Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Slam This City!

There's a little event planned tomorrow night in LA that might appeal to some of the more progressive-minded crime fic fans out there .

Or anyone who gives a damn about anything more than the bottom line.

Gary Phillips, creator of the Ivan Monk series and editor of the recently blogged-upon Politics Noir, among about a zillion other projects, both will be bringing his considerable activist and literary mojo, MC-ing WRITE TO THE CITY, which is billing itself as "LA's First Writer's Slam on Genrification."

Among those attending are fellow local crime writers Gar Haywood (who writes the Aaron Gunner books), Rick Dakan, Larry Fondation, Denise Hamilton (the Eve Diamond crime novels), and our old pal Robert Ward (Shedding Skin and Red Baker), as well as the Big Man himself. Popping in from the Windy City to lend a hand is Sara Paretsky (the V.I. Warshawski books, of course, and the recent literary memoir Writing in an Age of Silence).

Here's the scoop from the official web site.

Can you imagine Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe hanging out at a gastro-pub? Or Dashiell Hammett writing the Maltese Falcon from a luxury loft?

Today, noir and mystery writers are documenting a common phenomenon.

Their characters’ lives are all facing a big problem: they’re grappling with the changing face of their cities.

The vibrant city celebrated in noir books and stories is fast disappearing. Its residents and local businesses are facing the same fate as those in the non-fiction world.

Gentrification is forcing them out of their communities.

Write to the City is a one-of-a-kind slam that will pair some of the country’s foremost noir and mystery writers with inner-city activists to trade stories in a genre-melding way. We hope you’ll join us on May 29th for a literary and political exploration of the city, and a chance to talk to someone you don’t know over a whiskey sour and a background of good music.

Okay, I'm not sure Chandler "celebrated" Los Angeles in his writing -- even then he was horrified by what was happening to it in the name of "progress." But what's happening now is worse. You look at what's happening in our cities (and our suburbs, for that matter) now and it's clear this cancer can't go on. The residents of Palmdale who snidely refer to Los Angeles as "down below" and think what happens down there doesn't affect their lives in a thousand different ways -- are in for a shock. The birds are coming home to roost -- and they ain't chickens anymore. They're birds of prey. And they're not going to wait for you to drop dead before they start feasting.

My guess is that --given this crowd and the bent of the evening -- there won't be a lot of Hummers in the parking lot.

Quality of life? Making our cities livable? A spit in the face of the strip miners of our cities? Crime fiction?

I'll be there.

Hope you are too.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: "The January Corpse" by Neil Albert

Perfect timing, Jeff.

Here I am up to my eyeballs in a Lawrence block piece, a slew of reviews and sundry other overdue projects when Rap Sheet head honcho J. Kingston Pierce sneaks up on me and bitch slaps me with a hell of a challenge.

Evidently it’s my turn to ante up for Patti "Don't Call Me 'Cake'" Abbott’s new tag-team Friday blog series, highlighting “books we love but might have forgotten over the years” and then challenging another writer to do the same.

What can I say? At least after chipping in, I get to inflict -- I mean, spread the joy – to another writer…

The irony, of course, is that I CAN’T forget the book I’ve chosen.

In the pantheon of unjustly forgotten private eye writers, the late eighties and early nineties were responsible for a staggering amount of candidates. The usual names bandied about are Stephen Greenleaf, Arthur Lyons and Jonathan Valin, but you could toss in several other lightly more obscure but no less enjoyable authors, such as Gaylord Dold, Rob Kantner and the late Ben Schutz.

All wrote tough, savvy, literate and even poetic private eye tales, always solid and often memorable mysteries full of compassion and hard-boiled integrity, stuff that could cast an unflinching eye upon the mean streets of society one moment and break your (manly) heart the next.

Unfortunately, most of their books are long gone and long out of print, vanished into the black hole of publishing, victims of mainstream indifference and sales that were never quite enough, helped along perhaps partially by the then-popular female private eye boom (which itself would, predictably, grind to a staggering halt in a few years).

But none of the books by any of those writers, all these years down the road, remains as memorable to me as The January Corpse by Neil Albert, the novel that introduced Philadelphia private eye Dave Garrett.

The book came out in 1991 to, as far as I know, pretty solid reviews. The New York Times cited it as a "tantalizingly twisted first novel" and Publisher's Weekly deemed it an "exceptional first mystery... driven by a baffling plot (that) comes to a surprise ending that passes the Holmesian test: after the impossible is eliminated, that which remains, however improbable, is the truth."

It was subsequently nominated for a Shamus for Best First P.I. Novel and even sold well enough to spawn a handful of sequels (The February Trouble, Burning March, Cruel April, etc.), each appearing approximately a year apart and each spouting a month of the year in its tile. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the series ended with Tangled June. Presumably the author, an attorney himself, kept his day job.

Although, based on the promise shown in The January Corpse, one time he coulda been the champion of the world. Because the audacity, the sheer effrontery of his corkscrew of an ending was a challenge to a genre that, even now, still has not responded.

Don't get me wrong. The entire series -- such as it was -- is worth reading. It's smart and literate and subtly-written, with an appealingly fresh voice and an engaging world view. The books will certainly appeal to fans of Ross Macdonald or Stephen Greenleaf, in particular. But that first book is really something special.

And, damn it, I can't even discuss it's ending without destroying much of the effectiveness of this book. Not that it's so original and shocking a plot twist that it's never been used before -- or won't be spotted well in advance by some of the more jaded tabloid junkies out there. Hell, I can think of a couple of mystery novels myself, one dating back to the thirties, that have used it before, but the ending, and particularly its startling denouement, still have the power to provoke and raise eyebrows after all these years.

Dave Garrett is a disbarred lawyer turned private eye, not exactly setting the world on fire. He drives a Honda Civic with more than a few years and miles on it, and he owns two guns, although he confesses he's never really had to use either. His disbarment is, likewise, not the result of any sort of high drama but simply a rather sad set of circumstances and poor judgement -- he got caught trying to take his wife's final law exam (she suffered from anxiety attacks). So he lost his job... and eventually his wife.

Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it, Dave's become a man of principle; an obsessively honest, decent man working as a detective, intent on doing the right thing. Oh, he's still willing to bend a few small rules, if he has to, but he tries to keep his word, and he's uncommonly loyal to his clients, and his small, one-man agency has thus earned a good reputation in Philadelphia law circles.

In The January Corpse, he's hired to find a stiff.

That's right -- the dead man's mother is convinced her lawyer son, Daniel Wilson, is already dead. Long dead. Now she just just wants proof of it, so she and her daughter, Lisa, can collect on Daniel's life insurance and so that they get on with their lives. But it's Danny's former employers, a prestigious law firm, who are the actual clients here, and their motives are a little less obvious. It turns out Danny was something of a hotshot, a mover and a shaker, practicing mostly civil law, but possessing more than his fair share of rather unsavory clients with rumored connections to organized crime. He disappeared seven years ago, leaving behind only his car, "found empty, shot full of holes, and full of blood."

If Dave can provide presumption-of-death evidence in court and prove that Danny didn't simply skip town with the $100,000 he allegedly had in his possession at the time of his disappearance, the family will be able to collect.

It seems like a slam dunk that the man's dead -- there's been no trace of him in all that time; no evidence that he's still alive. But there's more to the case than meets the eye. A well-known local detective agency has already refused the case, all that money is still missing, and Dave has begun to receive threats, warning him to stop poking around.

But Dave, possibly exhibiting more pie-eyed determination than common sense, is soon traipsing all over the Keystone State, from the “sad, worn-out country, full of dead hopes” coal fields to a white-knuckled car chase through Amish territory. Fortunately he’s got Lisa, Danny’s sister, along for much of the ride and she proves to be a surprisingly resourceful and pragmatic (but not always truthful) accomplice, a sharp counterpoint to the idealistic but at times hesitant young private eye. It’s the sort of pragmatism that leads to Lisa coolly shooting a gunman in the foot as a “warning.” An unexpected but entirely believable relationship between Lisa and Dave begins to develop, and it’s the sensitive and deftly handled details of this at-first-unlikely relationship which provide the emotional foundation of this novel.

And then all hell breaks loose. Before the book is done, stereotypes are blown away and tropes flattened, crimes exposed and secrets unearthed. Flabbergasted readers knocked off-balance will find themselves re-evaluating what they've just read, and flipping back and forth through the pages, trying to figure out managed to pull the rug out from under them.

But he did it, alright; fairly and squarely, and it was no fluke or happy accident. As evidenced by "A History of Private Eye Fiction," a thoughtful and provocative short piece Albert once wrote for, the author clearly knew his stuff.

So anyone who enjoys the traditions -- and even more so, the possibilities of the private eye genre -- should track down a copy of The January Corpse post-haste. It's too good a read to let slip by.

There's a conversation still to be had about this book; one a long time in coming. Alas, it won't be here. Even commenting on a plot "twist'" is problematical -- revealing its mere existence will get readers thinking out of the box. It's best if you discover it on your own. (On the other hand, the "COMMENTS" section here may be just right.)

No, really. Read The January Corpse for what it is: a great little private eye novel, and then marvel at the author's skill and pluck. And then try to forget it.

I dare you.

And speaking of dares, I'm throwing one out to one of the genre's more eminent men of letters: Dick Adler. Come on, Dick, pick up the stick for next week.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dear Mr. Chandler...

As John Prine once noted, it's a big ol' goofy world out there. And some people don't read very well. Or are just plain hard of thinking.

Anyone doubting that has only to run a web site for a while, or, I guess, simply attempt to offer an opinion or two in public, before that becomes glaringly obvious. People misread, misspeak and misinterpret stuff with such ferocity and come up with such peculiar notions that you wonder if they had to go to Stupid School to get that way, or were just naturally blessed.

Like, on a mailing list recently, I dared poke a little fun at a famous author's PR schtick and his increasing longwindedness, only to be told by an apparent adult on the list that I had no right to voice such an opinion about anyone "who's accomplished so much more than you have" and "are a lot better than you are."

The implication, of course, being that one should keep their mouths shut about one's betters.

Naturally, this genius' own literary accomplishments seem to consist chiefly of a self-published book only available on his MySpace page, but that's beside the point. You still you have to wonder about any "writer" -- published or not -- who thinks so little of the concept of free speech.

And then there's my site. I get letters all the time from people who think I'm a detective agency or a book seller or a DVD vendor or even the fictitious character I'm writing about. And plenty of folks with more technology than imagination who've had nothing better to do than Google their own names, only to discover some private detective who shares their monicker. Most of them assume I'm the author, of course, and are simply curious as to why "I" chose that particular name.

Which is harmless enough, I guess. I answer them, clarify who I am and what I do, pat their butts and send 'em on their way.

But then there are the gumdrops who take it up a big notch, like the latest wingnut who thinks she has a legal case because a relatively well-respected mystery author had a series built around a character who shared her long deceased relative's name.

Not that there is much to link the two beyond a shared bit of nomenclature and a few rough biographical similarities, but this woman's anger seems to have two fronts: she's angry because the name is the same, and she's angry because the details of the detective's life are not the same. In a work of fiction!

But mostly she seems to resent the praise and acclaim the author has garnered over the last ten years or so, over what she sees as the dead body of her relative. Did I mention the woman considers herself a "truly creative person"?

I made the mistake of trying to reason with this fruitcake, and now I've got members of her extended clan also on my case, also threatening me with legal action. And now the woman's boasting she has plans to confront the author.

Suffice it to say that I managed to track him down and warn him, just in case. After all, being a looney toon doesn't necessarily disqualify anyone from being able to purchase a gun in this country. I'd rather risk ridicule for over-reacting than read about some poor mystery author being Cheyneyed in the face.

And this isn't the first time it's happened. I've had correspondence with a few other litigation-happy crackpots over the years, perhaps most notably a few years ago when a woman informed me she was going to sue a British author for ripping off her life for a male character-- and also having the audacity to change almost every bit of her life for his fictional character. She demanded I post "the whole story" on my web site so the world would finally know "the truth."

I tell you, it makes me long for the days when most of my e-mail from the site was more along the lines of:

Dear Mr. Chandler,

I love your books about Phillip Malrowe. Why don't you write more?


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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Hell's Door

I moderate a mystery reading group, the obviously titled Murder Ink, at the local Barn O' Novels, here in sleepy, sunny Palmdale. It's a fun group, a monthly break from the routine, although most months I'm the only guy in the group. And most of the ladies lean to the lighter end of the spectrum (or profess to).

Still, stubborn cuss that I am, I keep trying to occasionally slip some harder, darker fare into the mix -- a Chandler or Hammett here; a Robert Parker or Mosley there. And we try to mix things up a bit, ranging from new or newish writers to old classics (Doyle, Sayers, etc.) to off-the-beaten track cross-over stuff (Elizabeth Lowell, Isaac Asimov).

So, when someone suggested we "do" a Ken Bruen ("that Irish guy you're always talking about"), i jumped at the chance. Jack Taylor, the alcoholic ex-Guard turned Galway eye, the gumshoe with all the heart and hurt of a dozen dead poets, is one of my favourite P.I. series; a literate, uncompromising stroll to the abyss and back that gets me every time. And so I oh-so-subtly lead them to one I hadn't yet read, figuring it would be a good way for me to both catch up on the series (and revisit Galway, the "dirtiest city in Ireland") and meanwhile maybe ruffle a few smug suburbanite feathers.


The Taylor series has always been on the dark side, but Priest (2007), the fifth in the series, is something else again, a bruising, brutal blast of sustained white hot rage and bottom of the glass despair as bleak and black as it gets.Taylor doesn't so much go for a look at the abyss this time -- he jumps in and does a few laps. This isn't slipping into darkness; it's a headlong dive.

In fact, the book kicks off with Taylor just finishing up a little dip, and he's dripping wet. He's fresh out of the looneybin, his mind short-circuited by prolonged abuse and raging guilt over the death of a child, with few prospects and fewer friends, facing a hollow and hopefully (but probably not) alcohol-free future. Meanwhile, a nun has just discovered the severed head of a priest in the confessional -- a priest recently accused of child molesting.

And then things get dark. Before the book is finally nailed shut, there will be murder done and a grisly sort of reckless, wild justice meted out, hearts and lives shattered, drinks drunk (or not drunk) and blood spilled, poetry and music (Springsteen, Cash, Zevon) evoked. And souls forever fucked.

Taylor's (and Ireland's) complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, the lies and wreckage left behind by Ireland's economic success, and his own thundering despair -- they're all here, all ratcheted up to ear-bleeding volume. I thought The Magdalen Martyrs, a previous book in the series, where Taylor took on the Church's systemic abuse of unwed mothers and his own tormented relationship with his mother, was fierce, but this one screams like the mother of all banshees.

What was I thinking?

And Taylor's a far cry from an affable character. In the hands of a weaker writer than Bruen, he'd probably be detestable and utterly unreadable. But Bruen does it with seeming ease, one of the freshest, most distinct voices in crime fiction today. He doesn't so much have style as an M.O.: the plots in the Jack Taylor series seem almost assembled, not written, a swirling jangle of stream-of-consciousness rants, random encounters, chance meetings, out-of-nowhere lists, quotes, fever dreams, newspaper clippings and poetry snippets, and even, sometimes, a little detective work. Holding it all together is Bruen's skill and fierce vision, and of course Taylor, a black hole of a hero if there ever was one.

So, yes, Taylor can be obnoxious and a bully, stupid and mean-spirited and nasty to those who would try to love him, a mostly charm-free, self-pitying grade A fuck-up whose tragedy is that he knows he's a fuck-up, but can't seem to keep the decks from tilting. But there's something about him. And there's always a tiny, tiny sliver of hope, of redemption, a compassion in each book that keeps me reading.

Of course, that tiny splinter invariably and inevitably becomes infected and has to be lanced, but hey, this ain't no Lifetime movie.

Long before Bush and Cheyney made torture fashionable, Taylor was doing it to himself.

He's a one-man weapon of self-destruction; a man whose adult life has been one long Sunday morning coming down, puncuated by lost weekends and bad choices. Because his real battle, of course, is not with the Church or the powers that be, with corrupt cops or Celtic Tiger criminals in their shirts and their ties, but with himself. His alcoholism, his obsessions with past crimes, real and imagined, his burning guilt as he slowly circles the last exit to Hell -- rarely has someone conjured up such a vivid and poetic sense of noir and somehow managed to transform it into an ongoing series. And it ain't that pretty at all.

But therein, maybe, lies its beauty.

I can hardly wait to see what the ladies' reactions will be. May God have mercy....

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tales of (Yankee) Power (Senor?)

Wouldn't you know it? I just fling out an article on the P.I. genre and politics in the latest issue of Mystery Scene when this one comes wandering into my sights.

The corridors of power, it turns out, are even nastier than Chandler's fabled mean streets, although in Gary Phillips' fierce new book, Politics Noir: Dark Tales from the Corridors of Power, a collection of politically-charged tales from the dark side from some of the best of the HB and noir crowd, sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart.

This book is about as in your face as it gets, an unapologetic no-holds-barred slice of venom aimed at the powers that be and the corruption that is. To be sure, a lot of these nasty black-hearted stories have nothing to do -- theoretically -- with the current administration per se, and as editor, Phillips' attempts at a fair and balanced tone in his intro are admirable. But the actual stories (including his own) make it pretty clear which side of the line most of these writers are coming from -- and are all the more powerful for it. Contributors include Mike Davis, Darrell James, John Shannon, Robert Greer, Twist Phelan, Ken Wishnia, Pete Hautman and Sujata Massey, and I haven't come across a dud yet.

This is primo stuff, angry and pissed off, its bleak cynicism and impotent despair perhaps best summed up by a character in Ken Bruen's heartbreaking contribution, "Dead Right": "Call it politics. I call it shite."

I call the entire collection an essential read. Try to get it done before November...

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