Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One: A Novel

Zone One: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

C'mon now, trust me. I know this is a blog primarily about crime fiction, but don't forget, tonight is Halloween, and I've got just the ticket. It's literary fiction set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan after a pandemic Last Night devastated the world. The dead are people who were killed outright or turned into vehicles of the plague.


Buffalo, New York, is the cradle of reconstruction. The goal of the provisional government there is to clear New York City of the undead, zone by zone, and then move on to other cities. In addition to running this military campaign, the government aims to boost the morale of survivors, "all fucked up in their own way; as before, it was a mark of one's individuality." Psychotherapist Dr. Neil Herkimer coined the buzzword PASD (post-apocalypse stress disorder) and put it at seventy-five percent of the surviving population; the rest have a preexisting mental condition, so one hundred percent of the world is mad. In addition to shipping out "Living with PASD" pamphlets, the government conducts an "American Phoenix Rising" propaganda campaign, complete with sponsors and the anthem "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)."

So much for the survivors. Skels (short for "skeletons" or zombies) come in two types: the rabid flesh-eating predators and the much-slowed and pathetic stragglers, who are trapped in their former abodes. After Marines deal with the rabid skels, crews of civilian volunteers, directed by military officers stationed at "Fort Wonton" in Chinatown, sweep out the stragglers. Currently, Zone One (a region created by barriers south of Canal Street) has been cleared by Marines, and the sweepers are moving through it. We follow one such sweeper, a former Starbucks employee nicknamed Mark Spitz (the full name is always used), whose defining trait is his mediocrity:
His most appropriate designation [in high school] would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category. His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.
Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers, "seemingly unsnuffable human cockroaches," are protected by not-overly-great weapons and protective clothing and good luck, and they operate in war-like conditions. They swap stories of past lives and use black humor as they dispatch the undead. Occasionally, someone looks like someone Mark Spitz had known or loved. He doesn't consider himself a mere exterminator, but rather an angel of death ushering stragglers on their stalled journey. Of course, not all of the undead Mark Spitz encounters are stragglers; his bad habit of flashing back to happier pre-Last Night times while struggling with skels trying to rip off his flesh nearly levitated me from the bed in anxiety. And the infested subway tunnel would have made a George A. Romero fan happy.

Zone One, published in 2011 by Doubleday, has enough gore to keep a horror fan fairly satisfied, but the wit, imagery, references to pop culture, and wordplay will please everyone. It's surprisingly funny and tender:
Mark Spitz had seen the park unscroll from the windows of the big skyscrapers crowding the perimeter, but never from this vantage. No picnickers idled on their blankets, no one goldbricked on the benches and nary a Frisbee arced through the sky, but the park was at first-spring-day capacity. They didn’t stop to appreciate the scenery, these dead visitors; they ranged on the grass and walkways without purpose or sense, moving first this way then strolling in another direction until, distracted by nothing in particular, they readjusted their idiot course. It was Mark Spitz’s first glimpse of Manhattan since the coming of the plague, and he thought to himself, My God, it’s been taken over by tourists.
Author Colson Whitehead
Mark Spitz is as nostalgic for pre-Last Night NYC's inanimate objects as he is for its people. As he sweeps through office spaces, he sees how little some interiors have changed despite the great unraveling outside of them. When he was a child, he loved to look out his Uncle Lloyd's apartment window. Some buildings he saw met the fate of the wrecking ball, and new buildings grew themselves out of the rubble, "shaking off the past like immigrants." In this new era, it's dangerous to dream about the past, and hope is "a gateway drug." Mark Spitz believes that he has successfully banished thoughts of the future. If you aren't concentrating on how to survive the next five minutes, you won't survive them. Without hope, Mark Spitz, that average Everyman survivor, sweeps to his fate.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review of Jerome Charyn's Under the Eye of God

Under the Eye of God
by Jerome Charyn

God knows this book comes just in time. I've stared so long at Nate Silver's New York Times political blog, his stats dance before my eyes. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy boggles my mind and hurts my heart. A good break is sitting in the tub with Jerome Charyn's Under the Eye of God, a book swarming with the shenanigans of warring politicians and the plumb-crazy powerful.

Here's the scoop: A bare-knuckles presidential election is over, and the Democratic ticket of baseball czar J. Michael Storm and New York City Mayor Isaac Sidel has won. Since this is a Charyn novel, J. Michael and Isaac are hardly sprawling in comfy chairs sipping a glass of bubbly to celebrate "the slaughter of '88." Nope.

J. Michael, the President-elect, is facing a political Sandy of his own. He's holed up in the Waldorf while one mistress after another surfaces with demands to be paid off or else. The media are sniffing his crooked real estate deals and the phony corporation he'd formed with his wife Clarice. (Did you know our Constitution is silent on what happens if scandal derails a President after election but before confirmation by the electoral college? Strictly speaking, he's not really the President-elect at all.) Luckily for the Democrats, they have pictures of the defeated Republican incumbent, President Calder Cottonwood, pissing in the Rose Garden, and if the Republicans don't stop harping about Casanova (er, J. Michael), Democrats will play a little hardball. The Democrats have also bugged the White House. (Ah, but the crafty Republicans know about it and talk accordingly.) Cottonwood has plans for a smear campaign charging Isaac with Lolita tendencies because of his friendship with the President-elect's 12-year-old daughter, Marianna.

The Democratic Party's chief strategist has decided the hugely popular Isaac needs to distract from J. Michael's bad press by hitting the road on "some kind of quixotic quest." So Isaac is tossed into a tour bus bound for Texas. Also aboard is the President's former astrologer, who can chart Isaac's stars. While the Secret Service checks out weirdos in the San Antonio hotel bar, a Korean War vet yells he's the eye of God and tries to shoot Isaac; however, Isaac thwarts him. Isaac suspects that President Cottonwood has just tried to have him killed.

Isaac returns to Manhattan, where he seeks the comfort of the Ansonia––"a universe unto itself, forlorn, complete, with an astonishing silence where Isaac could listen to iron and glass and marble breathe." It was the only address worth having for tenants such as Caruso, Babe Ruth, and Arnold Rothstein, the king of crime. Rothstein's former protégé, David Pearl, helped Isaac's father win a contract to supply the Army with gloves. David also enjoyed the company of the 10-year-old Isaac, who could "see with his ears, like a detective." Isaac finds the ex-boy venture capitalist still living at the Ansonia. Also there is a stunningly beautiful woman named Trudy Winckleman, going by the name of Rothstein's mistress Inez, hanging out with the world's richest men in the basement, and living in Inez's old rooms. Isaac is captivated, just as David hoped. David is moving heaven and earth in his attempts to ensure Isaac disappears or gets kicked upstairs. Vice President Sidel couldn't hurt him, but Mayor Sidel could. Isaac would stop at nothing to protect New York City.


For those poor souls  who have yet to meet Isaac Sidel, Under the Eye of God is a good place to start. It's the eleventh book in this unusual noir-ish series about the New York City cop turned commissioner turned mayor turned Vice President-elect; however, it stands on its own, and it's actually an easy introduction to Charyn's writing style. While it's hard to describe exactly what that style is, maybe I'd call it funky and sly. In musical terms, it's a jazz riff. It's not exactly postmodern stream-of-consciousness writing, but the journey is at least as important as the destination. If you seek a nonlinear plot, look elsewhere. I read Charyn's Isaac books in a purposefully relaxed way so I can go with the rhythm of the prose, and I keep a Wikipedia window open on my computer for looking up the many cultural references and names of famous architects, artists, political figures, criminals, and writers (NYC Mayor Seth Low, Tammany Hall's Big Tim Sullivan, and artist Mark Rothko are just a few).

Charyn is a literary writer who adores words, and his writing is very vivid ("His mouth sat crooked on his face, as if someone had sewn it there"). He often employs nicknames or descriptions in lieu of names, as if repeating a name is simply too boring. So rather than repetitions of "Isaac Sidel," it's the Big Guy, the Citizen, Citizen Sidel, the May baby, the Commish, the catcher of criminals, the philosopher clown, etc. Other characters are named in similar fashion.

The Bronx
As in all Isaac Sidel books, New York City is a character, as well as a setting. The focus in this particular book is on the Bronx and Manhattan's Ansonia. Charyn grew up in the Bronx and attended Columbia University. He is familiar with the history, politics, and geography of New York City; the arts; and the sports of baseball and ping pong. This knowledge is seamlessly woven into his crime fiction. In Under the Eye of God, looking past the lunatic actions of the characters, one sees the serious issues of partisan politics, corruption, conspiracy theories, violence, urban blight and renewal, the power of the insanely wealthy, the powerlessness of the poor, and the kind of personal relationships that haunt us. This is a superb series, and this topical book is a gift from the gods.

Notes: Isaac and the crazy cast of Charyn characters are being made into an adult animated drama series called Hard Apple. The team behind it is the award-winning animators of Waltz with Bashir, the Cannes Film selection that also won a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Film.

Here's a mini-documentary about writer Jerome Charyn.

I received a free copy of Under the Eye of God, published by Road Media, and due out today. The French translation of Under the Eye of God is also coming out in France. (The French are die-hard Isaac Sidel fans. They can read a review in Le Figaro here.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Secrets can make delightful surprises. Check under the tree on Christmas morning. But you don't need to turn over a rock to find another kind of surprise. You can pick up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which there are more hidden things awaiting discovery than those offered by the treasure-hunt clues Amy always leaves her husband, Nick Dunne, on their wedding anniversaries. On their fifth anniversary, Nick has a more serious puzzle to solve. He returns home to find Amy's declawed cat outdoors, the front door wide open, the iron still plugged in, the tea kettle burning, imperfectly mopped up blood in the kitchen and the living room appearing as if a cyclone had dropped in. And Amy herself? Gone.

When the book opens, narrator Nick is reflecting on his wife's pretty head. The shape of it. What's inside of it. In fact, he says the question he's asked most often during their marriage, if not out loud, is "What are you thinking, Amy?"

Amy Elliott inspired her child-psychologist parents' children's book series about a perfect girl named Amazing Amy. The books always ended with a multiple-choice question about what Amy would do in the circumstances. Perhaps it isn't surprising that when Amy grows up, she earns a master's degree in psychology and writes personality quizzes for women's magazines. She doesn't need to work, though, because Amazing Amy amassed a nice trust fund. This comes in handy when Nick, a magazine writer, loses his job and Amy loses hers shortly thereafter. They spend weeks in their pajamas, aimlessly roaming their Brooklyn brownstone, until Nick receives a call from his twin sister, Margo, in North Carthage, Missouri. Nick and Margo are so close he thinks of her as "mytwingo." Their mother has cancer and maybe six months to live. Nick isn't fond of his father, who's so full of fury his teeth grinding can be heard across the room, and who now lives in an assisted living center, but Nick has always loved his mother. Without consulting Amy, Nick promises Go that they'll move back to his childhood home to help Go cope.

Nick had a boyhood job playing Huck Finn in Hannibal, Missouri.
Once in Missouri, Nick and Go borrow $80,000 from Amy, from her trust fund, to open a bar. Nick figures people will always need a drink and Amy can take her time to figure out what she wants to do. This sounds like a workable plan, but what's the saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men? This one doesn't adequately take personalities into account. At one time, Go tells Nick, "You'd literally lie, cheat, and steal––hell, kill––to convince people you are a good guy." He craves approval and can't deal with angry or tearful women. This is when he feels his father's rage rise up. After Amy is gone, Nick confides to the reader: Amy could tell you about that, if she were here.

Early little asides like that one unsettle the reader. So do Nick's descriptions of a new, brittle, bitter Amy who was no longer his wife "but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers . . . untrained in the intricate dangerous work of solving Amy." One reads Nick's account in chapters dated "The Day of," "Six Days Gone," etc.

Given that Nick has called Amy "the girl with an explanation for everything," it's instructive to read Amy's sporadic diary entries, which alternate with Nick's narrative chapters. Amy is articulate and opinionated, insightful and funny. Her diary begins on January 8, 2005, the day she meets Nick ("a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy"). Amy describes her parents' marriage as so "cherishing" that she feels like a useless appendage who's pressured to be perfect. The perfect girl becomes the perfect girlfriend and the perfect wife for the perfect man. Amy doesn't force Nick to do pointless tasks, and make myriad sacrifices to prove his love for her like other women whose husbands perform like dancing monkeys. The move to Missouri changes them and their marriage. The competitiveness and relentless achieving that made her at home in New York City are greeted with "open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity" in Missouri. Her husband and his twin sister often make her feel like a third wheel. By the morning of Nick and Amy's fifth wedding anniversary, they have been in Carthage two years. What happens then?

Amy says Tom Petty's music has accompanied everything important in her life.

Gillian Flynn photo by Heidi Jo Brady
Gone Girl has appeared on best-selling lists since its publication in June 2012 by Crown. There are good reasons for the book's popularity. It's a psychological feast about love and violence and a treatise about various types of manipulation. Who can know the truth of a marriage? If Flynn didn't enjoy writing it, she fooled me. Her characters revel in themselves and their admissions to the reader. I'm not sure what true-life disappearance inspired Flynn, but some elements of Nick's story after he calls the cops to report his wife missing resemble real events, like the 2002 disappearance of Laci Peterson in Modesto, California.

Carthage's fictional cops, Det. Rhonda Boney ("brazenly, beyond the scope of everyday ugly") and her partner, Det. Jim Gilpin (who looks like he should stink of cigarettes and sour coffee but who smells of Dial soap instead) organize a search and a press conference. Nick's in-laws swoop into town to set up a Find Amy Dunne headquarters at the Days Inn, and all kinds of people seep out of the woodwork to help. Nick decides his journalist background qualifies him to investigate possible suspects from Amy's past. The case catches the eye of Ellen Abbot (think "Nancy Grace"), a permanently furious former prosecutor and victims' rights advocate, who doesn't like the sound of Amy's vanishing or the looks of Nick's killer smile. Human tragedy becomes cable TV entertainment. Need I tell you that before long Nick hires a celebrity attorney to represent him?

At this point, I hope I don't need to tell you this is a very fun and suspenseful read. Get a friend to read it too, so you can compare your interpretations of the clues with another reader. You'll be thinking about the foreshadowing, the characters, our media-obsessed culture and the book's ending when the final page is gone.

Note: I received a free copy of Gone Girl for purposes of this review.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Two on World War II: Book Reviews of Stuart Neville's Ratlines and Sarah R. Shaber's Louise's War

Ratlines by Stuart Neville

In the US melting pot, nearly 35 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The only claimed ancestry outpacing Irish in the US is German. But I'll bet the majority of Irish-Americans (and German-Americans, for that matter) are unaware of Ireland's role in World War II.

Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality during the war––or the "Emergency," as it was called in Ireland. As with other neutral countries, like Switzerland and Portugal, Ireland's main concern was to avoid an invasion by either Britain or Germany. There were other reasons, too. The Irish were war weary, after World War I, the Irish War of Independence from 1919-1921, and the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. No wonder most Irish citizens were in favor of neutrality.

But just because the Irish state was officially neutral, that doesn't mean that there weren't strong feelings about the World War II combatant powers. Irish citizens could volunteer to serve in the British armed forces, and around 50,000 did just that. On the other hand, some felt that Nazism was an understandable nationalist movement, like the one that led to Ireland's independence. And some nationalists, including some IRA members, took the view that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, meaning anybody opposing the British must be right. The IRA shared intelligence with Germany's Abwehr, in hopes that a German victory might result in the British being removed from the north, resulting in a united and independent Irish state.

Otto Skorzeny
Like so many countries after the war, Ireland became a haven for war criminals. (See the documentary, Ireland's Nazis, for more details.) Stuart Neville's Ratlines focuses on one of the most well-known Nazis to find a home in Ireland: Otto Skorzeny, a Waffen-SS officer famous for leading the commando group that rescued Mussolini (temporarily) from imprisonment during the war. (Look at the guy. Is that a face straight out of an anti-Nazi propaganda movie?)

Neville's protagonist, Albert Ryan, fought in the British Army during the war and is an agent now in Ireland's Directorate of Intelligence. In the spring of 1963, he's ordered to report to Charles Haughey, the Minister for Justice, for a special assignment. Haughey tells Ryan to find out who is targeting and killing former Nazis in Ireland, and to do it before they can get to Skorzeny or generate enough negative publicity to jeopardize the upcoming visit by US President John F. Kennedy.

Ryan is introduced to Skorzeny, who is determined not only to combat the threat, but to find out who is behind it all and kill them. Ryan finds himself torn between his duty and his revulsion at having to help––or even be in the same room with––a man he finds repugnant. Ryan's position becomes downright dangerous, as he gets closer to both Skorzeny and his unsavory compatriots, on the one hand, and those who threaten him, on the other.

The classic loner lawman, Ryan has nobody to trust. Even his new girlfriend, Celia, has connections that make Ryan wonder about her loyalties. Ryan takes on all comers in a game that will risk everything, but that will let Ryan live and be his own man if he can pull it off. For espionage thriller readers, this is an exciting work of fiction that takes advantage of an unusual and little-known moment in history.

If you want to read about the real-life ratlines that allowed Nazi war criminals to slip away to new lives in various spots around the world, I recommend Gerald Steinacher's Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Ratlines will be published on January 1, 2013 by Soho Crime.

Note: I received a free publisher's review copy of Ratlines.

* * *

Louise's War by Sarah R. Shaber

Sarah Shaber is best known for her Simon Shaw series, having won the Malice Domestic award for Best First Traditional Mystery for Simon Said. Shaber strikes out in a different direction in her new series, featuring Louise Pearlie, a young widow who has left her home in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1942, to move into a rooming house in Washington, D.C., and a job at the new intelligence agency, the OSS.

Louise comes across a file on Gerald Bloch, a French hydrology expert who is a Jew trapped in Vichy France. The file is about to be forwarded to the higher-ups at the OSS, so that they may decide whether to smuggle Bloch and his family out of France and use his expertise on North African aquatic geography in a possible future invasion. Louise is shocked to see that Bloch's wife is her closest college friend, Rachel, whom Louise has been worried sick about.

Louise's disquiet intensifies when her boss, who had the file, is found dead in his office and the file goes missing. Louise doesn't know who is responsible for making the file disappear, so she has to do her own investigation on the sly, knowing that time may soon run out for Rachel and Gerald.

Shaber excels at portraying wartime Washington, with its large houses rapidly transformed into crammed rooming houses and even government offices. The story takes place in late June to early July, and Shaber makes the reader feel every degree of the relentless heat and humidity in a city that the British government rated as qualifying for tropical hardship status for its personnel stationed there. Only a few buildings were "refrigerated," and people like Louise had to rely on draping a wet sheet in front of a fan to generate enough of a cool breeze that might allow sleep.

Despite the heat, Louise and her boarding-house acquaintances manage some fun, including outdoor concerts, making hand-cranked ice cream and listening to radio shows. Shaber supplies all the details that make the time and place seem completely real. I learned from reading an interview with her that some of her research was done by the simple expedient of plugging "June 1942" into eBay's search engine and seeing what came up. Quite an unexpected and clever idea.

Shaber cranks up the intrigue as Louise tries to resurrect the file that may rescue her old friend. Is there anyone in the office she can trust? And what about at the boarding house? Joe, the émigré who lives upstairs, is attractive, but may not be who he says he is. Ada, down the hall, seems to be keeping secrets too.

This was a satisfying, traditional, period-piece of a mystery. Its style reminded me a little of an Agatha Christie. If it had been told in third person, rather than first person, it might have been even more like a Christie story. I'll be the reading the second in the series, Louise's Gamble, as soon as possible.

Louise's War was published by Severn House Publishers in 2011.

Note: Versions of these reviews may appear on other review sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review of Laura Childs's Postcards from the Dead

Postcards from the Dead by
Laura Childs

Every few years, I get a chance to take a trip to the Crescent City at the mouth of the Mississippi. You can call it The Big Easy or one of the country's murder capitals; it all depends on your point of view. Only one time was I there near Mardi Gras and I was entranced by the parades, the excitement, and, of course, the flying beads. Some of these are actually beads to die for if you should dare to cross a barricade. You won’t get run over, because the New Orleans Police Department puts up with nothing when it comes to disrupting a float!

But it was an event to remember and I still have some of the mementos.

Postcards from the Dead, by Laura Childs, evokes some of these memories with her scrapbooking series that takes place in the French Quarter.

Carmela Bertrand finds herself packed into an elegant, but aging, suite in a New Orleans French Quarter hotel. She is the owner of Memory Mine, a scrapbooking shop located on a nearby street. There is an excited buzz among all the people crowded into this room, because the countdown for Mardi Gras is on and the denizens of New Orleans are all shaking off their shackles and getting ready to "laissez les bon temps rouler." Outside, the sound of a passing parade is deafening.

Carmela is approaching her thirties, and is making a life for herself after a divorce from a husband who is one of the NOLA elite. In her married days, Carmela lived in a large house in the famed, beautiful Garden District. Now she has a small apartment, with a faithful mutt to keep her company and loyal friends who care for her. She is present at this gathering because she is one of several people who is to be interviewed by a not-so-friendly newscaster, Kimber Breeze.

Carmela is waiting her turn with Kimber, who is out on a balcony that overlooks one of the many parades filling the street in the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Carmela is talking to one of the cameramen, who is having trouble eliciting a response from Kimber. Carmela dashes out to the balcony to confront a gruesome sight. Drunken revelers? No, much worse, and she is too late to help Kimber. The potential witnesses find every way out of the room, as well as out of the hotel, and leave Carmela and her friend Ava to talk to the police.

Early the next morning, on top of the newspaper at her door, Carmela finds a postcard that seemingly comes from Kimber. Carmela is a little freaked out when she later gets another that has been left on her desk at the shop. Someone knows where she lives and works, and though she feels threatened, Carmela can't really convince herself she should report this.

There are those who think the police are all right in their place, and Carmela is one of them––as a matter of fact, she dates a homicide detective. But when it comes to sleuthing, the amateur seems to have the edge, since she is closer to real clues, the background information, and the gossip that may contain the key to a murder. Detective Babcock of the NOPD, as a professional investigator, not to mention as Carmela's boyfriend, takes the stance that Carmela should stick to her own job. But Carmela does have an entrée into some of the exclusive social venues where some of the key suspects will be present.

As a matter of fact, Memory Mine is extremely busy as N'awlins is a party town––particularly during this season of celebration. All kinds of ideas for place cards, invitations, and table decorations are being brought to the shop, to be produced in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. These are purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. I must admit that listening to the descriptions of the stock in this store, including all kinds of exotic papers, unusual stamps and many other little bits, stirred my creative juices––such as they are.

What I liked about Carmela was that she is very down to earth; not quirky at all. She dresses conservatively and behaves much like most 20-something women. Although she runs a shop, she is able to pursue her investigation without distractions like frenetically trying to run errands, do housework and shop. Descriptions of sidetracks like these exhaust me as a reader.

She does have some lively friends and co-workers, who provide the quirk and there were a few times when I thought that with friends like these, who needs enemies? But they do provide a balance, for, as Ava ripostes when Carmela tells her she worries too much: "sometimes you don’t worry enough."

My main concern with Carmela is that once she went into the Café du Monde and came out with coffee but no beignets! She redeemed herself another time by buying some but ate only one. This suggests a woman with great control. This is a woman to emulate, but I probably won't the next time I visit the Café du Monde.

Childs presents The City That Care Forgot in a very inviting way. I was drawn to the characters and would like to read more about them. I will be reading the omnibus that introduces these protagonists in the near future. Maybe there I'll learn Babcock's first name.

I wonder if any city has as many nicknames as New Orleans. I can't leave out two others: "Chocolate City" and, for reasons I don't want to contemplate, "Chopper City," referring to AK-47 weapons. Readers, any more?

Note: I received a free review copy of Postcards from the Dead, tenth book in the Scrapbooking Mysteries series, published earlier this month by Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin Group (USA).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review of Dennis Lehane's Live by Night

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Mamas, don't let your boys grow up to be gangsters. That is, if this book's opening quakes your bones:
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life––good or bad––had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.
It's the same Joe Coughlin, son of powerful Irish cop Thomas and younger brother of Aiden (Danny) and Connor, whom we met in Lehane's sprawling historical epic, The Given Day, set in 1918-19 Boston. While that 2008 book is about the Coughlins during a dizzying epidemic of flu, corruption, and striking police, Live by Night is all about handsome Joe, although his father appears and Danny drops in briefly. Joe was conceived in an effort to fill the hole at the center of his family, a chasm between his parents, and between them and the world at large. Rather than filling, the hole found its center in lawless Joe. Yet, despite Joe's refusal to heed his father's warnings or to obey the rules, he is the most open of Thomas's three sons, with a heart you can see "through the heaviest winter coat." Joe is an immensely conflicted and appealing young man. He lives for "moments in a world without nets––none to catch you and none to envelop you." Joe knows he'll probably die young. And now, here he sits, not yet 30, hands tied and feet encased in cement, while Lehane takes us back to watch the trajectory of Joe's career from rebellious outlaw to gangster prince.

It's 1926, and Prohibition is in full force. Mobs––split down ethnic lines of Italian, Jewish, and Irish––control illegal activities such as gambling and supplying alcohol. While most mobs deal in whiskey, the Hickey and Pescatore gang handles rum. They've cornered the market on sugar and molasses imported from Cuba into Tampa, Florida, where the alcohol is distilled and driven up the Eastern Seaboard in midnight runs.

Nineteen-year-old Joe comes across Emma when he and the Bartolo brothers rob a gaming room in a South Boston speakeasy. Until then, they had stuck to petty crimes. Had they known the speakeasy belonged to prominent mobster Albert White, they might have run as far as their legs would carry them. The stickup is a mistake. Joe compounds that error by losing his head over Emma, whose eyes, "pale as very cold gin," fit a young woman who hails from Charlestown, where "they brought .38s to the dinner table, used the barrels to stir their coffee." Emma is White's mistress.

White doesn't like being robbed, and he likes competition for Emma even less. He takes advantage of a bank heist's disastrous aftermath to vent his rage on Joe; however, White's actions take a backseat to those of Joe's father, Deputy Police Superintendent Thomas Coughlin. Like Lehane's series protagonist Patrick Kenzie, Joe has old grievances with his dad. Father-son issues––the limits of loyalty, the consequences of violence, and the nature of betrayal––provide the backdrop as Joe is incarcerated in Charlestown Penitentiary, "a dumping ground, and then a proving ground, for animals." There, Joe finds another father figure in imprisoned mob boss Thomaso "Maso" Pescatore, who runs his bootlegging operation from behind bars and directs Joe to Florida upon his release.

Before radio and mechanization, Ybor City cigar
factory workers listened to someone reading aloud.
The outrageous heat and humidity aren't the only jungle-like attributes of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where Joe muscles himself into a job. The survival of the strongest involves rival gangs fighting over bootlegging turf, and the judges, city councillors, and cops slipping in and out of the gangs' pockets. There's also what I'll refer to as the heat of Joe's loins. While Joe claims that he's "out of the heartbreak business," copper-dark Graciela Corrales, a pro-Batista Cuban who works in a Ybor cigar factory, captures his attention as soon as he hops off the train. Her body moves "under the thin fabric like something outlawed that was hoping to slip out of town before the Puritans got word. Paradise, Joe thought, is dusky and lush and covers limbs that move like water." Joe's lack of racial prejudice not only finds him a beautiful woman, it allows him to work directly with the Suarez siblings, Cubans who import sugar and molasses into Ybor City. In a few years, the Suarez-Coughlin gang has strengthened its grip on rum trafficking in Florida and is expanding into Louisiana; however, no matter how lucrative, racial inclusiveness isn't popular with Joe's Italian boss, Maso Pescatore. And it isn't at all popular with the Ku Klux Klan.

As the end of Prohibition approaches, the global economy is worsening. People need hope, as well as jobs, but they've often had to settle for a drink. When alcohol becomes legal, then what? While the world is changing, Joe has always believed people don't really change. Yet, he and Graciela have already started to live by day, "where the swells lived." How do good works follow bad money?

Questions such as this one arise from Lehane's examination of faith, love, redemption, and revenge, and the role luck and fate play in human destiny. Early on, Joe tells his father that there are no rules but the ones a man makes for himself. Joe is a fascinating character due to his evolving interpretation of events, assessments of people, and understanding of himself over a decade. Clear prose and depth of characterization are Lehane trademarks, and following Joe is a treat. Unlike others who stayed on top in the rackets, Joe isn't known for having amputated his conscience. He's the kind of mobster who hopes he won't have to kill his best friend, but that's not to say he won't; he simply won't do it for reasons of greed. Joe's father Thomas Coughlin, Maso Pescatore, and best friend Dion Bartolo also develop; however, there's something unknowable about the book's three beautiful women. Perhaps it's because Joe doesn't really understand them, even though he realizes why the nuns rail against the sins of lust and covetousness, which can "possess you surer than a cancer," and "kill you twice as quick." I found the idealistic Graciela less interesting than the two more complex women: enigmatic Loretta Figgis, beautiful daughter of Ybor's Chief of Police Irving Figgis, and the inscrutable Emma Gould, behind whose pale eyes "lay something cold and caged . . . in a way that demanded nothing come in."

The tone and pace change from noirish suspense to a slower ending, suitable for its tropical location, but a little languid and mushy for my taste. No matter, Dennis Lehane has written a gangster novel, captivating for its characters and philosophical questions and moving in its bittersweetness, vividly set during Prohibition. The Coughlins aren't a Mafia family like the Corleones, but one can hope to see them vault from book pages onto the movie screen. I've heard that director Ben Affleck is interested. I've also heard that Lehane may make these two books into a trilogy, and my pulse does a rumba thinking about this.

Note: Dennis Lehane's Live by Night was published earlier this month by Morrow/HarperCollins. It isn't necessary to read The Given Day first, but a reader loses by not doing so. Now is the perfect time. The World Series is just around the corner, and baseball is one of The Given Day's pleasures. Be sure to close with Live by Night.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cleaning House

I hate housework. Not with a seething, white-hot hatred or a disdain so profound that I refuse to do any house cleaning, but I do admit that my primary motivation when I clean is to avoid embarrassment if a neighbor drops in. Though, if somebody comes by when things look particularly bad, I could always pull a Phyllis Diller and say: "Who could have done this? We don't have any enemies."

Phyllis Diller (may she rest in peace) also wisely said: "Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?" Now that I think about it, though, Erma Bombeck's reply to Diller was that if you do it right, housework can kill you. As a mystery reader, I'd put a slight twist on that and say that housework done wrong can kill––somebody. (Warning: spoilers of a couple of well-known classics are included in this post.)

In 1960, Peg Bracken wrote The I Hate To Cook Book. Bracken was clearly a mystery lover; she includes a recipe for Nero Wolfe's eggs, and a slow-cooking stew recipe for those days when you want to abandon household chores and stay in bed reading a good murder mystery. But no matter how much she hated to cook, Bracken didn't kill anybody with her cookery––unlike some people.

In Dorothy L. Sayers's Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey struggles to clear Harriet Vane of murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. Wimsey's challenge is to figure out how anyone other than Harriet could have slipped the arsenic to Boyes, whose last meal was one in which he shared all the food and drink with his cousin. The answer to Wimsey's challenge: a clever and deadly way of making an omelet.

Nine years after the publication of Strong Poison, Agatha Christie penned a new Hercule Poirot book, called Sad Cypress, that seems to have been inspired by the earlier Sayers book. Christie's main character is a young woman in the dock for murder by poison when a man falls in love with her and is determined to save her by proving her innocence. As if that's not similar enough to Strong Poison, the man's name is Peter Lord! Beyond those similarities, the stories are very different, though. Christie's sleuth is, of course, Hercule Poirot, not Peter––and a good thing, too, since Christie's Peter seems to have only a fraction of the little grey cells of Poirot or Wimsey.

In Roald Dahl's short story, "Lamb to the Slaughter," Mary Maloney is a pregnant housewife whose police detective husband, Patrick, comes home from work and tells her he's leaving her. In a state of shock, Mary goes through the motions of dinner preparation. When she brings a large, frozen leg of lamb into the kitchen, Patrick tells her not to bother, as he's going out. His disdain jolts Mary from shock to outrage and she whacks him with the leg of lamb, killing him.

Clever Mary then puts the lamb into the oven, heads off to the grocery store to give herself an alibi and then goes home to "discover" the body. The murder is investigated by Patrick's work friends, who never suspect Mary and spend their time looking for the blunt object that obviously killed Patrick. When they point out that the roast seems to be finished, Mary invites them to eat it. As they eat, one detective remarks that the murder weapon is probably right under their noses. Too right!

In Busman's Honeymoon, the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey books, Dorothy L. Sayers shows a preoccupation with the perils of housekeeping. When Lord Peter and his new bride, Harriet, arrive at Talboys, the old house they've purchased in the village Harriet knew as a girl, they are surprised that nothing has been done to ready the place for them, as had been agreed. Bunter and the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ruddle, have to hurry to clean up, prepare the beds and light the lamps and the fire.

The next day, a recalcitrant chimney blocked with "sut," as Mr. Puffet the chimney sweep calls it, causes a domestic disaster. Wanting to be helpful, the vicar fires a shotgun up the chimney to knock out the blockage, which has the effect of causing an avalanche of dead animals, bric-a-brack and clinkers to crash to the hearth and a gigantic cloud of ash to choke the room. More cleaning required! The day goes from bad to worse when a trip to the cellar on a domestic errand results in an unpleasant find: the corpse of the house's previous owner.

Housework even plays a role in the solution to the crime in Busman's Honeymoon. That chimney mishap dislodges a clue, and it turns out that a regular domestic chore is the key to the ingenious murder method. If only a regular domestic chore around my house was integral to something really important. But I suppose cleanliness is its own reward.

Agatha Christie seemed to find an additional reward. She said the best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes. I guess I'll just have to take her word for it. I do my best thinking while mowing the lawn, but then I do that while sitting on a tractor. And, as Roseanne Barr used to say, when Sears starts selling a riding vacuum cleaner, then it'll be time to start cleaning house.

Joan Rivers said she hates housework because you make the beds, you wash the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again. Another woman who hates housework is Judith Singer, the Long Island housewife protagonist of Susan Isaacs's first novel, Compromising Positions. Though Judith's inconsiderate husband, Bob, definitely deserves a leg of lamb to the back of the skull, Judith channels her frustrations elsewhere. She investigates the murder of her periodontist, in the process discovering the seamy underbelly of suburbia. An entertaining book was made into an equally delightful movie, starring Susan Sarandon, Raul Julia, Edward Herrmann and Judith Ivey.

Did I mention I hate gardening too? I believe in the old saying that a garden is a thing of beauty and a job forever. Weeding is the most boring, back-breaking job ever. And why is it that it's so hard to pull weeds, but if I accidentally grab a real plant, it pops right out? My favorite thing about winter is that all the snow on the ground makes my garden and landscaping look just as good as my neighbor's.

Our British friends love their gardening, though, and it plays a role in many of their mysteries. In the Christie book I mentioned above, Sad Cypress, the resolution is helped along by a knowledge of rose varieties. (Good thing I wasn't on the case.)

In Reginald Hill's Deadheads, Inspectors Dalziel and Pascoe investigate a series of deaths at the Perfecta Porcelain corporation. Dalziel's old friend, Dick Elgood, an executive at the company, is convinced that its accountant, Patrick Aldermann, is bumping off people to clear a space for his own advancement. Aldermann is an avid rose gardener, who learned all about deadheading roses to make way for more vigorous growth from his great-aunt when he was only a boy. Has he taken the lesson too much to heart?

Even if you skip the hard work of grubbing in the dirt and just appreciate flowers through a visit to London's annual Chelsea Flower Show, that might not be safe enough. In Chelsea Mansions, the eleventh in Barry Maitland's Brock and Kolla police procedural series, Nancy Haynes's dream of coming from the US especially for the show ends violently when, heading back to her hotel after her first afternoon's visit, she is suddenly and inexplicably picked up by a passerby and thrown in front of a bus, killing her. A few days later, a wealthy Russian émigré is killed in his garden. His house is right next door to the small, somewhat rundown hotel where Nancy Haynes had been staying. Are the two deaths connected?

After reading these books, I feel I've been warned off flower gardening and flower shows. I still remember that classic of Catherine Aird's, Passing Strange, in which the village of Almstone's nurse, Joyce Cooper, is strangled at the Horticultural Society Flower Show.

Other garden produce gets into the act in G. M. Malliet's Wicked Autumn, when that battle-ax Wanda Batton-Smyth, head of Nether Monkslips Women's Institute, is bumped off in the middle of the fall Harvest Fayre. I suppose Robert Barnard's Fête Fatale is evidence that it's the gathering, not the gardening, that's the problem. After all, the church fête that is the scene of this book's murder of the new vicar is more about bric-a-brac and baked goods than produce and flowers. But, as with housekeeping, I'm not taking any chances.

As we head into the weekend, I think I'll take a page from Peg Bracken's book and throw something in the slow cooker while I curl up with a good mystery book.