and the tide dictates who shacks up with who on a nightly basis. There’s some added intrigue when one of the less popular tenant’s shady past, involving bilking money from many a jilted lover … some alive, some dead, finally catches up to him in the form of one of his victim’s estranged husbands, whose come gunning for him, and outside economic forces are forcing the owner of the harbor to sell out to the mob who want to build a resort on the land.

But, frankly, none of that really matters as MacDonald’s strength is his well defined and drawn out characters; and there’s a lot of them, but each is given a chapter to introduce themselves and advance the plot from their own perspective. I found this approach to be a unique and a refreshing change of pace, and even though the ending wraps up a little too neatly for all involved, I found myself having enjoyed the ride so much I really didn’t care.

July 16, 2010

The Unreality of Reality: When Cyber-Punk Goes Noir

Hey all. Long time, no read.

With Christopher Nolan’s Inception opening this weekend at a theater near you, it brought to mind a fantastic novel I’d read many moons ago that mined the same, lucid shared dream vein called The Night Mayor.

In the not to distant future, since movies and TV are a thing of the past, people look to virtual reality, where a person can be projected into their own movie inside their own head, for their entertainment. Things go a bit awry when master criminal Truro Daine tries to make this unreality a reality, with himself in control of everything, and its up to two cyber-sleuths to tune-in to his wavelength and put the kibosh on his nefarious schemes…

Author Kim Newman is a huge film buff and has written several reference books on said subject. The Night Mayor is his fictional debut and it’s a real treat for his fellow film fanatics. See, Newman’s master-criminal bases his cyber-kingdom on the shadowy, rain-soaked streets and neon-lights of vintage hard-boiled Hollywood noir movies, and it’s populated with several familiar characters, scenarios, actors and femme fatales of the same era — Bogart, Powell, and Tierney — one of them being Daine in disguise. Which is why the authorities bring in an outside expert on the genre (– a surrogate for Newman, perhaps?) to help the lead detective smoke him out. And with this being based in virtual reality anything goes, right?  And when our heroes start tweaking things a bit, movie-genres start to get cross-pollinated — and if you think Lon Chaney Jr. showing up and sprouting whiskers in the middle of all this is wild, just wait until you see what comes stomping out of the harbor.

Of course knowledge of vintage films will help your enjoyment of this book but even a cursory film fan will recognize most of the cameos, winks and nods in Newman’s book. The science part of the equation takes a bit to slog through but it’s well worth it to get the fiction.

Highly recommended.

May 24, 2010

A Volatile Concoction that Goes Down Smooth

Filed under: Dennis Lehane,Hard-Boiled,Thriller — WB Kelso @ 7:52 pm
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With a week’s vacation to burn up, and after a quick trip to The Tattered Book, I decided to break in a new author that had been recommended to me on many fronts. And after reading Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War — his first Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro adventure — the only question left to answer was — What in the hell took me so long to try this guy?

Set in the racially turbulent Burroughs of Boston, detective Kenzie and his partner, Gennaro — both street-wise and wise-asses, and both burdened by family skeletons that are still leaving bruises and scars — are hired by the local political machine to track down and return some compromising documents allegedly pilfered by a maid, who has since fallen off the face of the earth.  Of course, as it usually is in these kinds of things, this missing persons job winds up being not quite that simple as the partners are soon embroiled in a bitter gang-war, with both sides wanting them dead and those documents kept out of the others’ hands.  Leaving our protagonists, who are only trying to do the right thing with what they’ve found, on the run, dodging bullets, and playing all three sides against the other to save their own skins.

Yeah, after only one book the team of Kenzie and Gennaro have easily rocketed into my top ten of favorite literary characters. They aren’t perfect and are intriguingly flawed, with Kenzie acerbically trying to come to grips with the ghost of his abusive father, the “Hero,” and Gennerao’s tragic refusal to leave her abusive husband, the “Asshole,” which only adds another layer of tension between the two, whom we, as a reader, want to see get together but know it would never work.  And with this couple of hard-boiled throwbacks, Lehane’s dialogue is witty and cynical and absolutely crackles on the page. So, take my advice and don’t wait as long as I did and check out this book as soon as possible.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go finish Darkness take My Hand so I can read Sacred; and then Gone Baby Gone, and then …

May 8, 2010

C.S.I. New York — Circa 1896

Filed under: Crime,Fiction,Mystery,Thriller — WB Kelso @ 1:21 am
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When the severally mutilated body of a murdered prostitute is posed and left for a gruesome public display, newly appointed New York City police commissioner Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt decides to forgo normal procedure and brings in an alienist — Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an expert in the burgeoning field of psychology and abnormal behavior — to apply his trade and help solve this bizarre homicide. Together, facing both danger, doubt, and ridicule at every turn, these two crusaders gather a small team of experts on the local criminal elements (on both sides of the law) and the most advanced forensic techniques, and then start poking and prodding at the dark underbelly of the city, trying to figure out what makes the killer tick and flush him out before this butcher strikes again.

Truthfully, author Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is about 50/50 split between psychological thriller and history lesson. And speaking truthfully again, whichever way you come at it — as a mystery lover or history buff — you’ve stumbled right into a goldmine. Carr paints a fascinating and minutely detailed canvas of turn of the century New York and its colorful denizens, which, contrary to what you might think, does nothing to distract from the plot as our protagonists methodically piece together clues and draw conclusions from the killer’s actions but serves, instead, to enhance the proceedings. Sure, some authors can bring a reader into their books as a casual observer from a safe distance, but Carr has a knack for putting you into the scene with all the sights and sounds and smells found therein — none of them all that pleasant.

It’s real. It’s happening. It’s a whole new spin on the phrase “social studies.” And, my friends, you’re along for a wild and rewarding ride if you just crack it open and take a look.

April 20, 2010

The Road Less Taken

Filed under: Fiction,Science fiction,Thriller — WB Kelso @ 1:31 am
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bleak (blk) adj. bleak·er, bleak·est

1. Gloomy and somber

2. Providing no encouragement; depressing: no prospects.

3. Cold and cutting; raw.

4. Exposed to the elements; unsheltered and barren.
Yeah, that pretty much sums up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a clinical sense, mind you.
Quick and Dirty: Through some unexplained global catastrophe, the world has burned and been reduced to nothing but ash. The sky is clogged with it, the sun barely breaking through, and night brings absolute darkness, meaning nothing more will grow. And once the vegetation went, all the animals soon followed, with those not poisoned consumed to extinction. Now, there are only a few bands of humans roaming this lunar-scape and dilapidated husks of civilization, looking and scrabbling for any kind of sustenance, and avoiding each other to make whatever rations found last a little longer, and yes, to keep yourself off someone else’s dinner plate. Among them, a father and son, making their way along our titular road in a desperate journey toward the sea, hoping against hope that things will better over the horizon.
Now, I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature in my time but none were more sobering, disheartening and dire than what was represented in these pages. The author hints at some pretty awful things to show how far mankind has fallen, with roving bands of hooligans gone cannibal, which is bad enough, but when you also realize there is only one sustainable and replenishable food source left on the planet, and a lot of these bands consist of women in various stages of pregnancy — yeah, when that was finally and explicitly laid out for me, I had to put the book down for awhile. But, if you’re still with me, here, in these very same pages is a solid and reaffirming story of  familial love, a lasting bond, that survives some astronomical odds.
It took me about 50 pages before the stark and offbeat cadence of McCarthy’s prose gelled properly; prose that is as raw and clipped and emaciated as our weary travelers. (The recent film adaptation stars Viggo Mortenson, and it’s easy to hear him in your mind’s ear narrating the whole thing.) But once you get the beat of it, it works wonderfully as he conjures up such a gloomy and queasy picture — however, this also really helps to punctuate the novels few bright spots, where things actually go well for our troupe. However, those of us who’ve been corrupted by watching too many George Romero flicks know these reprieves won’t last long, and I often found myself at unease, and encouraging them to get moving again before things inevitably go haywire and all is lost. And on the same stroke, to contrast this obviously hopeless journey, the author welds the bond between the man and the boy that helps disperse the darkness.
At least for a little while…

March 27, 2010

Murder Has a Good Beat

Filed under: Crime,Mystery,Thriller,Uncategorized — WB Kelso @ 12:44 pm
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When his twin brother, a homicide detective for the Denver P.D., commits suicide after being unable to solve a particularly grisly murder that he’d been obsessing over, Jack McEvoy, a violent crime-beat reporter for The Rocky Mountain News, deals with his grief and the five stages of denial the best way he knows how. But while tracking down his brother’s last few days for his next story, when things don’t quite add up, the reporter comes to the conclusion that it wasn’t a suicide after all but a carefully staged murder. And then, when his research into police suicides nationwide turns up a disturbing pattern of an unsolvable murder, followed by the lead detective’s suicide, complete with a cryptic suicide note consisting of a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, McEvoy realizes his brother was the latest victim of a serial killer.

Probably better known for his crime novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosh, regardless, I jumped into author Michael Connelly’s “pool” with The Scarecrow, the second novel featuring his other reoccurring character, reporter Jack McEvoy, which quickly sent me searching for his inaugural adventure, The Poet. McEvoy is very good at his job, perhaps a little too good, meaning some clues he digs up or patterns he sees are so damned obvious that nobody else has seen them is a bit of a stretch. However, find the patterns he does, and that turns out to be the easy part as now he has to convince his boss, the police, and eventually, the F.B.I. that a deranged killer, or possibly two deranged killers, is moving across the country and leaving a lot of bodies in his/their wake. And convincing that last group brings him to the attention of Special Agent Rachel Walling for a little joint-investigating and the prerequisite boot-knocking.

To tell his story, Connelly splits time between McEvoy and the killer. Fairly blunt and straight forward with his plot, from what I’ve read so far, the author likes to keep things simple as the mystery methodically unravels and saves the big twist for the end. And in the case of The Poet, it’s a pretty big one. If I have one major beef with the plot it’s the whole body in the locked room scenario for the suicide victims, who leave the quotes from Poe in their own handwriting. Here, the author kind of paints himself into a corner, and how he gets out of it will give the credulity muscle in your brain a good stretch. And for those of you who like the squickier side of these serial mysteries with the accompanying blood and guts may want to look elsewhere as we’re mostly dealing with the murders after the fact. Still, if you like puzzles and authors that reward you with pieces as you go along,  you’ll probably like the final picture Connelly provides for you.

March 9, 2010

Murder on the Yellow Brick Road by Stuart Kaminsky

Filed under: Hard-Boiled,Mystery — WB Kelso @ 2:47 am
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“Someone had murdered a Munchkin. The little man was lying on his back in the middle of the Yellow Brick Road with his startled eyes looking into the overhead lights of an M.G.M. sound stage. He might have looked kind of cute in a tinsel-town way if it hadn’t been for the knife sticking out of his chest…”

Toby Peters is a highly principled but low-rent private eye in 1930’s Hollywood. He’s got a bad back, he sublets his office from a dentist with questionable/sadistic skills, and has a brother on the Homicide Squad whose idea of family bonding is a punch to the kidneys  and a knee to the groin.  However, this unassuming and broken down decorum makes Peters the perfect hire for Tinsel Town’s elite power players in need of help and a little discretion, be it extortion, blackmail or murder.

Murder on the Yellow Brick Road is the second Toby Peter’s mystery knuckled out by author Stuart Kaminsky. There’s about two dozen of them in total, and the hook for each is that they all concern a certain movie star and other, famous people of the time. Here, Peters is hired by Louie B. Mayer himself to investigate the murder of a munchkin on the set of The Wizard of Oz, fearing the real target was Judy Garland. And as he unravels the mystery our detective also crosses paths with Clark Gable and Raymond Chandler, and also picks up a sidekick, of sorts, when he proves another little person didn’t do the deed.

Now, the famous cameos and clients are the decorative frosting that hooks ya — future installments include Gary Cooper, Bela Lugosi and The Marx Brothers, but the mysteries and the minutiae of the era that Kaminsky immerses you in provide enough layers of cake, I think, to keep you coming back for seconds and thirds.

March 1, 2010

What’s on Chad’s Shelves in the C.K. Dexter Haven Memorial Library.

Filed under: Welcome — WB Kelso @ 3:04 am

Hello? *tap*tap*tap* Is this thing on? Okay, welcome and thanks (1) to Jack for the invite, and thanks (2) to those of you tuning in. My tastes in yellowed pages and broken spines is, well, wide and varied and tends to move with the breeze. My modus operandi is to descend on a certain author like a plague of locusts and devour everything and then move on (– with some authors necessitating a faster move, while others I’ll stick around to see what’s next on the menu.)

Mostly, I tend to veer toward mysteries and whodunits, hard-boiled and forensics. And the squickier the better. I also dig old school sci-fi, horror and other weird tales. And I also enjoy film criticism, film bios and film history. I’ve also been addicted to comic books for over 35 years.

My favorite authors include: Joe R. Lansdale, James Lee Burke, Richard Matheson, Val McDermid, Lora Roberts, Karin Slaughter and Kathy Reichs. Then, there’s  Spillane, Hammet, Thompson, and Ross MacDonald. Oh, and Donald Hamilton, Stuart Kaminsky and Caleb Carr. And then there’s A.E. Van Vogt, John W. Campbell and John Wyndham. Also, Ed Brubaker, Kurt Busiek, Geof Johns and Gail Simone. And don’t forget the film critics, Tom Weaver, Roger Ebert, Danny Peary and Joe Bob Briggs.

Favorite Series and Characters: Burke’s Dave Robicheuax novels; Hammet’s Continental Op; Robert’s Liz Sullivan mysteries; Slaughter’s Hope County series; MacDonald’s Lew Archer, Kaminsky’s Toby Peters, and Hamilton’s Matt Helm. And anything Brubaker’s writing at the moment. Also devouring those Hardcase Crime File reprints.

Favorite books: If you thought that list of authors was long … Let’s just say there’s a lot of them that run the gambit from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to Joe Lansdale’s “The Drive-In” to Van Vogt’s “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” to Brubaker’s “Captain America”.

Guilty Pleasures: Adam Warren, Jack Ketchum and Graham Masterson’s Manitou series.

Tried and Died: Patricia Cornwell, Lisa Gardner and … that’s all I can think of at the moment.

Currently sticking my toes into the water of :Michael Connelly, John Sanford, and Peter Straub.

Beyond that, I’ll try anybody or anything at least once. As the old saying goes: There’s only two kinds of books in this world: Good ones, and bad ones. Beyond that, it’s all gravy.

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