Monday, January 15, 2018

A Reading Year: Changing the Criteria

During the final two years of my tenure with Kirkus Reviews, I composed—in addition to “favorite crime novels of the year” lists—posts that looked back on my annual reading as measured by somewhat different criteria. (Look for said pieces here and here.) I found those exercises so satisfying, that I have decided to continue them in The Rap Sheet. Yes, I know, it’s the middle of January, but like so many other people, I am not yet done thinking about the books I enjoyed in 2017.

Last year was an unusual reading period for me in several ways. First off, I didn’t have to consume as many crime novels as had been elemental to my diet while writing a fortnightly column for the Kirkus Web site; I filled in part of that extra time by re-reading a number of books—something I haven’t done nearly enough of over the last decade. Secondly, I rediscovered an appetite for science fiction that I hadn’t felt in many years, which led me to pull down from my shelves such books as James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958) and Larry Niven’s Ringworld series. Finally, I decided I was overdue for an introduction to a dozen or so once-notable mainstream wordsmiths whose fiction I had, either through foolishness or negligence, never deigned to try before. This last desire resulted in my reading a pair of prizes from John O’Hara’s oeuvre—Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935)—and procuring rather creased old paperback editions of early novels by Irwin Shaw, an author I’d only ever known before from short stories published (and republished) in Esquire magazine.

Some of the categories I have chosen for the broader assessment, below, of my 2017 reading experiences are new or modified from those I have employed in the past. However, my intent remains the same as always: to evaluate my last 12 months of crime-fiction reading through criteria I think can be as worthwhile and revealing as picking my “favorite” books (which I did here and here).

Some of 2017’s Most Promising Debut Novels: Let’s begin with Leo W. Banks’ Double Wide (Brash), which imagined an ex-star baseball pitcher, brought down by a cocaine arrest, who’s now managing a middle-of-nowhere Arizona trailer park and winds up playing sleuth after the apparently violent death of his former catcher. When I was asked to blurb Banks’ yarn, this is what I wrote:
It’s tough not to appreciate a madcap crime novel that incorporates drug smuggling, homicide, baseball, Shakespeare, and wayward body parts into its tumbling plot. Especially when the story also boasts keen and comical observations on life, a roadrunner pace, and a hardy but humane protagonist. Double Wide is single-minded entertainment of a subversively literary sort. More, please! – J. Kingston Pierce, The Rap Sheet
Also particularly impressive: Jane Harper’s Australian farm-country whodunit, The Dry (Flatiron), which I named as one of my favorite novels of last year; Guy Bolton’s 1939-set The Pictures (Oneworld), about Detective Jonathan Craine, the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief “fixer” for the billion-dollar Hollywood film business, who’s tasked—just five months after helping to cover up the suicide of his actress wife—to oversee the investigation of a prominent movie producer alleged to have “hanged himself in his study and left no note”; Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (Pegasus), a lushly atmospheric work focusing on a Scotland Yard detective, newly settled in Calcutta, India, in 1919, who’s assigned to solve the case of a white government official left dead in a sewer with a message in his mouth that warns the subcontinent’s British rulers to vamoose, or else; She Rides Shotgun (Ecco), Jordan Harper’s tightly wound, largely character-driven thriller about a freshly liberated felon determined to protect his 11-year-old daughter from homicidal Aryan gangsters, even if it means turning her into a pint-size Bonnie Parker; H.B. Lyle’s The Irregular (Quercus), an Edwardian tale starring an ex-soldier and onetime street urchin cohort of Sherlock Holmes, who plays secret agent in order to track down a friend’s killer; and M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains (Flatiron)—another 2017 favorite—which gives us a septet of Shakespeare-obsessed college theater students, both drawn together and driven apart by a tragedy among their number.

Writers Whose Work I Had Ignored for Too Long: There are now so many authors contributing to this genre, it’s impossible to stay current with every single one. Until last year, for instance, I had never read a book by Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Harry Dolan. This, despite the fact that he’d penned three critically praised novelsBad Things Happen (2009), Very Bad Men (2011), and The Last Dead Girl (2014)—about David Loogan, a crime magazine editor with a violent past. For some unknown reason, none of those attracted my interest. But then in November of last year, Dolan came out with a standalone titled The Man in the Crooked Hat (Putnam), and it hit my desk at a time when I was between books. I decided to give it a shot—and boy, am I happy I did. The story builds around a Detroit ex-cop, Jack Pellum, who’s now halfheartedly working as a private eye in the same city, devoting most of his attention to solving the murder of his wife 18 months before. His only clue? A composite sketch of a man in a fedora. Pellum’s father and friends are convinced his quest is quixotic. But suddenly a local writer commits suicide, leaving behind an odd note that reads, “There’s a killer, and he wears a crooked hat,” and Pellum thinks this might just be the break he needs. The Man in the Crooked Hat is a slow-boiling sort of whodunit, straightforwardly told for the most part, but boasting carefully textured characters and a thoroughly satisfying ending. I’ll definitely be going back soon to read Dolan’s previous novels, and will keep a better radar fix on him in the future. Three other authors whose fiction I finally got around to “discovering” in 2017: William Shaw, who earned praise with a quartet of 1960s-set London police mysteries (most recently Sympathy for the Devil), but who I didn’t try out until last year’s The Birdwatcher (Mulholland); Attica Locke, whose fourth novel, a small-town puzzler titled Bluebird, Bluebird (Mulholland), made me kick myself for not paying attention to her before now (see Stephen Miller’s review here); and Harry Kemelman (1908-1996), the New England writer best remembered for his dozen books about crime-solving Rabbi David Small, whose first entry in that series, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, I didn’t pick up until last year—more than five decades after its original publication in 1964.

Favorite Almost-But-Not-Quite James Bond novel: Forever and a Death, by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime).

Crossovers That Left Me Hungry for More: During my teenage years, I (like many boys of that age) was a big reader of science fiction, especially books by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish. This was before my introduction to crime fiction, however. Once I started tackling tales by Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and scores of their literary successors, there was no turning back. But as I mentioned earlier, last year I gave in to an urge to re-read Niven’s Ringworld series, and that led me to pick up a couple of SF/crime crossover works: Andy Weir’s Artemis (Crown), about theft and conspiracy on Earth’s moon; and Chris Brookmyre’s Places in the Darkness (Orbit), a particularly complex yarn having to do with the initiatory homicide on an Earth-orbiting space station. The subgenre of science-fiction mysteries has a well-established history, going back to Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953) and Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954), and continuing up through Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), James P. Hogan’s Inherit the Stars (1977), and of course, David Brin’s Kiln People (2002). Too frequently, though, such works are reviewed as SF and concurrently ignored by crime-fiction enthusiasts. Perhaps with big-name wordsmiths such as Brookmyre and Weir contributing, this field will gain wider prominence.

Non-fiction Books Worth Adding to Your Library: A couple of years back, I was contacted by Australian novelist, editor, and blogger Andrew Nette, who proposed that I put together an essay for a book about “pulp and popular fiction influenced by the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s.” This, he explained, would be the sequel to a volume he was already co-editing with fellow Melburnian Iain McIntyre “about youth subculture and pulp fiction.” Well, that latter work reached stores in December, titled Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 (PM Press); and while it doesn’t solely have to do with crime fiction, a number of people who have been prominent in this genre over the years are well represented in its pages, including Thomas B. Dewey, John D. MacDonald, and Ed McBain. Furthermore, this oversize paperback is elegantly illustrated with myriad book covers that were once seen on store spinner racks and in the bottom drawers of readers with appetites for racier fiction. It’s a browser’s delight, for sure. Now I look forward to receiving Nette’s sequel, Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1956 to 1980, which will include my essay and is set to be published by PM Press in late 2018. I just hope my name is spelled correctly in the finished product; a preview on the last page of Girl Gangs credits me as “J. Kingston Smith.” Another excellent addition to your shelves would be The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (Poisoned Pen Press), editor Martin Edwards’ primer on significant crime and mystery novels published during the opening half of the 20th century. He devotes at least a couple of pages to each book, many of which I have not read—yet. And don’t forget about Barry Forshaw’s American Noir (Oldcastle/Pocket Essentials), a brief but authoritative survey of U.S. crime fiction in the early 21st century.

Favorite New Crime-Fiction Periodical: Down & Out: The Magazine. Not just because I am a columnist for that handsome quarterly, but because editor Rick Ollerman has recruited a lot of terrific talent to fill out his pages. Issue 1 (July 2017) featured a brand-new Reed Farrel Coleman tale starring New York private eye Moe Prager, plus submissions by Eric Beetner, Michael A. Black, Jen Conley, and Terrence McCauley. Issue 2 gave us what may be Bill Crider’s final abbreviated outing for Sheriff Dan Rhodes, as well as fiction from Ben Boulden, Lissa Marie Redmond, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and others. Each issue also presents one story from a classic crime writer—Frederick Nebel first, and most recently Carroll John Daly. I look forward to seeing what Ollerman can produce of this mag in the long run.

Most Welcome Short-Story Collections: As I recall, my introduction to Dashiell Hammett’s many stories about a “short, squat, middle-aged manhunter” known only as the Continental Op came during one summer afternoon in my early 20s, when—needing a modicum of human contact—I strolled from my apartment near downtown Portland, Oregon, to the historic Multnomah County Central Library, settled into a big padded chair in its first-floor Fiction Room, and cracked open a paperback copy of the Steven Marcus-edited, 1975 volume titled simply The Continental Op. I now have a different edition of that book decorating my office shelves, together with the 1966 Op collection, The Big Knockover, edited by Lillian Hellman. Yet I felt compelled last year to also purchase The Big Book of the Continental Op (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard), edited by Richard Layman and Hammett’s granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett. And I’m glad I did. This doorstop of a paperback features all 28 Op yarns, including several early specimens that Black Mask magazine published under Hammett’s “Peter Collinson” pseudonym. Found here, too, are the original serialized versions of Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, the only two Continental Op novels. I’d forgotten what a damn snappy and oft-humorous writer Hammett was from the very start, and how invaluable his background as a Pinkerton detective was in lending his Op outings texture and authenticity most of his contemporaries couldn’t equal. A wonderful release! Two other anthologies I enjoyed in 2017: The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, edited by Gary Phillips (Three Rooms Press); and The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers (Soho Crime).

Books from 2017 That Are Still in My To-Be-Read Pile: Beau Death, by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime); A Christmas Railway Mystery, by Edward Marston (Allison and Busby); Crime Song, by David Swinson (Mulholland); The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal (Morrow); Night Market, by Daniel Pembrey (Oldcastle); The Saboteur, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur); and Sleeping in the Ground, by Peter Robinson (Morrow).


Richard L. Pangburn said...

I again want to thank you for your recommendations, as I seem to share your taste, for lefty PIs and other things.

The non-fiction crime book which has appeared on more bestlists than any other is KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, very deservedly named AMAZON's best book of the year.

However, the non-fiction crime book you should read first is is Bill James's THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN. I read a lot, probably as much as you do, and I've always thought Bill James solid but not a must-read. This book is different. It is the crime story of the decade and done in the manner of Josephine Tey, from records, at a distance.

Along the way, Bill James traces the history of the private investigator, from anti-labor strike breakers to the modern sleuth. The criminal in this piece was unknown until James and his daughter discovered him, although books have been written about his many, many crimes, always accusing innocent men, many of whom were falsely convicted and several of whom were lynched in the American south.

I only know you from reading you across the internet, but I think that this is a book that you will find unforgettable too. I have a connection to KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, but none whatsoever to THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, so I'm not endorsing a friend here nor seeking to profit from the latter's recommendation.

And thanks for all of your good work here and please continue.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks, Richard, for recommending David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon. I don't have that book yet, but I was given a copy for Christmas of Bill James' The Man From the Train, which I have up next on my non-fiction reading stack. I look forward to cracking it open soon.