Friday, February 27, 2015

THE WHITES by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt)


Years ago, I was blown away by the urban crime epic Clockers and I swore to read everything that author Richard Price had ever written. I got caught up in discovering new authors and (other than reading Samaritan and enjoying it) I've sadly been neglecting his work. I'm kicking myself now because this latest book, The Whites, is wonderful. He wrote it as Harry Brandt, a sort-of-pseudonym that he reportedly used because he wanted to write a more straight-up short cop thriller than Price normally writes. Well, he failed, because this is way more than just a standard thriller. It's not even really a thriller. But what it is is a complex and tragic character piece focusing on an NYPD cop dealing not only with the nightly horrors that he investigates with his Manhattan Night Watch team, but also with the consequences of the past surfacing to threaten his family and friends. 

In my opinion, what has always set Price apart as a writer is his impeccable attention to detail when it comes to character. Most of the great crime writers today still can't match his ability to craft such engaging personalities. And in this novel, that ability is fully on display. Literally every character here, both major and minor, stands out, and is meticulously well-drawn and memorable.  Also, the family-life of both Billy Graves and Milton Ramos were just as compelling to read about as the police investigations. This is a book about friendship and family, as well as justice and morality, and the repercussions that arise in the pursuit of both; the pursuit of your personal White.

Sunday, February 22, 2015



How ex-cop-turned-investigator Nick Valentine even makes it through the day on two feet, let alone solve mysteries, is beyond me. The drunk private dick is a mystery cliche that has been run into the ground for decades. But you haven't truly read a book about a heavy-drinking detective until you've read Frank Sinatra in a Blender. Nick Valentine, our protagonist with a liver made of concrete, is called in to help investigate the "suicide" of a banker. Soon, he discovers that the body is linked to a botched robbery of a credit union and joins in the blood-soaked hunt for the missing money.

Nick Valentine is such a great character to follow. He's laid-back, but still tough, and at times sensitive. He's practicing real discipline by quitting cigarettes and coffee, but he damn sure won't quit the stuff that really makes him tick: multiple shots of Southern Comfort and tequila, bottles of Corona, and snorts of Oxycontin and Percocet. And he lives in his nasty office with his best friend, Yorkshire terrier, and pissing champion Frank Sinatra.

Although Nick is a great character and there are some downright hilarious moments in the book, my main problem with the story is one of my biggest pet peeves: an inactive protagonist.  Through the first two-thirds of the book Nick hardly does anything other than drink and hang out with Frank, while the rest of the actual story happens around him. And you never really get a sense of how good of an investigator he really is. This really took me out of the story for most of the book's first half. I wish more attention was paid to involving the main character in the book's driving action than to the long passages describing heavy drinking and drug use. I swear it seems like everyone in the story was either snorting something, using a needle, or getting drunk. It wasn't until the last third that Nick started taking real action. Once this happens, the story flies off the page in well-written action sequences and a great pace. Just wish it happened earlier. 
But again, I loved reading about Nick and I think he would make a really awesome series character. There's potential for a great franchise here. The author is fairly new, having only written two novels so far, so here's hoping he has more stories featuring Nick Valentine to tell!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

THE RAIN DANCERS by Greg F. Gifune


This is a disturbing, atmospheric, entirely creepy novella that is best read in one sitting late at night. On a rainy, stormy night, married couple Will and Betty Colby are visited by an old man that neither of them recognize, but who knows details about both of their pasts. Before the night is over, they will have to face old demons and confront painful memories. A sense of foreboding permeates through the entire story and you can literally feel the oppressive rain falling throughout. Gifune is one of those writers that make it seem easy. He doesn't write with fancy, flowery prose but he seems to choose just the right words that sneak up on you with sadness and pensive mystery, as the details of the plot are slowly revealed. I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MOTH by James Sallis


*Book 2 of the Lew Griffin series*

While the first book in James Sallis's Lew Griffin series, The Long-Legged Fly, was essentially a compilation of stories during different decades in Lew's life, the second, Moth, focuses on the time immediately following the events at the end of the 1990 section of that first book (literally picking up right where the last line in Fly left off). Lew has realized that he's too old to be running the streets now and has quit as a private detective and is now a successful mystery author and college French instructor. After a close friend passes, he feels a responsibility to track down her runaway estranged daughter. But if the investigation itself is the most important thing to you when reading a mystery novel, then you might be disappointed in Sallis's rich work. 

I found this book to be even more enjoyable than the first. Not only because now I'm more familiar with Lew and Sallis's writing style, but also because I'm discovering how meta, self-referencing, and cyclic these novels might be. Here are some examples:

1) Moth starts off with a line that made me return to the last paragraph in the first book with a whole new understanding, as well as more questions! Intriguing.

2) There's a part in this novel where Lew discusses a bad review of his third novel called Black Hornet, which foreshadows Sallis's next book, the third in the series, one that wasn't even written for another couple of years!

3) There's also a scene where Lew interacts with an old Cajun colleague who's also a private investigator named Boudleaux. But wait a minute, the main private eye character in Lew's books is a Cajun named Boudleaux! Hmm...Lew's inspiration perhaps?

Discoveries like these make this novel and the potential for the series really fascinating. And obviously means that it's necessary to read the series in order. But even aside from that, Sallis is a lovely writer with a great knack for characterization and for turning a simple mystery into a deeper look at loss, regret, and responsibility. He's gearing up to be one of my favorite authors and I want to tackle all of his work now. And with this book, the Lew Griffin series is gearing up to be an excellent, detailed character piece. While Fly touched on multiple parts of Lew's life, acting like an outline for Lew's entire story, Moth and the subsequent books seem to expand more on each specific period, adding more detailed nuance and texture to a larger existential portrait of a complex man.
While I never could bring myself to accept Christian notions of sin and atonement, there's definitely something to karma. The things we do pile up on us, weigh us down. Or hold us in place, at the very least.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

BLACKOUT by Tim Curran


These DarkFuse novellas are like tasty little gummi bears that I munch on in between the bigger meals. So far, they've all been fun, quick and easy reads that I can get through in a day or two. This latest one is by horror writer Tim Curran and in it, a science teacher wakes up to an immense blackout and his wife missing. He groups up with his fellow neighbors on what is usually a quiet neighborhood street and try to figure out what's happening. Then the shiny, black tentacles start dropping from the sky...

The story is fast-paced and told from the point of view of an everyday guy that could be any one of us, trying to make sense of the chaos. Even though I got the sense that the author was making up the story as he went along (with a bungled third act and the rules of the creatures not being entirely consistent), it's still an enjoyable book and reads like an homage to H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds laced with Stephen King's incredible The Mist.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

JOHN CROW'S DEVIL by Marlon James


"Come now, church, who is ready to be violent for the Lord?"
There's something about organized religion that can be really terrifying at times, with the way it can feed on fear and trump all logic and decency. This is illustrated to the nth degree in the unsettling debut novel by rising star Marlon James. The book tracks the downfall and destruction of the small Jamaican village of Gibbeah, in the wake of a religious battle between two evangelical preachers for the control of both the Holy Sepulchral Full Gospel Church of St. Thomas Apostolic as well as the very soul of Gibbeah. It all starts on the day that Hector Bligh (the "Rum Preacher"), a drunk priest who's lost his way, is kicked out of the church by a charismatic new arrival, a fire-and-brimstone preacher calling himself Apostle York, who has intentions to purify Gibbeah, even if it means Old Testament judgement. 
The Pastor now drank day and night. He was spiraling downward and would have taken the village with him were it not for the other, who lead them instead to a light blacker than the thickest darkness.
He came like a thief on a night colored silver.
Many might consider this novel magical realism and they would be right. But maybe there should be a sub-genre of "black"-magical realism, for a book like this one, so filled with Obeah and omens of black vultures (john crows). And do I dare call this a satire? Because at times I wanted to chuckle, but mostly to keep myself from being so horrified at the events that I would chuck the book across the room. Maybe that's what makes a great dark satire! And James is a confident and terrifically skilled writer who handles this balance perfectly. One of his effective techniques is the occasional passage that uses a point of view that seems to come from the collective gossip of the village itself, sort of a small-town Greek chorus in a Jamaican tragedy play showing the mob mentality that can come from a town gripped in religious fervor. I loved the way that the town's hypocrisy and secrets slowly began to be revealed and ultimately lead to its downfall. James also created a couple of well-illustrated female characters in the Widow Greenfield and especially the tragic Lucinda, who was endlessly fascinating to read.
Lucinda was to be the bride of Christ but her ring finger got lost in a thatch of pubic hair. It was that damn Apostle. Him and those bold red books and the bold red tip of his circumcision.
I really enjoyed this one, although at times the author's wordsmithing got in the way of narrative pacing. But I was engaged throughout and would definitely recommend it. It really made me want to revisit his epic novel from last year, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I read that long book while shooting a movie last year, which I think was a mistake. I read John Crow's Devil when I had lots of time to focus my attention and get lost in the story. With three respected novels, Marlon James is definitely an author to watch and wait for what he does next.
God judgement a no play-play judgement. God not romping with we.

Friday, February 6, 2015



*Book 7 of the Matthew Scudder series*

It's been a little over three years since the events in the stellar Eight Million Ways To Die, and Matt has successfully been able to stay sober and regularly participate in AA meetings. A man hires him to track down his missing actress daughter and we're off to the races with my next Matthew Scudder read!

The actual mystery storyline of the missing actress is one of the least interesting of all the Scudder books so far, but witnessing Matthew's struggle to maintain sobriety in Manhattan and his experiences in AA is what makes the book really enjoyable. The mystery is second priority. And as usual with the series, the supporting characters in this one are great, from the repentant Eddie (Matt's AA friend) to the enigmatic and dangerous Mick Ballou. A popular staple in hard-boiled detective fiction is for the protagonist to be a hardcore drinker, like it makes them harder or grittier or something. The Scudder series stands out to me because it really shows the negative effects of such drinking in a tender, honest, and heartfelt way. But author Lawrence Block never allows Matt to have a sentimental, self-pitying attitude about the whole thing. He just takes it one day at a time.
"I wanted a drink. There were a hundred reasons why a man will want a drink, but I wanted one now for the most elementary reason of all. I didn't want to feel what I was feeling, and a voice within was telling me that I needed a drink, that I couldn't bear it without it.
But that voice is a liar. You can always bear the pain. It'll hurt, it'll burn like acid in an open wound, but you can stand it. And, as long as you can make yourself go on choosing the pain over the relief, you can keep going."