Friday, December 14, 2018

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2018,
Part II: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of that essential 20-year-old resource, The (New) 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 Man Who Came Uptown, by George Pelecanos (Mulholland):
His day-job among the pornographers on HBO-TV’s The Deuce must keep Pelecanos pretty busy. Fortunately, his latest novel is a clear sign that he hasn’t turned his back on the literary side of the street. Michael Hudson is a soft-spoken young knucklehead, squeezing out his sentence for armed robbery by burying himself in books borrowed from the library of a prison in Washington, D.C. For him, reading is a whole new world. Anna Kaplan Byrne is a restless, idealistic young married woman, not much older than Michael, working as a literacy tutor at the lockup, out to save the world one convict at a time. Michael is a point of light in her world. His newfound enthusiasm keeps her going, and a friendship beyond books begins to develop. But then Michael is sprung early, thanks to some slippery witness tampering by Phil Ornazian, a shady, middle-aged private detective working for Michael’s lawyer. Out on the mean streets again, Michael is determined to walk the straight and narrow. He gets a job, a place to live, and a bookcase he hopes to fill. But Ornazian, a family man who has a side gig ripping off drug dealers, needs a driver. And Michael owes him. That these three characters are on a collision course is a given, but the way their lives smash into one another is not only the sort of stand-up, hard-boiled delight we expect from Pelecanos, but (get this!) a stirring, passionate shout-out to the redemptive power of reading, and the ability of literature to change lives—and maybe even the world.

The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem (Ecco):
Other private eyes keep a bottle of hooch in the desk drawer. Charles Heist keeps a possum. The 50-something “feral detective” of this phantasmagorical, swirling tale (by the author of Motherless Brooklyn), wasn’t raised by wolves, but he comes close. Heist works out of a shabby office near a trailer park in Upland, California, and seems to operate according to a whole set of not easily defined rules. Here he agrees (reluctantly) to help a snappy, snarky former New York Times reporter, Phoebe Siegler, find Arabella, a friend’s runaway teenage daughter. After a brief sojourn up Mount Baldy to pay homage to the late singer Leonard Cohen, Arabella has disappeared into the Mojave Desert, where she's apparently hanging out with the Rabbits, a mostly female cult involved in some decades-old tribal conflict with the Bears, a mostly male clan. This story is a wild, picaresque hoot, full of cultural and sociological spelunking of the finest kind, and lots of talky-talk (the high-strung Phoebe serves as the neurotic narrator), while it plays host to a slew of desert rats and other eccentric characters, plus a lot of moaning and groaning about the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the subsequent “barking madness of the world.” It is also an intoxicating release (at least for me), something like an acid flashback of suppressed pop culture memories, dredging up everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Ross Macdonald’s novels to Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the Mad Max movies, and several of Margaret Atwood’s books. Your mileage may vary. I’m not quite sure I “got” The Feral Detective, but I’m pretty sure I loved it.

Sunburn, by Laura Lippman (Morrow):
If you’re not squirming after reading the beginning of this twisted, twisty slice of nasty—wherein private investigator Adam Bosk (“Like the pear, only with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c.’”) ponders the sunburned shoulders of his target, Polly Costello—well, you’ve never had a sunburn. But don’t worry. By book’s end, everyone gets burned one way or another. Lippman has been threatening to write this yarn for at least as long as I’ve known her. Acting like a One-Woman Chamber of Commerce for Charm City’s Vaunted Coterie of Crime Writers (Poe, Hammett, James M. Cain, that Simon guy, etc.), she finally raises a little Cain of her own, resulting in a blistering bit of noir. Of course, anyone who’s ever read Lippman’s Tess Monaghan detective novels or, especially, her potent standalones, knows that—sunny disposition aside—she has a heart of darkness that can beat like a hammer on a drum. Here she shows it to the world. It’s 1995, and Polly is sitting on a barstool in Belleville, Delaware, a sad little town stuck 45 miles from the beach. We soon learn that she’s on the lam from a busted marriage, a doofus husband, and a 3-year old daughter. Alpha male Adam, the P.I. who’s taken on the job of following her (though his employer is a mystery), slides onto a nearby seat. They’re two good-looking young people, with an almost immediate mutual attraction, and before you know it they’re both lying their asses off to each other—and to the reader. Adam’s secrets are more or less what you’d expect, but they’re nothing compared to those of shapeshifter Polly (if that’s even her real name), who has secrets inside of secrets, wrapped in lies and more lies, and dusted with greed, betrayal, and murder—all eventually revealed by the harsh, relentless, burning light of the Truth. Pass the Coppertone.

Only to Sleep, by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth):
I should hate this book. I wanted to hate this book. It’s a continuation of the adventures of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a joint effort by the Chandler estate and hired English author Lawrence Osborne, ostensibly released to mark the 130th anniversary of the master’s birth. The more cynical among us might also note the looming copyright expiry date, and ask, “Who the hell is Lawrence Osborne?” Turns out he’s a legit writer, fairly well respected, with a handful of well-received novels to his name, although there doesn’t seem to be much connection to Chandler, or to crime fiction, in general. Nonetheless, Osborne must have been aware of how previous attempts to nail down Chandler had gone, and so Osborne presents his version of Marlowe. Forget the years of Marlowe’s prime—Osborne gives us a retired old coot, living off what savings he has. In Mexico. In 1980. The City of Angels is a world away. This is a smart, audacious move on Osborne’s part. Because what works best in this book is all the ways it’s not slavishly Chandler, but merely Chandleresque. Osborne doesn’t even try to match Chandler’s style. The pages aren’t loaded with strained similes, metaphors that don’t work and wisecracks that don’t crack—a common failing of those who seek to mimic Chandler. Osborne’s 72-year-old Marlowe is intriguing enough all on his own. Mournful, exhausted, and ready to meet his maker, maybe, but not quite yet, and only on his own terms. Of course, he’s still Marlowe: he still narrates his own adventures, Linda Loring is mentioned, though not by name (“I was married once”), and he still occasionally drinks gimlets. Despite himself, Marlowe still has a romantic eye and an appreciation for beauty (“When she came back to the table, half-soaked from the surf, and happier, she seemed as fresh and real as anyone I could remember”). Naturally, he’s urged out of retirement. By two L.A. insurance men, who want him to look into the suspicious death of a wealthy but shady real-estate dealer (sound familiar?), who drowned somewhere along the Mexican coast, leaving behind a young and very rich widow. When he finally tracks her down, it’s clear the long career of going down the mean streets has left Marlowe both tarnished and afraid. There’s a palpable sense of sorrow here; an elegiac sense of time running out, ushered along by some quietly beautiful writing: “We sat there for a long time, declining to disturb the moment or to add a single word to what had already been left unsaid.” Osborne’s Marlowe isn’t Chandler’s Marlowe. But I think the two would have understood each other. I don’t hate this book. I loved this book.

Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block and John K. Snyder III (IDW Publishing):
It’s almost cheating, saying that comic writer-artist John K. Snyder III’s graphic novel adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1982 masterpiece was one of 2018’s best reads. Even the 1986 film, based on a screenplay by Oliver Stone and directed by Hal Ashby, is looking a little long in the tooth. Mind you, the original novel is a bit of a personal ringer for me (let’s just say some family members drank). It’s a gut-wrenching, swirling blast of damnation and salvation; a pitch-black Hallmark card from Hell, as troubled, unlicensed New York City private eye Matt Scudder struggles to come to terms with his drinking, after four previous novels, each of which nudged Scudder closer to the abyss. By the time of Eight Million, Scudder was suffering from blackouts and memory loss, and the realization that both he and his hometown—then in the throes of a rash of violence—were damned. The Jeff Bridges/Rosanna Arquette film did nobody’s reputation any favors. The novel pinned the intoxicating fog of Scudder’s alcoholism and his investigation of a murdered hooker against a noirish backdrop of a Big Apple rotten to its 1970s core; a string of random murders ringing like the Bells of Impending Doom in the headlines. There was a palpable, dark, claustrophobic sense of decay setting in, and you got the sense that the city itself was coming for Scudder. So what did the movie do? Chucked it all for the sunshiney beaches and endless wide-open spaces of Los Angeles. Even Bridges as Scudder couldn’t save it. Block despised that picture. But now we have Snyder to wash away Hollywood’s sins, and welcome us back to the Hell Block intended. His seedy, rough impressionistic art and grimy palette—all muddy grays, browns, and muted primary colors—suggests old pulp magazine covers, grainy, deteriorating 1940s B-films, and a rain-drenched midnight, perfectly nailing how I felt when reading the novel more than 30 years ago: a nightmare of conflicting emotions clutching at me as I raced to the bleak, heart-thumping conclusion. Roll over, Hal Ashby, and tell Ollie Stone the news: this is how it’s done.

No comments: