Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Round Up the Usual Suspects

So I go away for a few days to celebrate Christmas with my brother in Oregon, and what happens? First, the great James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul” (seen here performing on a 1966 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show), dies at age 73. And then Gerald Ford--who only recently became the long-living U.S. president in history--kicks off at age 93. I was always more a fan of singer-songwriter Brown, who was instrumental in the creation of soul and funk music, than I was of former footballer Jerry Ford. I was in high school when Ford pardoned President Richard M. Nixon for his Watergate crimes, and thought he should have let the scandalized Republican prez be prosecuted for his misdeeds. But I’ve come to believe (unlike some others) that Ford, who’d only ascended to the vice-presidency after Nixon’s original veep, Spiro Agnew, resigned under tax-evasion charges, probably acted in the best interests of a country torn apart by the Vietnam War and then by a paranoid president intent on maintaining his grip on power. He was certainly not an ideal president; most people probably remember him for little, save his much-lampooned stumbling and his odd assertion, during a debate with future president Jimmy Carter in 1976, that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” But Ford may have demonstrated uncommon wisdom (and predictable self-sacrifice) when he pardoned “Tricky Dick.” “When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency,” Dick Cheney said, following the 38th president’s death--an ironic statement, given how much Cheney’s present Republican boss has been doing to undermine the American public’s faith in presidential judgment and truth-telling.

Being out of town (and without Internet access) also left me unable to note other developments, these in the area of crime fiction. So it’s time for a round-up column of things you and I missed while we were ripping open presents and sneaking kisses under the mistletoe:

At Bookgasm, editor-author Ed Gorman concedes he can never figure out how to choose the “best” books of any year, then offers up a list of 10 titles from 2006 that he says “gave me great degrees of pleasure in a variety of ways.” That roster includes The Husband, by Dean Koontz, Ask the Parrot, by Richard Stark, and Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime, by Robert J. Randisi.

• Other critics seem more willing to go along with the “best books of the year” formulation. Denver, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News includes several crime and mystery novels on its 2006 picks list, including The Dead Yard, by Adrian McKinty, The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld, Lisey’s Story, by Stephen King, and The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard. Meanwhile, The Village Voice’s “25 Favorite Books of 2006” rundown features only one quasi-crime novel, Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, but it also calls attention to a non-fiction work of interest to readers in this genre: Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss. The Murder & Mystery Books 101 blog is currently counting down its foremost five novels of the year, beginning with James Benn’s Billy Boyle at No. 5, followed by Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood at No. 4. By Friday, all five will have been revealed. And in The New Yorker, author Louise Erdrich refuses to be confined to 2006 books, recommending instead a work that came out way back in 2003: Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (“if after too much of the usual holiday cheer you need a thriller about jade, the sex trade, deadly snakes, and interesting forms of corruption in this life and the next”).

• Mike Ripley is back with another witty column in Shots, this time remarking on March’s Essex Book Festival, the accuracy of book review blogs, the 80th birthday of H.R.F. Keating, and the dwindling local dominance of UK crime novelists:
Could 2007 be the year when British crime writing becomes a minority sport in Britain? In terms of the number of new titles published by British authors, it could be.

Five years ago the number of new crime titles by Brits represented 57% of the total titles published in the UK and it stayed around that figure until this year when it dropped to an estimated 52%.

It is just possible that 2007 will see the home-grown share of the market (in titles if not sales) drop below the 50% mark for the first time.
• In an interesting piece from The Guardian, writer Kate Figes talks with a few British publishers about books from 2006 that either didn’t receive the attention they so deserved, or that they wish they’d nabbed first. Among the titles highlighted: Declan Hughes’ Irish private-eye novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, and Chris Petit’s “Le Carré-esque thriller,” The Passenger.

• “By the normal rules of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories should have been an abject failure,” opines Alexander McCall Smith in an essay for The Times of London about how Holmes overcame the odds to become “one of fiction’s unlikeliest immortals.” By the way, 2007 marks the 120th anniversary of Holmes’ introduction to the world, in A Study in Scarlet.

Philadelphia Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson has some nice things to say about Georges Simenon’s The Strangers in the House, a non-Maigret crime novel from 1940 (but recently reissued by The New York Review of Books).

• And I really should have posted this thing long ago, but I somehow never got around to it. Click here to read the unused prologue to Duane Swierczynski’s much-praised new novel, The Blonde. It just goes to show that, sometimes, editors are right.

READ MORE:Dana Carvey Announces the Death of Gerald Ford,” by Bob Sassone (TV Squad). Hilarious stuff!

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