Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back to Fronts

Polling in The Rap Sheet’s “Best Crime Fiction Covers of 2009” contest closed at midnight last evening. Participation was more than double what we saw in 2008, which may be attributed to better publicizing of the competition or perhaps just the fact that this blog has witnessed a steadily climbing readership over the last 12 months. And the rivalry for top honors among our dozen nominees this year was especially heated, with two or three book jackets in close contention during the survey’s two-week run.

In any event, we can now announce the results. With 634 ballots having been cast, the front of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection came out in the lead with 18.9 percent of the vote. Designed for Penguin Press by Glenn O’Neill, this novel is one among a trendy flurry of books to have its cover artwork printed directly on the board binding, rather than being swathed in a slick dust jacket. Such a “naked cover” gives Berry’s otherworldly yarn (about a reluctant detective pursuing his first investigation with help--more or less--from a highly flawed manual) a distinctive character not only in it the way it looks, but in the way it feels. Bill Sanderson’s presumably Pinkerton-inspired illustration of a human eye, bordered by clocks, old-fashioned keys, fingerprints, hand prints, and less distinct, shadowy elements, gives The Manual of Detection immediate mysterious distinction. This may be one of the simplest yet most eye-catching crime novel covers we’ve seen in many a moon, a commercial asset to a debut work that might not otherwise have drawn such appreciative attention. It is too bad that Penguin has decided to go in a very different direction with the paperback edition of Berry’s book, which is due out late next month. I hope we’ll see more of Glenn O’Neill’s covers on crime novels in the future.

One thing that surprised me in looking over this year’s contest results was that neither of the two deliberately “retro” covers--those on Mark Coggins’ The Big Wake-Up (illustrated by Owen Smith) and Linda L. Richards’ Death Was in the Picture (with artwork by Richie Fahey)--managed to top the 10-percent vote hurdle. Could it be that readers are tiring of cover designs that plunder the past for their inspiration? Or is it merely that those two examples failed to excite readers as others have done? Personally, I like both of those covers, as I do the fronts of Rennie Airth’s third John Madden mystery novel, The Dead of Winter, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Vanilla Ride (the final Chip Kidd-designed jacket for which is here). But this poll is supposed to be about what readers like, not what I like or what the other judges of this year’s covers preferred.

And in the end, Rap Sheet readers were more drawn to jackets bearing sharper imagery and straightforward typography. Collecting second-place honors in our survey, with 17.7 percent of the vote, is the front of Ravens (Grand Central Publishing), George Dawes Green’s first novel since The Juror (1995). Stark in presentation, with the book’s title serving as the main artwork (and nicely incorporating the profile of a raven on the wing), this is a standout cover among rivals that depend for their attraction on greater color and complexity. (One of our Best Covers of 2009 judges, Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, proclaimed: “It looks like someone in some art department grew testicles this year, after all.”) That artistic severity serves well Green’s periodically chilling and twisted tale about a couple of drifters planning to bilk a rural Georgia family of their lottery winnings. The cover of Ravens, by the way, was designed by Diane Luger.

Not quite so stark, but certainly bold in conception, is our third-place winner (with 14.3 percent): the British cover of Jonathan Rabb’s Shadow and Light, the sequel to Rosa (one of January Magazine’s favorite crime novels of 2005) and the second installment in a projected trilogy of early 20th-century thrillers. In this novel, Nikolai Hoffner, a half-German, half-Jewish detective inspector with Berlin’s criminal investigations unit, mixes it up with right-wing militiamen and pornographers as he probes the 1927 murder of a prominent film producer. The UK cover for Shadow and Light was designed by Paul Rogers; and while it isn’t as dramatic as the Fritz Lang-ish proposal he originally took to publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, it’s still a good deal more eye-catching than Charlotte Strick’s too-dark artwork for the American edition of Rabb’s latest book.

Finally, picking up a 12.6 percent share of this year’s vote, is the jacket from The Killing Circle, by Andrew Pyper. The novel focuses on a widower and aspiring author as he becomes involved with a young woman in his new local writing group, whose frightening account of a girl being stalked by a killer called the Sandman may be more autobiographical than she lets on--and definitely brings the protagonist more trouble than he ever imagined. Its uncomplicated but nonetheless powerful cover was done by designer Henry See, who explains in his blog that “A sheet of writing paper with a delicate semi-circle paper-cut wound came to mind as I was talking with the editor. With a bit of blood pooling up behind it and beginning to run.” After minimal changes, that idea became the front of the finished book. A work audacious in its simplicity.

So there you have it, folks, another year’s worth of noteworthy crime novel covers. We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled in 2010, hoping to identify still more intriguing and daring examples of what can be accomplished in this genre. If you spot any jackets you think ought to be in contention, please don’t hesitate to let us know about them.

READ MORE:My Favorite Book Covers of 2009,” by Joseph Sullivan (The Book Design Review).

Angel of the Silver Screen

Congratulations to Christa Faust, who has been signed to write the screenplay for her 2008 novel, Money Shot. More on that here.

A Last-Minute Reminder

As of this coming Friday, January 1, the registration fee for next October’s Bouchercon in San Francisco is slated to increase from its present $175 to $195. So you might want to register now

Hall or Nothing

Recently, I had the opportunity to compose a chapter of a book about crime novelists and the cities they made famous through their fiction. (I’ll have more on that later.) My assignment was to write about Dashiell Hammett and San Francisco, California, where both Sam Spade and The Continental Op trod the “mean streets.”

During the course of my research for the piece, I discovered something that was unrelated, but nonetheless fascinating. It has to do with the popular 1967-1975 NBC-TV series Ironside. As you may remember, wheelchair-bound former Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside (played by Raymond Burr) lived in and worked out of spacious offices high up in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice (shown on the left), located directly across Kearny Street from historic Portsmouth Square on the edge of Chinatown. What I hadn’t realized until doing the Hammett research was that that broad-shouldered block of a building, designed by city architect Newton J. Tharp and completed in 1912 (it replaced a still grander Hall of Justice that was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire), was demolished in 1968 after a new Hall of Justice complex (and police headquarters) was erected at 850 Bryant Avenue.

What does this mean? That for most of Ironside’s eight-year run, “The Chief” and his small contingent of major-crime solvers conducted their investigations from a structure that no longer existed. It must have been fairly weird for San Franciscans, seeing their old Hall remain standing on television, even as it was razed and replaced in fact by an ugly hotel tower. And Ironside producers must have spent a lot of time collecting film footage of the 66-year-old building that they could use--and, in many cases, reuse--as the series continued.

(Hall of Justice photo: Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bullet Points: Post-Christmas Edition

• Last week we reported that John Shannon has signed with publisher Severn House to produce future entries in his Jack Liffey detective series. Now comes this note from Private Eye Writers of America founder and author Robert J. Randisi:
Looks like Severn House is making many good decisions of late. Aside from signing Gar Haywood and John Shannon, I’ve come to terms and am about to sign a deal for two new Rat Pack books, moving the series there from St. Martin’s Press. Book #5, I’m a Fool to Kill You, should be out in the fall. The book features not only Eddie G., Big Jerry and the Rat Pack, but Ava Gardner. It’s a fact that Frank Sinatra wrote the song “I’m a Fool to Want You,” specifically for her.
• The Noir Coalition of Philadelphia has festivities planned for January 10 to acknowledge the 43rd anniversary of noir writer David Goodis’ death at age 49. For more information, send an e-mail message to info@noircon.com.

• Blogger Cullen Gallagher interviews Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, mostly on the subject of his Gabriel Hunt adventure series. By the way, if you missed reading my own conversation with Ardai for the Killer Covers blog, you’ll find that here.

• As a childhood fan of the TV comedy series Mister Ed, I was saddened to read this news.

• Another death worthy of note, that of author Loren Singer, whose 1970 political thriller, The Parallax View, was made into a 1974 theatrical film starring Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss. More on Singer’s demise here.

• Indian pulp fiction? You betcha.

• It’s never to early to begin reading New Year’s-related mysteries.

• In the latest installment of her Partners in Crime series, Janet Rudolph interviews Charles and Caroline Todd, who together write the Ian Rutledge historical mysteries under Charles’ name. By the way, San Francisco-area readers who would like to meet this charming pair will have a chance on January 14. For more information, click here.

• While others are naming their favorite books of 2009, Irish writer and blogger Rob Kitchin has put together a list of his favorite blogs of the year. Although his selection doesn’t include The Rap Sheet (hey, we’re hoping for a place on the list in 2010!), it does feature our sister blog, Killer Covers. Thanks, Rob.

• Rege Behe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review talks with bookshop proprietor and editor Otto Penzler about his new book, The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Story of Their Greatest Detectives. The results of their exchange are found here.

• No surprise: USA Network’s White Collar has been renewed.

• Is Toronto journalist Lee Lamothe’s The Finger’s Twist really the Canadian break-out mystery novel of 2009?

• And a final, off-topic final note: The New Republic’s Jon Chait calls the U.S. Senate’s passage late last week of a health-care reform bill “the greatest social achievement of our time.” Kevin Drum of Mother Jones labels it “the biggest progressive advance in my adult life. You have to go back to the great environmental acts of the early ’70s to get close, and to the civil rights/Medicare era to beat it.” Naturally, the foundering Republican Party--driven on by its wacko Tea Bagger minority--says it’s determined to overturn the legislation, which contains subsidies for families who can’t afford coverage, cost-containment measures, and deficit-reduction provisions. But as Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly points out, repeal looks politically unlikely. Thanks goodness.

“The Jungle Lawrence”

One of the best jobs I ever had was editing a London men’s magazine called Town in the 1960s. It was in the Esquire tradition, was published by Clive Labovitch and Michael Heseltine (the latter of whom went on to become Deputy Prime Minister under Margaret Thatcher), and boasted a staff of talented if occasionally eccentric journalists--one of whom, Jane Wilson, wrote up a storm, the first of her many bonfires, and became my wife of 41 years.

Also on the editorial staff was a fearless reporter named Brian Moynahan, who journeyed to such dangerous places as Vietnam and Cambodia in search of stories, and later moved from Town to London’s Sunday Times (pre-Rupert Murdoch of course) and other prestigious journals.

I lost track of Moynahan when I returned to America, and thereafter wondered what had become of him. Now comes word of a book that sounds like a tremendous success, penned by Moynahan himself: Jungle Soldier (Quercus UK) about Freddie Spencer Chapman, one of Britain’s many World War II heroes. As the publisher explains, “In 1941 Chapman was dispatched to Singapore to train British guerrillas for the coming war with Japan. Setting out from Kuala Lumpur on 7 January 1942 on a mission to sabotage Japanese supply lines, he became a veritable one-man army. The Japanese deployed 2,000 men to search for what they believed was a squad of 200 Australian guerrillas. Following Japan’s invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Chapman found himself stranded. Under these most desperate of circumstances, the man dubbed the ‘the jungle Lawrence’ by Field Marshal Wavell showed his bloody-minded talent for survival. Relentlessly hunted by the Japanese army, he was afflicted by typhus, scabies, pneumonia, blackwater fever, cerebral malaria, dengue fever and ulcers before finally being rescued and evacuated to Ceylon on 13 May 1945. Chapman returned to Malaya by parachute in August to take the Japanese surrender at Penang.”

The British reviews of Jungle Soldier have been ectastic. “Crisp, compelling biography ... Moynahan has done a terrific job of turning Chapman’s life into an elegant narrative. The adventures and achievements are so remarkable that his factual biography reads at times like a Victorian novel, where the central character suffers disaster after disaster,” opined The Sunday Times. “An extraordinary life ...,” The Guardian says of Chapman. “For over three years in the Second World War, he blew up trains, bridges and enemy soldiers in the jungles of Malaya, all the while studying birdlife and collecting seeds to send back to Kew Gardens ... Quite why Chapman hasn’t found Lawrence of Arabia’s fame is anyone’s guess.” And The Daily Mail summed it up: “This story of endurance in the fetid heat of the Malayan jungle is surely one of the most awe-inspiring of the whole war--a courageous and utterly English hero, a man whose extraordinary bravery and tenacity were an inspiration to all who observed him. Only now, with the publication of this biography, will Freddy Spencer Chapman win the recognition his memory deserves.”

There appears to be no American publication of Jungle Soldier underway, but perhaps all those glowing reviews will move an enterprising company into action. Meanwhile, you can procure a copy of the British edition through Amazon’s UK division. Good luck with the book, Brian Moynahan, wherever you may be ...

Friday, December 25, 2009

My, You’ve Aged Well, Sir

In addition to this being Christmas Day, it’s also what would have been the 110th birthday of American actor Humphrey Bogart. (He died in January 1957.) There are any number of movie clips I might have chosen to celebrate his career, but since I recently had the opportunity to write an essay about Dashiell Hammett and his 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, I decided to embed a scene here from the 1941, John Huston-directed film version of Falcon. In it, we see Bogart, portraying hard-boiled San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade, meeting the wily Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) for the first time. A reminder of Bogey’s performance in this classic picture qualifies as a gift in my book.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Full Frontal

I understand that readers’ attention might currently be directed at such seasonal matters as present giving, eggnog quaffing, and mistletoe hanging. (It never hurts to get those sprigs up early and keep your pucker at the ready.)

But I just want to remind everybody about The Rap Sheet’s “Best Crime Fiction Covers of 2009” competition. So far, the fronts at the front of the pack come from The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry; Ravens, by George Dawes Green; Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb; and The Killing Circle, by Andrew Pyper.

You can look over our shortlist of a dozen standout book jackets here, and then choose your favorite. We will leave this cover contest open until midnight next Monday, December 28, and report the results soon after that.

Don’t forget to vote!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pumping New Life into Liffey

John Shannon is probably the most underrated and unjustly unread crime-fiction writer in California. I’ve talked about him before on this page, and have mentioned that his publisher, Pegasus Books, unceremoniously dumped him--even though his last novel for Pegasus, Palos Verdes Blue, was one of his best Jack Liffey outings.

Then earlier today, I received the following e-mail message from Shannon, which I’m delighted to reprint here:
Jack Liffey Migrates to a New Publisher!

Poor Jack, I wish he’d settle down. First he starts out at John Brown Books, then Berkley Prime Crime, then Carroll & Graf, then Pegasus--and now, the British/American publisher Severn House. With whom Jack now has a two-book deal.

There was a word for this in Malawi English when I taught in the Peace Corps. When someone was restless or changed domicile a lot, he was called “movious.” Poor movious Jack. So let’s all rush out and buy the next one--an independent mystery bookstore or Amazon may be your best bet--and maybe Jack will stay put for a while.

And just to ice the cake, the next novel, On the Nickel (Jack Liffey No. 12), actually deals with homelessness: At the outset, laid-off aerospace worker Jack Liffey finds himself temporarily mute and wheelchair-bound, and his 18-year-old daughter, Maeve, tries to cheer him up by taking the first steps of a new case for him, to find the missing son of his old friend, Mike Lewis.

Unintentionally, Maeve embroils her father in a simmering fight on L.A.’s Skid Row (known locally as The Nickel because Fifth Street bisects the area). The fight is between the homeless, who desperately cling to the only shelter they know, and developers trying to upgrade the single-room-occupancy hotels into pricey lofts for urban gentrifiers.

Bully-boys for the developers toss Jack and his wheelchair into the hellish night streets of the Nickel. Some of the night denizens steal what they can--his chair, his wallet and watch and shoes, while others end up helping him out.

Eventually a chance encounter with an old girlfriend from the first Jack Liffey novel--The Concrete River [1996]--helps restore his speech and legs. Jack can now repay those who helped him, and everyone is driven to an embattled flophouse: Jack, his current girlfriend, a Latina cop, Maeve, the missing boy and a small group of determined down-and-out Yiddish workers. The bully-boys’ scheme to frighten them away touches off a conflagration that drives them all up to the rooftop for a touch-and-go rescue, as flames eat up through the tarpaper.
Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on On the Nickel. It is supposed to reach bookstores this coming summer. Severn has also signed up another great mystery writer, Gar Anthony Haywood (All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, Firecracker). Good on you, mates.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Swede It Is

It was two years ago yesterday that The Rap Sheet first featured a review of Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women), the opening installment of his “Millennium Trilogy.” Not long after cracking the spine on that thriller, I became an almost obsessive backer of the late Larsson’s fiction. Seeing his novels subsequently scale the UK and U.S. bestseller charts, I knew I was not alone in appreciating the quality of Larsson’s work.

Now, two years on, we offer this first review of the Swedish original film Men Who Hate Women. The picture comes from Yellow Bird Productions, which also gave us the magnificent original Swedish movie series Wallander, made from Henning Mankell’s bestselling crime novels. Men Who Hate Women premiered in Sweden this last February, with the English-subtitled version (renamed, of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) being previewed in August of this year at London’s Fright-Fest Film Festival. Then, in September, the second movie based on Larsson’s fiction, The Girl Who Played with Fire, debuted in Swedish theaters. As with its predecessor, that second picture opened to both critical and commercial acclaim. The third and final Yellow Bird film made from Larsson’s thrillers, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is currently being readied for release. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures holds U.S. rights to an American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with producer Scott Rudin attached to the project.

I was unable to attend the screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in August. So I was delighted when Quercus/MacLehose Press, Larsson’s British publisher, invited me, together with several other critics, to preview the film on December 17.

I spent that morning, last Thursday, pawing through the bookstores of London. My visits included a depressing one to the Borders store in Charing Cross Road. Like all the Borders outlets in the UK and Ireland, this one was scheduled to close on December 22, so was holding a rushed sale of its inventory, with books marked down between 30 percent and 70 percent. Managers were even selling off the furniture and fixtures, bookshelves, sofas, tables, and chairs. It felt like the barbarians had crossed the Tiber, as the shelves were being stripped. This was yet another reminder of how bad the UK publishing business has been this year. To boost my spirits, and pick up a few extra titles (including Journal, by Hélène Berr, recently touted among the decade’s “best unread books”), I crossed the street to Foyles, one of London’s greatest remaining bookshops, where the atmosphere appeared much more optimistic.

From there, I headed off with my hold-all to the Soho district and the private screening room rented by Quercus.

I was greeted with a glass of wine by Ron Beard, who runs Quercus’ paperback division--quite a hectic position, given how fast the Larsson novels are flying off paperback shelves these days. My guess is that about 30 people had been invited to this screening. I was pleased also to see there publisher Christopher MacLehose, with whom I traded a few pats on the back, both of us having predicted the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon. We went on to discuss BBC4’s serialization of the original Swedish version of Wallander, as opposed to the British version starring Kenneth Branagh. I told MacLehose, who was the first to publish Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason in Britain (and has championed much translated fiction over the years), that during my lunch last week with The Times’ crime-fiction critic, Marcel Berlins, he recounted his recent interview with Mankell, and how Mankell told him that he preferred Branagh’s Wallander. Why? Because its episodes tended to focus on one plot strand and how it affected Detective Kurt Wallander, while the Swedish version wove together several plot strands about Wallander, diffusing the focus around many of the secondary characters.

My monopolizing of MacLehose had to end, of course, when he was called to invite everyone in to the screening room. He went on to welcome us all, and advised us to take a “comfort break” before the film began, since it’s gripping enough (even at more than two and a half hours long) that we wouldn’t want to be running to the restroom before the credits rolled. He said this with such passion, that his audience quivered with anticipation. One other bit of advice from MacLehose: that if we were squeamish about graphic violence, especially of a sexual nature, we ought to leave the auditorium before the projector started.

And with that the lights went down. (Reader alert: Those of you who have not enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in book form, note that there may be spoilers below--so read at your own peril.)

The film follows Larsson’s novel very closely, beginning with a short prologue that features 82-year-old Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, as he opens a package from Hong Kong containing a pressed flower in a picture frame. I was startled to see the Swedish actor Sven-Bertil Taube playing Vanger. In my youth, one of my favorite Alistair MacLean novels was Puppet on a Chain (1969), which was later turned into a film with Taube playing Interpol agent Paul Sherman. That movie featured a spectacular high-speed boat chase through the famous canals of Amsterdam. It was strange to see Taube on screen again after all these years--and yes, he has aged, but when I looked at him on screen, I could still see the handsome looks he had in such 1970s film thrillers as The Eagle Has Landed and Game for Vultures.

From there, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows us journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) facing disaster, due to the failure of a court case against the corrupt Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Running parallel is the plot-strand about Lisabeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who works as a researcher with a security firm hired to investigate Blomkvist for the Vanger Corporation. Unlike the novel, the film avoids much of the business preamble, moving quickly to Salander’s discovery that Blomkvist is a decent man, and that the whole trial was fixed by Wennerstrom. The staff at Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine is introduced only briefly, and publisher Erica Berger--who’s one of Blomkvist’s lovers--has but a minor part in the proceedings. In fact, Blomkvist’s amorous nature is toned down considerably for this film, making it much more realistic.

We’re offered the nasty assault on Salander and her terrible retribution, which again are scenes as visceral as anything you’re likely to encounter in mainstream cinema. The editing of this picture is magnificent. None of the violent sexual attacks are presented with anything like titillation; in fact, they are terrifying, being filmed in an almost surreal documentary style. Nonetheless, I heard many seats creaking around me, as Salander was violated. The discomfort in the auditorium was palpable.

The action then shifts to the island the Vanger clan owns, and on which its members live. I gasped, because Henrik Vanger’s mansion looked exactly as I had imagined it from reading the novel. I admire the way the film managed to delineate the mass of family characters, providing explanations but not confusion. Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation for Henrik Vanger of the disappearance of his brother’s teenage granddaughter, Harriet, certainly holds suspense and the actors playing the family all appear sinister and creepy. And I was pleased that Blomkvist manages to keep his trousers on when approached by Cecelia Vanger for a “late night drink”--unlike in the novel, where he sleeps with anyone bearing a pulse.

As one would expect, a number of subplots have been either truncated or eliminated altogether in order to keep this film’s action moving. But the results are impressive. The last 40 minutes, in particular, remain a blur in my memory, as the plot had me gripping the arm rests on my seat. Even though many of us had read Larsson’s book and already knew the story’s outcome, the action kept us breathless. Thankfully, the filmmakers truncated the closing section, giving us the rescue of Blomkvist by Salander, Blomkvist’s visit to Australia, and the return to glory following Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom’s defeat.

You can put me down right now as saying, the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is going to be a “sleeper hit” in 2010. Even at 2.5 hours in length, the movie seemed to jet by. Afterward, the buzz was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The only thing we all agreed upon was that the level of violence in this picture was disturbing. My own stomach turned a bit queasy during the first scene in which we witness Salander enduring the sexual advances of her guardian, the corrupt lawyer Nils Erik Bjurman (Peter Andersson), and then having to clean herself up later. Actress Rapace is perfectly cast as Larsson’s heroine, both in terms of her appearance and her snake-like movements. She demonstrates that unlikely combination of confidence and insecurity in a person who’s a social misfit. One minute she’s quiet and reserved, and then the next she’s kicking a thug on the subway and jamming a broken bottle into his face.

Two other things make this film work well: the English subtitles, which are particularly well done; and the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the techno side of things bang-up to date. The investigation on Vanger’s Island is kept interesting by having Salander and Blomkvist work parallel sides of the case, their probes finally colliding when Blomkvist is captured. It’s also intriguing to see that the movie downplays, at least a bit, Larsson’s sometimes overly preachy message from the book about modern society’s far-right political corruption. This is an entertainment, after all, not a screed.

I’ll be interested to see how the heck Hollywood remakes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not only will it have to deal with the knotty problem of all that sexual violence (a subject sure to enrage America’s small but vocal contingent of religious zealots), but Noomi Rapace is a hard act to follow as Lisabeth Salander.

For now, we at least have one tremendous, Swedish version of the story to see in theaters. If you have the chance, and if your stomach is strong enough, don’t miss The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s going to be huge. Mark my words.

So Many Opinions

I’m still working to put together January Magazine’s “favorite crime novels of 2009” feature package. But Janet Rudolph is already compiling “best of the year” lists from other critics and publications. Part I of her rundown is here; part II is here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The News to Give You Fits

Newspapers may be in deep trouble, but good crime novels about them seem to be on a roll. New York Times vet John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over told us about the bitchy, nasty things that go on at a Manhattan paper of record. And in The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly showed what happens when a top Los Angeles Times writer is given the sack--and then asked to train his successor.

Following in that same quality vein is the just-published Faces of the Gone (Minotaur), a debut mystery by New Jersey’s own Brad Parks, who seems to know that turf as well as Harlan Coben. Parks’ Carter Ross is an investigative reporter for the (fictional) Newark Eagle-Examiner. He’s sent out to a vacant lot, where the bodies of four people--an exotic dancer, a hustler, a drug dealer, and “a mama’s boy”--have been discovered. There’s no obvious tie between them: they hailed from different parts of the city and weren’t obviously acquainted. But, as Carter and anyone else who’s ever covered a crime scene (or read a crime novel, for that matter) knows immediately, there has to be some link. In this case, it’s a connection that will lead our hero to one very determined killer.

How Ross turns from an investigative reporter into a crime solver makes for a lively, intelligent read. And for people like me, who spent lots of years in lots of newsrooms, it’s the perfect cure for word this week that Editor & Publisher, the magazine in which I used to scan the classified ads and imagine myself working in such exotic locales as Seattle or Singapore, is folding after 130 years in business.

READ MORE:The Plug Gets Pulled on Kirkus. Who Will It Hurt?” by Nick Owchar (Los Angeles Times).

The Book You Have to Read:
“How the Dead Live,” by Derek Raymond

(Editor’s note: This is the 75th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. It is also, however, the third entry in a special miniseries honoring all five of the Factory novels penned by British writer Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook]. Today The Rap Sheet welcomes Scottish novelist, critic, blogger, and self-described “general miscreant” Russel D. McLean. The author of both The Good Son and The Lost Sister, McLean has a few comments to share about Raymond’s How the Dead Live.)

When I was approached to write about How the Dead Live (1986) for The Rap Sheet, I was forced to admit that this was one of several Derek Raymond novels I had not yet encountered. I am, after all, a relative newcomer to the man’s fiction, brought into the fold only after someone claimed to have noticed a similarity in theme between my work and some of Raymond’s. By the time I finished The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), I was hooked. When I read A State of Denmark (1964), I knew there was no running back. So this was the perfect excuse for me to continue my exploration of Raymond’s work. What follows is a gut reaction to How the Dead Live; thoughts and ideas on not only the book itself, but on the way that Raymond’s writing has affected me as a reader.

The unnamed Detective Sergeant in this novel, who works for the London Metropolitan Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths, is one of the most cynical and self-aware series protagonists you will ever meet. He feels sharply the pain of everyone he encounters, takes the darkness of the world and breathes it in as easily as he does the air or the alcohol that seems to get him through the day.

One of the things that immediately appealed to me about How the Dead Live was the removal of the protagonist from his zone of comfort. Rather than the urban decay of London, which is as much an extension of our nameless detective as it is its own sad character, we find ourselves in the English countryside. Called out to investigate a suspected murder (more of a missing-persons case), our man finds himself out of his environment and cast into a world he cannot understand, removed from any touchstones he might have had. I love the idea of removing a protagonist from anything he might consider comfortable. Although “comfort” is clearly a relative term in Raymond’s England.

What soon becomes clear is that the decay at the heart of Raymond’s novel is not merely limited to the urban environment. He’s far too clever for such a simple distinction. There is no respite among England’s green and pleasant land from the gray horror or the decaying amorality that our man knows so well. And that is perhaps one of the most wrenching things about this novel; the rot is there in every character we encounter. The very act of trying to live is to swim in shit for those in Raymond’s England. No one is without his or her worries. And those who think they are--such as the lecturer who opens this story by telling our detective about what it means to be a psychopath--are either deluded, ignorant, or out of touch. The truth that our man--and Raymond himself--understands is simple: No one is uncompromised.

Except, perhaps, the dead. And then, one has to wonder, perhaps that comes only in retrospect.

The people our man encounters--even those living in the country--would eat Dixon of Dock Green for lunch. An early encounter with the matriarch of a family on the outskirts of town shows our man having to fight for every inch of respect he can get. After being warned by a passing old-age pensioner that he’s unlikely to talk to this family and come out alive, Raymond’s protagonist is forced to approach the family head, to offer a reminder of what the coppers represent to them. But as she tells him, “We’ve got to live how we can. These days there’s no other way to protect your own.” And as the Detective Sergeant rises to the bait, she tells him, “I’ve got four more sons hanging around this shithole besides the half-wit there,” implying that she’ll set them on him. When he challenges her, she backs down, knowing that she doesn’t want to deal with the full force of the law. But all the same, he’s one more person trying to stop her protecting what little she has, and even if she won’t set her sons on our man, “By Christ, I’ve a mind to.”

It’s a setting that resonates for me; the dark side of the country upbringing I remember. Reading this novel, I saw something of the farms, villages, and small towns I grew up around, but in a way that rendered them in a more hellish fashion than I remembered. Raymond’s Britain is a place gone to seed, its countryside ruined by poverty and neglect, invaded by out-of-place vice, and ground down by hopelessness. This impression is assisted by Raymond’s refusal to properly stamp a time and place upon his world. As novelist-critic Will Self notes in his introduction to my particular edition of the book, Raymond uses a strange mix of slang that sometimes feels deliberately old-fashioned, but in a way that is peculiarly sheered off from reality. The book may have been written in the ’80s, but much of the slang is from Britain’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s, or even earlier. Again, this creates a strangely timeless feel, not marking Raymond’s fictional world as modern or dated, but very much as a time of its own; an England steeped in a unique, skewed, and yet recognizable atmosphere.

And Raymond’s strength lies in atmosphere. The plot is almost incidental--and indeed takes a final turn that is thematically incredible, but verging on the ludicrous--to the evocation of dark feelings of dread recognition brought about by Raymond’s desperate characters and their interactions with the world around them. As a writer of noir, Raymond has very few equals. His atmosphere is unparalleled and his questioning of morals, both at a personal level and on a more global level, is something that many other writers since have seemed unable or unwilling to confront. For this reader, Raymond’s ultimate achievement is to break the mold of mainstream crime writing--British and otherwise--and get down to true questions of ethics, morality, and society without offering patronizing or easy answers. This is crime writing as it should be.

NEXT UP: I Was Dora Suarez (1990)

Many Happy Returns

After detouring last week into the subject of favorite books from childhood, Patti Abbott’s Friday “forgotten books” series is back on track for its last official installment of 2009.

Among the crime novels mentioned this week: A Slice of Death, by Bob McKnight; The Blackheath Poisonings, by Julian Symons; Flight to Darkness, by Gil Brewer; Fires That Destroy, by Harry Whittington; Death Is a Red Rose, by Dorothy Eden; Home Is the Prisoner, by Jean Potts; and the not-so-forgotten The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (part III of Scott D. Parker’s “examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day”).

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts a few other picks (among them William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration) in her own blog, plus a full list of today’s contributors.

A Little Savings Never Hurt

Those many of you who plan to attend next October’s Bouchercon in San Francisco really ought to take note of this: As of January 1, the registration fee will go up from $175 to $195. So now might be a good time to get your registration work done.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The View from the End

As 2009 winds down to its close, let’s take a moment to remember some of the fine crime-fiction-related folk who we lost over the last 12 months:

Gene Barry, the star of such TV crime dramas as Burke’s Law and The Name of the Game. He also fictionalized a real-life lawman (who later re-created himself as a New York sportswriter) in Bat Masterson. Barry turned 90 years old last June.

Ray Browne, a professor emeritus at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, who launched the excellent magazine Clues: A Journal of Detection in 1980. Browne was 87.

Paul Burke, who starred as New York Police detective Adam Flint in the 1958-1963 ABC-TV police procedural series Naked City, a role that earned him two Emmy nominations. Burke died at age 83.

Philip Carey, who portrayed Raymond Chandler’s best-known private investigator in the 1959-1960 ABC-TV series Philip Marlowe, before spending more than two decades on the soap opera One Life to Live. Carey was 83 years old.

David Carradine, the star of TV’s Kung Fu. He was 72.

Dennis Cole, who starred as a rookie detective on the ABC-TV crime drama Felony Squad, and then went on to play a soldier of fortune in the western-detective series Bearcats! and a devious casino owner in the 1975 TV pilot for Barbary Coast. Cole was 69 years old.

Michael Cox, who wrote a pair of noteworthy historical thrillers, The Meaning of Night (2006) and The Glass of Time (2008). He died at age 60 after a career-changing bout with cancer.

Lionel Davidson, a UK thriller writer who won three Gold Dagger Awards from the British Crime Writers’ Association, the first of those for his 1960 novel, The Night of Wenceslas. Davidson was 87.

Farrah Fawcett, the blond Texas-born model, poster girl, and actress who starred in the 1970s “jiggle TV” hit Charlie’s Angels. Fawcett was only 62 years old.

Barbara Franchi, who was responsible for launching the Web site Reviewing the Evidence. She was 73 years old.

Celia Fremlin, who won the Edgar Award for Best Novel for her 1958 book, The Hours Before Dawn. She was 95 years old.

Lyn Hamilton, the Canadian author of almost a dozen books featuring Toronto antiques dealer Lara McClintoch. Hamilton was 65.

H. Paul Jeffers, who in the 1980s penned a trio of novels about mid-20th-century cop-turned-gumshoe Harry McNeil. Jeffers was 75.

Stuart M. Kaminsky, a Mystery Writers of America (MWA) Grand Master who wrote novels featuring 1930s Hollywood P.I. Toby Peters, Moscow Police Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, world-weary former process server Lew Fonesca, and cantankerous Chicago police detective Abe Lieberman. Kaminsky was 75.

Karl Malden, who co-starred with Michael Douglas in the 1970s police procedural series The Streets of San Francisco. Malden was 79.

Patrick McGoohan, the Emmy Award-winning Irish star of The Prisoner and Secret Agent, and apparently the only actor to guest star in four episodes of the NBC Mystery Movie series Columbo. McGoohan was 80 years old.

Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican-born actor who starred in Fantasy Island, but also boasted appearances on such TV crime dramas as Ironside, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote. He was 88 years old.

John Mortimer, the UK barrister turned novelist, who created and further developed fictional London lawyer Horace Rumpole over a span of more than two dozen books. Mortimer was 85.

Sister Carol Ann O’Marie, the Catholic nun turned mystery writer who produced 11 novels featuring San Francisco-based amateur sleuth Sister Mary Helen. She was 75.

Barbara Parker, the author of a series novels featuring Miami lawyers Gail Connor and Anthony Quintana, beginning with Suspicion of Innocence and ending with Suspicion of Rage. She was 62.

James Pattinson, who wrote more than 100 thrillers and sea novels between the late 1950s and the late ’80s, including The Mystery of the Gregory Kotovsky and The Unknown. Pattinson was 94.

William Safire, who once served as a speechwriter for disgraced Republican U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and for many years penned columns about politics and language for The New York Times. In addition, Safire composed the 1977 crime novel Full Disclosure and the 1995 thriller Sleeper Spy. He was 79.

Dick Stodghill, a former newspaperman who contributed to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, with many of his yarns featuring 1930s Akron private eye Jack Eddy. He was 84.

William G. Tapply, creator of the Brady Coyne and Stoney Calhoun series, who died in July at age 69.

Robert Terrall, who saw his first thriller novel published in 1943, and went on to compose (under the pseudonym “Robert Kyle”) a popular series of novels featuring Manhattan private eye Ben Gates. Terrall died in March at age 94.

Donald E. Westlake, the three-time Edgar Award-winning author who created such memorable series protagonists as unlucky thief John Dortmunder and professional criminal Parker. Westlake was also an MWA Grand Master. Technically, he died on New Year’s Eve 2008, but I’m going to include him here. Westlake was 75 years old.

Collin Wilcox, the actress who played Mayella Ewell, the young white woman responsible for falsely accusing a black man of rape in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. She was 74.

Edward Woodward, the British star of Callan, The Equalizer, and many movies, including The Wicker Man. He was 79.

This doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive list. But is there any famous name I’ve missed mentioning?

READ MORE:Farewell and Good Night,” by B.V. Lawson
(In Reference to Murder).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fire and Vice

Those of us whose mystery tastes were bred and buttered by Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, John D. McDonald, Lawrence Block, and Ross Macdonald will be pleased to hear that Ira Berkowitz, their legitimate child, has a fine new Jackson Steeg book out, a handsome trade paperback called Sinners’ Ball (Three Rivers Press). After surviving, in 2008’s Old Flame, a bomb blast at a saloon called Feeney’s (imagine all of Matt Scudder’s favorite hangouts rolled into one), Steeg, an ex-New York homicide cop who has been pensioned off because of a problem with Johnny Walker Black Label and a missing lung, can still find the strength to battle bad guys, even if he has to sit down and breathe hard afterwards.

Steeg’s biggest problem is his brother, Dave, an amoral mobster who lost a hand in the aforementioned blast, brought on by his kidnapping of the son of a ruthless Israeli gangster who was trying to muscle in on his territory. Now Dave is in even deeper trouble: After a warehouse he owns is consumed by flames that kill three squatters and two firefighters, an additional half-dozen bodies, all of them sexually molested and left in packing crates, are found in the basement. Dave’s the too-obvious target for an indictment. And Steeg’s efforts to identify the real perpetrator have him stepping on the wrong toes and ducking bullets.

Berkowitz, a New York advertising executive turned author, is the best thing to happen to tough American crime fiction since Jim Fusilli (Hard, Hard City, Tribeca Blues), who seems to be writing for younger audiences these days. If a blast from the past is what you crave to get you through the holidays, then Sinners’ Ball is this year’s affair to remember.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

Every year since 2007 (which seems like a rather long time ago just now), The Rap Sheet has hosted an annual “Best Crime Fiction Covers” competition. We’ve gotten in the habit of keeping track each year of book jackets that we think stand out from the crowd of egregious copycats, trendy duplicates (this year’s overused theme being shadowy running men), and downright lame fronts that substitute ominous imagery for honest reflections of the stories contained within. By the end of each twelvemonth, we usually have a file of 25 to 30 distinctive jackets. Then we trim that down to a mere dozen covers we think are the best of the breed.

So, what elements are the members of our judging panel concentrating on at that penultimate, winnowing-down stage? Author, January Magazine editor, and Rap Sheet contributor Linda L. Richards provides this brief explanation:
The covers were looked at in their entirely while the selections were made. Not just the central image was considered, but also the use of type, the color selections, and the final balance of the whole. Most important, given the genesis of this particular dance, the panel was looking for originality above all other things.

In the end, this is what we figure: though you might not agree with our choices, it’s unlikely you’ll have seen anything quite like them anywhere else.
Glancing over our final dozen choices--displayed below, in alphabetical order by title--I am surprised to discover that only two are British covers. And only one is centered around a photograph; the remainder feature illustrations, tend to be moody in their presentations, and employ typography in a number of intriguing fashions. A few are brilliant in their simplicity. A pair of the fronts on our shortlist pay homage to classic crime-fiction imagery, whether the pulpish paperback fronts of the mid-20th century or the noirish films produced earlier in the 1900s. The cover of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is actually two covers, an apparently bullet-riddled dust jacket encasing illustrations of the principal characters in his novel. And some of our selections, including the jacket of Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle and Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, are definitely more striking when you hold them in your hands than when you study them on a computer screen.

Having made our top 12 picks, we now turn the final vote over to you, The Rap Sheet’s discriminating readers. Once you’ve had a chance to study the nominated book covers closely (click on each one for an enlargement), just scroll down to the end of this post and vote for your favorites. You can choose as many jackets as you wish. We will leave this cover contest open until midnight on Monday, December 28. Then we’ll report the results.

Oh, and if you think we have missed including a 2009 crime novel cover that was especially noteworthy, feel free to mention and discuss it in the Comments section at the end of this post. Just be sure to include a URL with your suggestion, so readers can see the alternative jacket for themselves.

More on Martin

Fans of such classic TV crime dramas as Banyon, The Streets of San Francisco, The Fugitive, Barnaby Jones, and Cannon--all of those brought to the screen by producer Quinn Martin--will want to take note of this: This Monday night’s episode of the Internet radio program TV Confidential will de devoted, in part, to Martin’s work.

From the program’s Web site (emphasis mine):
Join us as we look back at the year in the television--the good, the bad and the ugly--on the next edition of TV Confidential, premiering Monday, Dec. 14, at 10 pm ET, 7 p.m. PT on Shokus Internet Radio, with a rebroadcast Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 11 p.m. ET, 8 p.m. PT on Share-a-Vision Radio, KSAV.org.

Jay Leno and NBC may have dominated the headlines, but they were not the only stories in the world of television in 2009. The year also saw the Emmy Awards telecast rise from the dead, thanks to a spirited performance by host Neil Patrick Harris, as well as a host of controversies involving the likes of David Letterman, Sarah Palin, Carrie Prejean and Tiger Woods. It was also a year that saw the passings of such cultural icons as Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt, Karl Malden, Army Archerd, Dominick Dunne, Larry Gelbart, Fred Travelena, Beatrice Arthur, Ed McMahon, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. We’ll talk about these stories and more when Tony Figueroa and David Krell join us in our second hour.

In our first hour, we’ll welcome back television writer Paul Robert Coyle as we conclude our three-part series on the programs of Quinn Martin. Paul’s credits in television include episodes of such QM series as Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco, as well as other popular dramas like Simon & Simon, Jake and the Fatman, Crazy Like a Fox, Midnight Caller, Xena: Warrior Princess and The Dead Zone. Paul offers great insight into the workings of QM Productions, as well as such key QM personnel as Buddy Ebsen, Lee Meriwether, Philip Saltzman and William Conrad.
There’s a lot of ground being covered here, that’s for sure.

Happy Birthday, Ross ... er Ken

In Reference to Murder provides this useful reminder.

Roping in a Heavyweight

As Kieran Shea explains, this week’s short-story contribution to Beat to a Pulp comes from Private Eye Writers of America founder Robert J. Randisi. It’s called “Shut Up and Kill Me,” and is apparently BTAP’s final offering of 2009. By the way, Shea himself wrote last week’s BTAP tale, “Charlie and Stevie Do a Repo.”

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “The Devil’s Home on Leave,” by Derek Raymond

(Editor’s note: This is the 74th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. It is also, however, the second entry in a special miniseries honoring all five of the Factory novels penned by UK writer Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook]. Today The Rap Sheet welcomes John Harvey, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association [CWA] Silver Dagger, recipient of CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, and the author most recently of Far Cry. He shares his thoughts about The Devil’s Home on Leave.)

I knew Robin Cook by reputation long before I ever met him. His publisher in France, François Guerif, had talked at such length and with such enthusiasm for both the man and his writing, that when I finally laid eyes on Robin himself, standing up to the bar in the conference hotel hosting Nottingham’s Shots in the Dark International Mystery and Thriller Festival some years back, I was more than a little in awe. Everything about him was immediately recognizable: the leather jacket, the black beret, the cigarette, even the blonde on his arm. We were introduced and shook hands and he was nice enough to say he knew my work, though I suspect he was being polite; he was affable and friendly, greeting me as a colleague, a co-conspirator, both then and on the several further occasions we were to meet.

I must have read The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), the second of the Factory novels he wrote as Derek Raymond, round about that time, and I read it again before writing this.

He knows how to get you, Derek/Robin; knows how to pull you in.

This, it its entirety, is Chapter One.
I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.

After a while I heard steps the other side of the door. “McGruder?”

“Who’s that?” said a man’s voice. “Who wants him?”

“I do,” I said. “Open up. Police.”
Right. As a reader, you’re nicked.

The novel, as it develops, becomes, at its heart, a duel between the copper telling the story--the detective sergeant who works in The Factory, a small, under-resourced, off-the-wall unit that investigates low-level murders, the kind where nobody usually gives a shit about the victim, including, at times, the victims themselves--and the principal villain, Billy McGruder, an ex-Squaddie who grew up in Northern Ireland in a brutal loveless home that’s infected his behavior ever since.

It’s this clash of opposites who are, in fact, in so many ways alike, that is the nerve center of the book and gives it its main focus and strength. The Factory copper has lost his wife, other than as a demented non-person, and lost his child. He’s a man alone with his grievances against the world and his heart of stone. And McGruder is ... well, this is McGruder:
He stared at me without any expression at all, and I knew it was no use. He would always come out in pieces, in fury and despair, his way of describing a sense of loss. He would feel for a second, or a minute, if you reached out far enough to him; but he was too far gone, with violence behind him, violence in front and behind him. Like a broken piano, he could only make discords.
It’s the violence, of course, that lies at the heart of the novel, at the heart of all of Factory novels, at the terrible heart of Robin’s Derek Raymond enterprise, culminating in I Was Dora Suarez (1990), a book I have several times started reading and never, squeamish as I am, been able to finish.

Violence in these books, it seems to me, is both a reality and a metaphor: a metaphor for Robin’s growing disgust at the world around him. I can understand, I think, what he is doing, where he is going, without wanting to take that journey all the way with him.

I was reminded in places of an interview I heard with the late J.G. Ballard, in which he expressed an old-fashioned regret for the fact that when we jettisoned the certainties of the post-World War II world in Britain, we neglected to replace them with anything else other than thoughtless consumerism and a love for vacuous celebrity. Robin, I think, might have gone along with that--his protagonist certainly would.
There used to be dignity in life; I used to see it all around me when I was young. But now it’s gone. People no longer care about each other the way they used to--not the way my old man used to tell me life was when he worked in the Fire Service during the war and the bombing. Then, people who didn’t even know each other would go down into flattened buildings after a raid and shovel to get at the people buried down there as if the victims were their brothers. Even after the war there was some trust left; it ran on nearly into the Sixties. But now it’s all sorry, squire, don’t want to know.
And there’s a beautifully written section--Chapter 14--in which the narrator harks back to his time as a young policeman in London and muses on the effects of the war, and it’s in extended passages like this, and the occasional down-to-earth and precise metaphor--“She was a hard-looking woman in her thirties with about as much pity in her face as an empty plate.”--that the strengths of Robin Cook’s writing come through most clearly.

Elsewhere, when he allows the plot to take him into areas he doesn’t truly seem interested in or to be capable of rendering convincingly--such as a late subplot involving Russian spies and a threat to the life of the defense minister--the tension drops and the quality of the book suffers.

Robin’s compass in these novels is a limited one--the scruffy low-life of down-at-heel pubs and seedy London back streets, the very real anguish of personal pain and loss, the extremities of violence itself. Limited but, once acknowledged, none the worse for that. Indeed, that very concentration is the books’ great gain; it gives them, at their best, an intensity that is rarely matched elsewhere.

NEXT UP: How the Dead Live (1986)