Friday, January 27, 2006

Dreams of Justice: A Great Toilet Book

Speaking of non-fiction, I don't know about you, but I'm not one of those folks who can read non-fiction in big long chunks, generally. I like stories. But I do read non-fiction, of course -- I just like to do it in bits and pieces, small chunks of it doled out here and there. A little bit with my coffee, a paragraph or two waiting for a bus, a brief article while D.L. looks for the handcuff keys, that sorta thing. But my favourite place to read non-fiction tends to be on the toilet, for some reason. So the back of my toilet usually has a few music mags and maybe the New York Times book review and the latest copy of MYSTERY SCENE or something on it, as well as whatever non-fiction book I may be poking around in.

And this week, the star of the white porcelain altar is Dick Adlker's DREAMS OF JUSTICE, a generous sampling of his essays and reviews from over the last few years. Dick reviews crime fiction for the Chicago Tribune and other places, and he's definitely one of those critics whose reviews are worth savoring long after the books in question have been consigned to the remainder bins. That's because Dick is a man with opinions, and he has the balls and brain to voice them with wit and style and a fair amount of passion.

Subtitled "MYSTERIES AS SOCIAL DOCUMENT," the book (put out by Poisoned Pen) makes no effort to hide Dick's political or social sensibilities, but that's okay with me. Me, I like reviewers who dare to have opinions -- I'm sick to death of testicular-challenged wimps, particularly of the on-line variety, who call themselves reviewers but never say anything that might ever be construed as an actual opinion -- or even insight. They're too busy sucking up and ass-kissing, and think the be-all and end-all of a critic's life is to be blurbed. To hell with them.

But Dick's not one of those guys -- he plows his own path, and for those who believe, as he clearly does, that mysteries can be more than trifling literary diversions, he's left some mighty fertile ground churned up here. Divided into several thematic sections, Dick offers a little something for everyone: a tribute to Anthony Boucher, a look at biographies, and several overviews of assorted mysteries that share common characteristics. The chapter titles tell it all: "Better Red than Dead," "History as Mystery," "Brits Behaving Badly," and my favourite, "American Blood," wherein he takes a whirlwind social and cultural tour through the U.S. via mostly hard-boiled crime fiction, covering Archer Mayor (Vermont), Mark Arsenault (Massachusetts), George Pelecanos (D.C.), Sara Paretsky (Chicago), John Shannon (Los Angeles) and so on.

In every case, be it essay or review, Adler states his case and backs it up, with intelligence and integrity and enthusiasm and more than a little literary style of his own. The man simply has a way with words. Even better, he can spot those fellow travelers who also have a way with words, and he isn't afraid to let the world know about them. Which means that, agree with him or not, and regardless of the merit of the book in question, his reviews are worth reading on their own merit -- in my mind the ultimate compliment one can pay a critic.

And Adler is consistently one of the best. He does what only the best critics do -- he makes you see books (even those you've already read) in new and often wonderful and challenging ways.

The tone of the book is decidedly upbeat, then, with Adler championing those he believes are worthy -- a noble cause, indeed. Still, it might have been a bit more enlightening to read a few negative reviews, as well. Or a slightly more eclectic range of reviews. Adler's favourite authors tend to get multiple reviews, which is fine and dandy, but other equally talented writers writing in a similar thematic vein seem to fall through the cracks. As well, there are a few errors I hope were rectified before the final edition came out (For example, Vermont is NOT south of Boston, unless this global warming thing is really getting out of hand).

Still, minor gripes aside, if your TBR pile is already dangerously high and you believe that crime fiction can and perhaps even should do more than merely entertain, this book is a must to avoid.

Simply because I can't imagine any serious reader of crime fiction reading it and not immediately wanting to do a little more book hunting.


Post a Comment

<< Home