At the urging of Vince Keenan (see the Q and A) I’ve finally enjoyed Christa Faust’s double sally at Hard Case Crime. Both of Angel Dare’s “cases” take place in fascinating environments: Money Shot is set in the world of professional pornography and Choke Hold takes on Mixed Martial Arts. Crime fiction is at its best when asking questions about society, and Faust lets us know exactly what is wrong and what is right within these extreme communities.
Faust is postmodern noir writer, with plot twists even darker than James Ellroy’s. But unlike many of those who go down those black alleys, there’s no heavy-handed introspection or philosophizing. At the end of the day, these are sweet fixes for pulp addicts, pure and simple. Faust even name-checks Richard Prather as an influence! That’s a hip reference. I get it.
Also more on the pulp side of the spectrum is Duane Swierczynski’s latest, Hell and Gone. I liked the first of the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and Games, but the second one, although absolutely more outrageous, seems to roll through even more smoothly. These books defy genre: what initally seemed like crime fiction has now embraced futuristic dystopia.
Swierczynski is keeping busy. Next week Godzilla launches. I seldom read comics but will have to pick this up, just to see him put the terror of Tokyo through some paces. In a few more years, I won’t be at all surprised if the Swierczynski oeuvre is considered one of the most important pieces of the puzzle by a new kind of crossover fan.
Thomas Perry has brought back Jane Whitfield for Poison Flower. I read all of Perry with pleasure, but the Jane series stays with me less than the Butcher Boy books or standalones like Pursuit.
Poison Flower still satisfies, though. I didn’t do anything else while reading it.
Even though Donald E. Westlake has been dead a few years, his output hasn’t stopped! The latest discovery, The Comedy is Finished, has received quite a few accolades. Some even go so far as to say that it is a lost masterwork.
Certain things are indeed inarguably masterful, like how the FBI agent and crew are kept firmly in the middle. In the hands of anyone else, these enforcement officers would be mean, silly, or incompetent, but DEW just holds it steady without ever resorting to drawing a cartoon. Perfect!
But the book as a whole seems pretty dated, and not in a good way. In my opinion, many of Westlake’s books in the late 70’s/early 80’s (like Castle in the Air and Kahawa) aren’t his strongest. He was having trouble gaining traction in the industry. Eventually, this frustrating period inspired one of his authentic masterpieces, A Likely Story (1984). I’d rather that the buzz for The Comedy Is Finished went to A Likely Story instead.
For that matter, I’d prefer the buzz to pick up about the last book where Westlake oversaw publication. Get Real is a marvelous conclusion to a matchless career.
As a die-hard Westlakean I’m happy to have Comedy, and maybe my next go-around with it will bring new insight. But I don't think it is the right introduction to the canon for a newbie.
Several reliable franchises have recent entries available at airports. I’m impressed with how John Sanford and Lee Child keep Lucas Davenport and Jack Reacher fresh. There may be occasional padding in the mega-bestsellers Buried Prey and The Affair, but the flights were over as soon as I started turning the pages. They are similar books, each documenting a past case formative for the hero. Buried Prey is especially good, with some underdone weirdo characters (like the suburban gun nut) worthy of Westlake.
Davenport and Reacher have no end game in sight, but Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander has come to a weary finish. At some point I’d like to re-read the Wallander series in order. Offhand I’d say One Step Behind was my favorite. It’s as tense and exciting as a police procedural can get.
The final installment, The Troubled Man, is not that kind of book, but rather a slow-moving tale of espionage. I much prefer this kind of “intellectual” or “realist” spy novel than all those hyper-tech thrillers that crowd the market. Mankell’s prose is refined and hypnotic, and the answer to the puzzle is satisfying.
The eternally flawed Wallender is easier to love than the eternally perfect Lucas Davenport or Jack Reacher. There's a good reason writing teachers tell their Lit 101 students “Give your hero a flaw.” Our imaginations are engaged by imperfection.
Charles McCarry could have remembered that rule a bit more when he created his canonical spy Paul Christopher. With his latest book, the non-series sci-fi tale The Ark, McCarry forgets it entirely. Henry Peel is the smartest and wealthiest man on Earth, and every move he makes to save the planet from destruction is the perfect move. Eventually the billionaire is a kind of Jesus figure.
I think McCarry is one of the best writers of sentences American genre fiction has ever produced. But it’s hard for me to understand what he’s up to here.
At the other end of the spectrum, Charlie Huston’s The Shotgun Rule has nothing but flawed characters. It’s a dark and masterful look at youthful ennui in suburban California in the early 80’s. Huston has become one my favorites, he’s one of the best we’ve got. Shotgun Rule is not that recent -- I'm still getting his backlog -- but a new Huston should be out pretty soon.
It seems like Huston can write in any genre as long as it is dark enough. Could he do gothic romance? I don’t mind one of those once in a while as a palate cleanser, and Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison is a terrific example of a modern take.
I had kind of written Robinson off: A few years ago I tried an Inspector Banks novel and it made no impression. But Before the Poison seemed like the only possibility when browsing in Madrid airport and I’m glad I gave it the chance. Perhaps it excessively celebrates middlebrow culture (the long English Christmas scene is almost unforgivable) but the haunted house story is compelling. In its way, it is as feminist as Christa Faust. At the end, the chilling reveal has no unsightly reversals or extra knots in the plot.