Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part I: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of the almost 20-year-old resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site, as well as the Web monkey for The Private Eye Writers of America and a contributing editor of Mystery Scene. He lives in Southern California’s High Desert region, where he’s working on a non-fiction book about married detective couples with his wife, mystery author D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian and Josh Lanyon).

The Driver, by Hart Hanson (Dutton):
As if he’s living in some fever-dream Sixth Sense, former Special Forces sergeant-turned-Los Angeles limousine driver Michael Skelling sees dead people, and has learned to heed their warnings. So when the ghost of a Chechen jihadist he killed in Yemen a decade ago pops up, alerting Michael to impending danger while he’s waiting for his passenger, Bismarck Avila, a millionaire hip-hop/skateboard asshole, to emerge from yet another trendy L.A. hotspot, Michael doesn’t hesitate, but springs into action. He is just in time to stop two “sk8r boi” gunmen from blowing away Bismarck, who then decides he wants Michael to be his personal driver. Or else. Yeah, I know—it sounds like the typical pulp-fiction meet-cute setup you’ve seen a zillion times. Avila even has a drop dead gorgeous trophy girlfriend to whom Michael is instantly attracted. And sure enough, Michael soon finds himself up to his neck in “shitloads of trouble and desperation.” But this violent and suitably grim book—a first novel from the creator of the TV series Bones and The Finder—rises above expectations over and over again, thanks to colorful storytelling and Michael’s surprisingly affable and darkly humorous narration. But mostly it’s the unexpected heart he displays that sets this one apart from the prefab set-up. Seems Michael brought back more than a cockeyed sixth sense from Afghanistan—he also brought back friends. His small limo service (just three cars) employs a messed-up hat trick of extremely loyal misfits: Tinkertoy, his mechanic, a pin-up girl for skittery paranoia; Ripple, a ticked-off, barely 19 double-amputee dispatcher; and Lucky, a chatterbox Afghan translator Michael smuggled into the United States. It’s this bracing loyalty between the four war-ravaged comrades that is The Driver’s saving grace, rooting the overused ex-vet trope in some much-needed humanity, and making me want to see them all again. Given the copious amounts of writing mojo, hard-boiled grit, and even harder-boiled heart Hanson serves up in these pages, you can deal me in for whatever he writes next.

The Ghosts of Galway, by Ken Bruen (Mysterious Press):
Irishman Bruen is arguably crime fiction’s greatest and most distinctive stylist since Raymond Chandler. The books in his long-running series featuring cheerfully profane, woebegone private investigator Jack Taylor are instantly recognizable, marked by Bruen’s ballsy, lyrical prose: a sort of staccato stream-of-consciousness free fall that soars. Bruen doesn’t so much craft sentences as throw groups of words at the page in a tumble of lists, dialogue, snippets of exposition, digressions, dream fragments, and snatches of poetry and song lyrics that somehow always hit their mark. Only Jack’s black humor, fueled by a brooding swirl of sadness, regret, and profuse quantities of whiskey, holds it all miraculously together. Bruen’s books aren’t long, but they cut deep. You don’t so much read them as feel them. And now Taylor, down but never quite out, is back. In the series’ 13th outing, The Ghosts of Galway, we find him having just survived terminal cancer (a fucked-up diagnosis) and a suicide attempt (also fucked). Desperate, he’s working nighttime security at a factory owned by a wealthy Ukrainian with the unlikely name of Alexander Knox-Keaton, who throws Jack an under-the-table bone: the assignment to find The Red Book, a notorious work of heresy, allegedly written around A.D. 800, and currently in the possession of Frank Miller, a fugitive priest hiding out from the Vatican in the western Ireland city of Galway. It’s an offer Bruen’s P.I. can’t refuse; however, things are rarely simple in Jack’s world. Sure, he’s no fan of the clergy, but he is an ace manhunter, and he soon tracks down Miller. Not long afterward, though, the holy man turns up dead, with pages of a book jammed down his throat. Then the remains of slaughtered animals start to appear in the Galway streets—courtesy, apparently, of an ultraconservative religious group. Jack’s former friend on the Guards, Sergeant Ridge (a “real cold cunt”), warns him off the developing case, while his charming but deadly goth pal Em (a “punk psycho storm of murderous intent”) seems to be involved somehow. Before long the ghosts of Jack’s personal dead begin to appear, though Jack isn’t quite sure whether they’re authentic or manifestations born of too much Jameson. Bruen is in top form with Ghosts, and as expected, everything his man Taylor touches turns to shite. Still, the P.I. faces it all with such a dogged humanity and Everyman defiance (and the conclusion is so cathartic), that you can’t help but cheer for the miserable old bastard.

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):
Traditional British mysteries? Meh. Sure, I can enjoy an occasional cuppa, but only if there’s absolutely nothing else to drink in the house. So it’s embarrassing to admit that Anthony Horowitz’s decidedly non-hard-boiled Magpie Murders may be my favorite crime-fic read of 2017. It’s certainly the most fun. Partly it’s because of the sheer cheekiness of this mystery-within-a-mystery; and partly it’s Horowitz’s clever insider-skewering of the British Industrial Crime Fiction Complex. Horowitz is an ideal candidate to deliver such a skewering. He rose through the trenches, composing children’s books (The Falcon’s Malteser), young adult novels (the Alex Rider series), and finally adult thrillers (including works featuring such English icons as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond), while also working steadily in television on everything from Robin Hood to Agatha Christie, before going on to write for such beloved (and PBS-approved) TV fare as Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. So when Horowitz pens a yarn set in the industry itself, it’s time to pay attention. Pining for the Golden Age? Rest assured that Horowitz “writes them the way they used to.” Well, sort of. He’s not afraid to shakes things up. Call it Murder on the Disorient Express. We are told in this novel that author Alan Conway’s long-running series featuring Poirot-like sleuth Atticus Pünd is so successful that, despite her personal dislike for him, editor Susan Ryeland keeps her trap shut. The truth is, his stories are all that’s keeping her employer, tiny Cloverleaf Books, afloat. But Susan’s not the only one bored with Pünd—so is Conway, who’s been threatening to bump off Pünd for years. But this time he means it. Much to Susan’s dismay, the final chapters of Conway’s latest, just-delivered manuscript are missing. And the author has jumped from the tower of his stately country estate. Or was he pushed? As Susan searches for the final pages, this reluctant amateur sleuth finds herself caught up in the very sort of mystery the obnoxious Conway himself might have penned, complete with a slew of suspects (a gay lover, an ex-wife, an unpleasant neighbor, a wronged student, an abandoned son, an unscrupulous TV producer, etc.) and a manuscript full of word games, anagrams, hidden codes, secret messages, and shout-outs that suggest Conway may have been having a bit of fun with all of them. As does Horowitz. I mean, Agatha Christie’s real-life grandson even drops by. How meta can you get?

Roughneck, by Jeff Lemire (Gallery 13):
Canadian comic artist and writer Jeff Lemire (Old Man Logan, All-New Hawkeye, Extraordinary X-Men, etc.) brings it all back home with this one-off graphic novel about former pro hockey player Derek Ouelette, who’s a long way from his glory days as a celebrated “enforcer.” Now he’s eking out what remains of his time in a dead-end town in northern Ontario, getting pissed, and pissing off the few friends he has left. Then his estranged sister, Beth, shows up, fleeing an abusive boyfriend, hoping to reconnect with her big brother. And suddenly the unpleasant son of a bitch is off the bench and back in the game. Old family wounds are revealed, and new ones are inflicted, and it’s all set against the backdrop of a cold, barren, snow-filled wilderness that is as unforgiving as life itself. Lemire, who’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers, taps into something universal and recognizable here, picking at the familial wounds that never heal. He’s at the top of his game in not only words but art, capturing a stark, hostile world of hurt that draws the reader in—bleak in its deliberate minimalism, with Lemire employing a scratchy, raw-edged drawing style and using a palette of mostly drab, watery shades of gray (color being reserved, mostly, for flashbacks). It’s all as rough and raw and non-pretty as the lives this author-artist depicts, but like Derek in his big-league days, he gets the job done. The story here doesn’t so much unfold as unravel, in slow-burn detail—nothing seems to happen for entire pages, only to be punctuated by sudden explosions of brutality, both physical and emotional. The hardcore lives of people caught up in endless cycles of alcohol and substance abuse, violence and pain they can’t even understand, is as wrenching as almost any crime fiction I’ve read this year, but Lemire is just a primo storyteller, burrowing into his characters with a sensitivity and empathy that slams you hard against the boards. Call it gloves-off, bench-clearing noir, tempered by a true love of the game.

Last but not least, one choice from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted, edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie Klinger (Liverwright/W.W. Norton):
Anyone who writes or reads crime fiction—no, scratch that, anyone who claims to give a damn about crime and punishment (which, one would hope, includes everyone) should read this book. In a year when the very idea of truth has been polluted and perverted, twisted beyond recognition, and the very concept of doing the right thing (or even what the right thing is) has been publicly crapped on by those in power, this work is a fierce reminder that justice can not only be blind, but vicious, petty, and stupid as well. As if we need another reminder. You think everyone in jail belongs there? Think again. This book is crammed with example after example of innocent men and women sent to prison for not days or weeks, but years and even decades, only to ultimately be released, due to the biggest motherfucking technicality of them all: they were innocent and should never have been there in the first place. Blame it on systemic corruption, racism, incompetence, cowardice, ambition, politics, dishonesty—blame it on whatever you want—but nobody, from “average” citizens and “helpful witnesses” to the police, lawyers, judges, and politicians, gets away unscathed. Each chapter in Anatomy of Innocence follows a different victim of injustice, focusing on a different aspect of what went wrong, from arrest to (eventual) release and beyond. And every story is penned by one of this genre’s finest storytellers, including Sara Paretsky, Lee Child, Laurie R. King, S.J. Rozan, Brad Parks, Jan Burke, Gary Phillips, Jamie Freveletti, Michael Harvey, and Sarah Weinman. There’s even a never-before-published essay by the late playwright Arthur Miller. Axes are well ground here, and considerable literary weight is brought to bear. Each tale tears off another little piece of your heart; each story of wrongful accusation is another nail in the coffin of smug complacency and naïve belief that The System always works. There may be better books released in this scorched-earth year of partisan “truths” and rampant lies, but there won’t be a more important one.

1 comment:

Peter Collinson said...

Thanks for this. Smith makes it vividly clear why a book works for him. Which is strangely uncommon in the world of book reviews.