Thursday, December 10, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part IV: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal-born crime writer and critic currently looking for an honest glass of beer in Southern California’s High Desert region. In the meantime, he’s working on the Great Canadian Detective Novel, writing features for Mystery Scene magazine, and contributing far too infrequently to The Rap Sheet. Not incidentally, Smith is also the founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

The Fade Out: Act One and The Fade Out: Act Two, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image Comics):
It may seem odd recommending a serialized novel or film before it’s played out, never mind a comic book. But trust me--judging from what’s gone before, and the quality the Eisner Award-winning team of Brubaker (words) and Phillips (pictures) continually bring to the genre, those of you who get your crime-fiction fix at the dark end of the street won’t want to miss this one. And now that two-thirds of this 12-part noir comic miniseries has been gathered into two easy-to-obtain collections (each comprising four issues), you’ll have no excuse. Because this sprawling saga of 1948 Hollywood is simply one of the sharpest, most morally complex crime stories in any medium in recent years; a great noir that somehow was never filmed. A deliciously gritty swirl of sex, violence, naked ambition, and back-lot treachery, The Fade Out revolves around a couple of tortured (and alcoholic) writers still haunted by World War II, a murdered actress, an ill-fated starlet, a plucky PR girl, a despotic studio head and his ruthless, take-no-prisoners fixer (who knows where all the bodies are buried--and may have buried a few of them himself), plus several more gloriously doomed schemers, dreamers, wannabes, and never-wases. Hell, even Dashiell Hammett shows up here, briefly, drink in hand. It’s all brought to a full boil with dark grace and bleak wit, with Phillips’ shadow-drenched, evocative artwork bringing Brubaker’s twisting, turning script to life. If you’ve missed out so far on what The Fade Out offers, these two collections are the perfect way to catch up. And all you crime writers out there should consider yourselves lucky that these guys are content--for now, at least--to stick to comics.

The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, by Lawrence Block
(Hard Case Crime):

The cover of this work prominently displays the publisher’s retro-looking logo and a naked babe (painted by the late Glen Orbik) with the obligatory gun and come-hither look. Even the title suggests we may be time-traveling back to the heady days of the original paperback boom, when thousands of cheesy soft-cover books (with their lurid covers, and promising varying degrees of lust and violence) filled the spinner racks of America. Some of those paperbacks were well worth reading, some even approached the level of literature, but every one of them promised--at a bare minimum--fast, cheap thrills. And all the years and all my alleged maturity are defenseless against Block’s latest, a knock-off quickie that gets in, gets out, and leaves behind only the lingering stench of sex, sweat, booze, and blood. Protagonist Doak Miller is a former NYPD dick, pushing 50, who’s set up shop as a cut-rate private eye in a steamy Florida bunghole somewhere between Tampa and Panama City. He has an understanding with the cops, as well as with several hot-to-trot women around town. But the fireworks, carnal and otherwise, really begin when he agrees to pose as an out-of-town gun in order to help the local fuzz nab Mrs. Lisa Otterbein, who’s looking to get rid of Mr. Otterbein. Simple enough, until Doak sees Lisa, she of the deep blue eyes, and then all bets are off. There’s an instant erotic attraction, and before you can say James M. Cain, the two are plotting to murder her husband--in between several steamy amatory encounters that definitely weren’t written in the 1950s. “It was more than kinky,” Doak reflects at one point, “It was … well, he didn’t know what it was, exactly.” What it is--exactly--is an unholy combo of primal urges, sexual obsession, twisted desires, and murderous treachery played out in motel rooms, bars, and dark alleys, that will not end well for anyone. But, then, really good noir tales never have sequels. This is Block at his very best, having a bit of fun. It’s greasy and sleazy and cheap, but sometimes cheap is how I feel.

The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown):
When George cleans his closet, it’s always worth seeing what he drags out. One of the most acclaimed genre authors of our time, Pelecanos is known primarily for his tough, socially relevant crime novels, mostly set in Washington, D.C., and his work in television for such class acts as The Wire, The Pacific, and Treme. Yet he isn’t particularly recognized for his short fiction--possibly because he’s done relatively little of it. He’s sure got the chops for it, though. Stretching back almost two decades to “When You’re Hungry” (1996) and roaring right up to the present with “Miss Mary’s Room” and “The Martini Shot,” both making their debuts here, this collection is like a whirlwind tour of Pelecanos’ world: men (and occasionally women) caught out on that line, pinned between need and duty, survival and honor, in a land of broken dreams and shattered promises. Pelecanos’ characters, be they grifters, cops, thugs, snitches, killers, or just some scared kid in a bad neighborhood trying to get home in one piece, always have hard choices to make, and those choices, even the right ones, inevitably come with a price. The intended money shot here is “The Martini Shot,” which details the on-location relationship-of-convenience between two lonely, middle-aged members of a TV cop-drama crew--an affair that’s sidetracked when another member of the production staff is murdered. With his spare, hard prose Pelecanos shows surprising compassion and nuance in that yarn, but for my dough the real heart of this collection lies in “Chosen,” a sort of prologue for his most recent series character, Spero Lucas (The Cut, Double), which relates the unapologetically earthy yet touching romance between Lucas’ Greek-American parents and their interracial slew of adopted kids. There’s always emotional heft to this author’s work. Despite the hard-bitten and often glib cynicism of his characters and the bleak, savage violence that pops up so frequently in their world, underneath it all there’s an underlying belief in at least some of his players that maybe, just maybe, choices really do matter, regardless of the cost, and that perhaps there is some hope after all. Heady stuff, if you ask me.

Someone Is Watching, by Joy Fielding (Ballantine):
Remember Peter Sellers in Being There, explaining that he “likes to watch”? Well, ditto for the folks in Fielding’s latest standalone, a perverted little fairy tale that’s equal parts Brothers Grimm and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Cocky Miami private eye Bailey Carpenter not only likes to watch, but gets paid for it. She’s young and beautiful, the princess in the tower, with a lucrative gig as the lead investigator for Holden, Cunningham and Kravitz, a prestigious Miami law firm. She lives in a swank high-rise, drives a flashy little sports car and is, of course, wonderfully thin. She’s also set to inherit a small fortune from her recently deceased dad, and will no doubt live happily ever after. And then she gets raped. The actual attack is--mercifully--dispatched quickly, reduced to a few unsettling pages early on, but it’s not the sexual assault that interests Fielding; its the vicious psychological and emotional aftermath. With her unknown assailant still on the loose, Bailey holes up in her apartment, afraid to leave, showering incessantly and tormented by nightmares. The phone rings and there’s nobody there. Fragile and frightened, she becomes obsessed with watching tenants in the tower across from her with binoculars. Particularly the preening exhibitionist who has sex with various women and never closes his blinds. Does he know she’s watching? Is he watching her? Could he be her attacker? Could he even be … a murderer? Bailey doesn’t know it, but nobody--the cops, building security, her own brother--quite believes her suspicions. Only Claire, her estranged half-sister, and Claire’s wise-ass teenage daughter, Jade, seem to buy into Bailey’s story. But as the comely P.I. sinks deeper into a drowning pool of paranoia, fear, guilt, and deceit, she begins to question her own sanity. Readers may as well. This isn’t an easy book, but at a time when rape is too often trivialized for political gain, it’s a powerful and timely one, haunting and harrowing. Read it now. But for God’s sake, pull the blinds.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street):
Don’t let all the highbrow praise for this metafictional head-spinner scare you away--McAlpine’s ambitions may be more high-falutin’ than those of the next ink-stained jasper, but he knows how to tell a kick-ass story. Even when it’s presented in bits and pieces. The snippets from a couple of different novels, interspersed by selected correspondence from the editor (the “woman with the blue pencil” of the title), are dealt out here like clues that the reader must assemble on his or her own. You’ll soon be caught up, though, as I was, by the author’s ambitions and audacity, as well as his capacity to nail the tone and reach of 1940s pulp fiction, and the tango writers and editors have been seemingly dancing forever. This slim volume should be a heaving mass of look-at-me-now literary pretension, but McAlpine keeps it moving, flitting from one novel’s story of a bookish Japanese-American UCLA professor, Sam Sumida, who’s still grieving over his murdered wife, seeking solace in watching a detective film on the night of June 6, 1941 … to the eye-rolling adventures of pulp hero Jimmy Park, a preposterously over-boiled L.A. gumshoe of Korean descent turned super spy, who’s out to nail those “dirty Japs” for Uncle Sam. And then there are the letters from Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries Inc., who offers guidance to Tukumi Sato, the creator of both Sam and Jimmy. Tukumi just wants to be a writer, but the poor sap’s ambitions are being thwarted at every turn not just by commercial necessity (always a bitch), but also by the cold, bitter realities of a scared, paranoid post-Pearl Harbor America. And that, beyond the post-modern whiz-bang and the gleeful potshots at the publishing biz, is where the true heart of this book beats. McAlpine may be a master of hint and nuance, but when the walls break down between fiction and reality, and the real story emerges, it’s a punch to the gut: the sad tale of Tukumi Sato, an American writer caught up in history.

Finally, one choice from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau):
Politicians may grandstand, the NRA and its lackeys may suggest that more guns are always the answer, and others may bristle at the apparently offensive suggestion that “black lives matter,” but Los Angeles Times crime reporter Leovy drops the cold, hard truth on the table: black lives might well matter (at least to some of us), but black-on-black murders don’t seem to count for shit, given the abysmal solution rates of those crimes, the lack of interest displayed and funds allocated to solving them, and the general apathy displayed by the rest of the country over the issue. Which is--partially--what makes this non-fiction book so bracing. Leovy finds one LAPD cop, John Skaggs, who does give a damn, and she doggedly follows him through his paces, using the wedge of a single case--the pointless murder of Bryant Tennelle, an 18-year-old black kid walking down an L.A. street one spring evening with a friend, carrying an unopened bottle of root beer--to pry open the whole ugly mess of racism, politics, cultural and societal malfunction, and downright stupidity that have set the seeds for this bloody epidemic. Not that Ghettoside is a finger-pointing screed that lays the blame on any particular faction, or even a particular race. As Leovy’s investigation spirals further and further out, it soon becomes clear that there are no easy answers, just a steaming mess of factors that will eventually bring everything from modern-day policing budgetary concerns to the Canadian Inuit and gender roles under her microscope. Of course, Skaggs, a methodical, gentle giant of a man, polite to a fault, is not the only cop to give a damn, but this book also explores how Skaggs and his like-minded colleagues are at a disadvantage and discouraged when dealing with the institutional practices of big-city law enforcement. The endless stats, the underlying reasons for the carnage, and the answers, fleeting as they are, are heartbreaking. But it’s the never-ending litany of American families destroyed by violence that will truly haunt you. Possibly the best book about real-life homicide cops since, well, David Simon’s Homicide was published more than 20 years ago, this work pulls no punches and soft-sells nothing. It’s a ballsy, alternately inspiring and angry piece of literary journalism and truth-telling that should be mandatory reading for any American who dismisses the whole issue by glibly claiming that “all lives matter.” Prove it then. Do something.

1 comment:

JJStick said...

Great list Kevin - Ghettoside was beyond sobering. Haven't read the - Gordon McAlpine or Joy Fleming - yet. Block and Pelecanos are two of my favorite writers, whatever they publish I read. The Brubaker/Phillips books are on my Xmas list.