Friday, August 30, 2013

Review of Philippe Georget's Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored

Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

As summer nears its end, I wanted to read one last warm-weather mystery. And what's more summery than a story set in the South of France? In this case, we're in an unusual location for crime fiction: Perpignan, way down in France's Mediterranean South, almost to Spain.

It's another warm July in Perpignan, and Inspector Gilles Sebag is adjusting to changes at home. His teenage daughter and son are both away for the month, and he and his beautiful wife, Clare, are getting a taste of what it will soon be like to be full-time empty nesters. Gilles is looking forward to spending more time alone with Clare, whom he adores even more than when they fell in love at university, but he wonders if she feels the same. Is she lying to him about where she goes when he's busy at work in the evenings? Could she even be having an affair?

At work, Gilles seems to be such an astute and well-respected detective that we wonder why he's not higher-ranked. That's quickly explained. When his second child was born, Gilles took advantage of France's then-new parental-leave law and spent three years working part-time. Nothing was ever said to his face, but it was clear that this didn't go over well in the macho police world. Gilles never received any further advancement. That was alright with him, though. He just wanted to be left alone and allowed to do his job.

Now, two new cases land in Gilles's lap. A Catalan taxi driver, José Lopez, has been reported missing by his wife, and the force also receives a report of a missing young woman—a Dutch tourist named Ingrid. Are the two disappearances connected? And what of the enterprising journalist who livens up the summer torpor with a sensational story that the missing Ingrid is part of a series of attacks on beautiful young Dutch female tourists?

Author Philippe Georget is former TV news anchorman who now lives with his family in Perpignan. This is his debut novel and is a welcome introduction to an appealing new protagonist. Gilles is a thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive guy. Someone you'd like to get to know. His character and devotion to his family make a refreshing change from the usual angst-ridden misfit model (though I enjoy a few of those as well). But that's not to say that Gilles is some conventional Father Knows Best type. We know right away that he's different when we read that he bucked the cultural norm by being a half-time stay-at-home dad. Also, his musings on marriage and his children are very different from what you might expect, and made me hope to learn more about Gilles and Clare in future books.

The Perpignan setting was a bonus. I am somewhat familiar with the city from reading World War II history, because it was so often a meeting place from which refugees and downed Allied pilots escaped France with the aid of guides, who took them off by boat or over the Pyrenees to Spain. Perpignan's World War II history plays no part in this book, though. But we do get a real feel for the summer heat, the beauty of the Rousillon region and the Catalan flavor that mixes with the French. The owner of Gilles's favorite coffee shop is Catalan and Gilles works on his Catalan by conversing with him. I enjoyed learning a little about the dialect this way.

Although this book is part of the publisher's World Noir collection, and the cover blurb calls it French noir, I wouldn't call it noir at all. There are at least a dozen definitions of noir, it's true, but the general consensus is that noir is cynical, fatalistic, positing a bleak world in which people are the victims of fate or an indifferent or even malicious God.

In noir, the atmosphere of moral ambiguity is often thick as a London fog. This book does have a cynical tone at times, and there's a slight mist of moral ambiguity about marriage, but otherwise the story doesn't tick any of the rest of the noir boxes. Gilles is a good guy with a clear agenda to rescue the girl and get the bad guy. I'll confess that I'm not much of a fan of noir, so the fact that this isn't actually noir was a plus for me. But I think even noir fans can still enjoy this book, as long as they don't have expectations that it will fall into that genre.

Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored was first published in French in 2012. It was translated into English by Steven Rendall and published in the US on July 2, 2013, by Europa Editions. Oh, finally, about that title. If you read the book, maybe you can tell me what it has to do with the story!

Note: Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my user names there.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Then and Now

It is at this time of year when the sunsets come earlier and the stores are filled with displays of glue sticks and binders that I feel some nostalgia for my own school days. Well, my memories are of paste and black composition notebooks, but some things don't change too much. At the beginning of the summer before my freshman year of high school, I received a list of about 100 books, out of which I was supposed to read 10 over the course of the vacation. The list was heavy with classics of literature such as R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. I found myself scrambling through the titles to find something I might enjoy. Sometimes I lucked out and found a short book, like George Eliot's Silas Marner, but much of what I read was dry as dust.

These days, young readers are enticed to read by exciting, dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny books, with characters far from the dreary and doomed gents I struggled through. I can recall wading through Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, which is the sad story of a boy whose father died when he is very young. His mother marries an autocratic man who often thrashes David for little infractions and finally sends him off to boarding school. There is a ruthless headmaster at the school, and David’s travails and struggles are the theme of the novel. I rated the book heavy and depressing. Well, I was 13 at the time.

If you want to read a story about a young boy's difficulty in school, as well as life, I recommend instead The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. In it young Greg Heffley is starting at middle school and his mother has given him a journal to write in. He goes along with this, providing no one calls it a diary and providing he doesn’t have to write down his "feelings" in it. Greg has an older brother, Roderick, whose job in life seems to be to torment Greg in one way or another.

One night, just a few days into summer vacation, Roderick awakens Greg, roughly telling him to get up because he has slept through the entire vacation and it's the first day of school. Roderick is wearing his school clothes and Greg falls for it and scrambles to get ready making quite a clamor and rousing his father, who gives him the Dickens.

Greg's father also would like to encourage Greg to go outside more, but Greg rests assured in the fact that his father will never be able to dismantle his gaming system.

There are about 10 books in this series and I found myself smiling on almost every page.

Another choice classic on my list was the option of reading either Homer's Odyssey or Iliad, an epic poem about the Trojan War, which involved a 10-year siege of the city of Troy by surrounding Greek states. It is famous for the incident of the Trojan horse and the romance between Paris and Helen, who was so beautiful that her face is blamed for the launching of the thousand ships, which precipitated this war. Famous warrior Achilles, a demigod, is immortalized in this poem.

On the other hand, a much smoother introduction to the Greek gods and goddesses is the series about Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Percy is introduced in book one, The Lightning Thief. Percy thought he was living a normal life until he was 12 years old. He is a troubled boy who has difficulties with reading and getting into fights. He is expecting to get kicked out of school when, on a school trip to a museum, one of his teachers turns into a maniac and tries to kill him––and somehow the teacher is the one who is vaporized. This is the beginning of a journey for Percy that leads him to who he really is: a son of a god, in the way Achilles was. He is a demigod, the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. He is accused of stealing Zeus's thunderbolt and he has a quest to find it and to save the world.

There are five books in the series and all are very well written. The stories are exciting and educational. They are much easier to read than epic poetry, in any case.

One book I did enjoy from my summer reading was White Fang, by Jack London, about a wild wolf-dog's transformation from feral to friendly. London explored how animals view their world and how they view humans. It is an intense story, but White Fang ends up relaxing on a porch in the sunshine. Despite my enjoyment, I would recommend, for a lighter read, How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third is part of a group of Viking boys of the Island of Berk, who is going through a coming-of-age ritual. This involves catching a dragon and training it so that will be with him for many years into the future.

Failure to accomplish either of these will result in exile, banishment and worse––humiliation. Hiccup is the son of the chief of the tribe and has an even greater burden, since he is small and gets picked on quite a bit.

Nonetheless, he captures his dragon heroically but it turns out to be a very small dragon that hasn't any teeth. Naturally he is named Toothless. One of the things that distinguish Hiccup from the others is that, unbeknownst to many, he can speak Dragonese. He has studied about Dragons for a long time and he knows a bit about them.

One of the other boys, graphically named Snotlout, has captured a Monstrous Nightmare dragon that is fierce indeed, and he has named him Fireworm. Usually only sons of chiefs are allowed to have such fearsome dragons, and Hiccup feels compelled to challenge Snotlout for the ownership of the beast. This small battle is put off until the dragons are tamed and trained.

On the day of the results of the training of the dragons, there is also a competition between similar-aged boys and their dragons from the Meathead Islands. Thus begins the heroic misadventures of Hiccup the Viking. This is a very enticing story about unlikely heroes––and just as unlikely allies––in an unpredictable world.

Lorna Doone, a novel by R. D. Blackmore, is set in the seventeenth century and is about a girl who is supposedly a member of the fierce Doone clan. She is forced to run away to a neighbor who would protect her from the attentions of the heir of Doone Valley. Lorna turns out to be a wealthy heiress and, as such, is a pawn in the machinations of men and politics. A modern twist of this story could be City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare, the first in her Mortal Instruments series.

Clary Fray is a 15-year-old girl, comfortable in her life and with her friends, who goes out to an all-age nightclub called Pandemonium. A very interesting young man catches her eye, and she sees that he might be in trouble. She follows, observes a fight to the death and wants to call for help––when she realizes that others cannot see what she has seen.

Thus begins a new phase of Clary’s life. Even as she is on her way home, she receives a frantic call from her mother not to return home but to go to a friend's house instead. But it is too late, because the things Clary has seen have thrust her into a new world and she cannot turn back. Now Clary needs answers, which she can't get at home because her mother has disappeared.

The new world now open to Clary's vision is one of another dimension in which forces of good, the Shadowhunters, try to maintain a balance between the downworlders such as vampires, werewolves and faeries and, even worse, the demons. This is the first of a series and is an intriguing take on old villains not unlike the warring clans of yesteryear, and is quite entertaining.

Comparing the classics and Young Adult lit is akin to contrasting oranges and lemons with extra points given for tartness, but I take the view that while what you read is important, it's more important that at first you learn to love to read.

So if the adventures of Sherlock Holmes seem pedantic, then try the series The 39 Clues, written by a group of well-known authors, beginning with Rick Riordan. The books tell of the adventures of two siblings, Amy and Dan, who discover that they belong to the Cahill family, the most influential family in history. The main plot concerns Dan and Amy's quest to find the 39 Clues, which are ingredients to a serum that can create the most powerful person on Earth. Each book chronicles one location to which Amy, Dan, and Nellie travel and focuses on one historical character with whom a Clue has a link.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be a little stiff, so go for Heather Brewer's series The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, which begins with Eighth Grade Bites. The story is about Vladimir Tod, who has to learn to survive as a vampire while he learns about his destiny.

As far as the classics are concerned, I do recommend reading them as an adult. The novels I have reread as a mature reader held much more significance for me because I saw them in a different light. Although about 50 pages of David Copperfield is enough, even now.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of Wolf Haas's The Bone Man

The Bone Man by Wolf Haas (translated from the German by Annie Janusch)

I swear I will talk to you about The Bone Man without using phrases such as "choking on words," "picking a bone with," and "putting somebody through the meat grinder," even though I'm in the mood to be snarky after reading the book's droll narration by someone I can only assume is meant to be God.

Maybe I'm wildly off the mark. The narration is an unusual combination of omniscience (the characters are psychoanalyzed, and their behavior is bemoaned or complimented), philosophizing, and breezy self-deprecation ("Anyway, where am I going with this"). The narrator pulls the reader close with chatty little questions ("she looked like that actress in the French film—real quick, what's it called again, the one they reran on TV recently") and heartfelt advice ("Now, when you're close to hysteria, it's best if you eat something"). Then the narrator winks and pokes an elbow into the reader's ribs by abruptly changing the subject or falling into free association. The narration must have been a challenge for Janusch to translate without changing its flavor, and whether you find it entertaining or think it gets old or in the way of the story will determine in large part whether you like this 176-page book.

The story begins at Löschenkohl's Grill, a restaurant catering to day trippers in the sleepy town of Klöch, East Styria, Austria. It is famous for its crispy fried chicken; in a good week, the restaurant serves 10,000 chickens. That translates into four tons of bones, pulverized in the basement bone grinder by former Yugoslovian soccer player Goran Milovanovic. In 1995, Milo made a gruesome discovery: among the chicken bones was the femur of a middle-aged man. Unlike the health inspectors, who always found something, the police were unable to identify either victim or perpetrator. Later, renowned Styrian artist Gottfried Horvath disappeared.

Today, private eye Simon Brenner arrives at the urgent request of the restaurant manager, old man Löschenkohl's daughter-in-law, Angelika, but she's nowhere to be seen. It's not unusual for Angelika to leave her husband Paul for a few days, but Paul insists Brenner find her. Brenner moves into a room up in the attic, next door to the cheerful waitress, who only eats frankfurters. More disappearances and the appearance of a severed head in a bag of soccer balls prod Brenner to stop contemplating his long-gone fiancée's incessant chicken-eating and "huge rack" (surely, the result of eating hormone-fed chickens) and focus on his investigation.

Brenner is an unassuming and appealing character, a lonely ex-cop whose favorite technique is to sound people out by not asking them follow-up questions. His thoughts readily stray from the case to the wife of a former police colleague, the time he went to a whorehouse on business, the music and games of his youth. For a book of under 200 pages, there are quite a few characters, but I didn't have problems keeping them straight. Their activities—disappearances, soccer, travel by bus and car, creating and collecting art—provide plenty of grist for Brenner and that deadpan, omniscient narrator. The action takes place in a surrealistic haze until it breaks out to run helter skelter across the finish line.

Austrian writer Haas's award-winning Simon Brenner books are very popular in Europe and have been made into three German films. It appears as if the seven-book German-language series is being translated willy-nilly like those of Jo Nesbø and Nele Neuhaus, but Melville International Crime is working to bring out the entire series. The most recent book, Brenner and God, is the first English translation. The Bone Man is second in the series, and second to be translated. It can stand alone in its wackiness, and you'll either get a kick out of it, like I did, or you won't. I recommend it to readers who enjoy quirky crime fiction, black humor, and digressive narration.

Note: I received a free review copy of The Bone Man, published by Melville International Crime, in March 2013.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Review of Tomorrow City by Kirk Kjeldsen

Tomorrow City by Kirk Kjeldsen

After a robbery goes spectacularly wrong, a young American ex-con flees to Shanghai and goes straight, until his past drags him kicking and screaming back into crime.

In a nutshell, that's what Tomorrow City is about, but that synopsis gives you little sense of the power of Kirk Kjeldsen's fictional debut. I read this bleak and beautiful book in one sitting, repeatedly brushing off my husband's reminders that we were late with "just a few more minutes, I'm begging you." It's not easy creating a criminal with whom a reader empathizes, but Kjeldsen pulls this off. His Brendan Lavin, a criminal with a conscience, joins the ranks of criminal protagonists such as George V. Higgins' Eddie Coyle, W. R. Burnett's Cesare "Rico" Bandello, and Out of the Past's Jeff Bailey.

Brendan's mother took to heroin when her husband abandoned her and her young child. Growing up, Brendan was good at getting into things, working "with the grace and efficiency of a vaudevillian escape artist on stage." He started robbing warehouses and 16-wheelers with a crew, but one job went wrong, and he was arrested and sent to Rikers Island. To reward him for his silence, his old mates sent him cigarettes and protection money. Now that he's out, Brendan considers them even. He's working hard, running a New York City bakery, but when he can't pay his bills, he decides to pull just one more robbery.

It's a disaster, and Brendan needs to run. He's always been a tabula rasa; it's as easy for him to slip into another identity as it is for him to slip into a locked house, safe or car. Brendan has heard that everything is like the Wild West in China, so that's where he goes.

For 12 years, life is good. Brendan is married to Li and has a little daughter, Xiaodan. In Shanghai, he can hide his bakery in plain sight, where he's unlikely to be spotted, and still do good business. Unfortunately, "unlikely" proves too likely, and Brendan's past becomes his present and what looks like his future.

Writer Kjeldsen is an assistant professor in the cinema program at Virginia Commonwealth University, although he lives in Shanghai. His love and knowledge of the city is evident, and his writing is cinematic and poetic. No matter how far a man runs, sooner or later Fate will have him twisting and turning in her hands, and I read Tomorrow City with that delicious sense of growing dread dear to us fans of noir. My only criticism is that I wish Kjeldsen's characters were more fleshed out; when you're reading this good a book of 200 pages, you wish there was more. Still, it's a wonderful debut, and I'm putting Kjeldsen on my list of go-to authors.

Note: I received a free review copy of Tomorrow City, published by Signal 8 Press in 2013.

Shanghai photo by Bruno Barbey/Magnum

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

E-Books: The Cream is Rising to the Top

After a fairly rocky beginning, with thousands of aspiring authors dumping masterpieces free of any taint of editing, grammar, spelling, or even consistent story lines on the market, e-book offerings are beginning to look up. Some are offered by traditional publishers, who saw the writing on the tablet, and these are usually as well edited as their print books.

Some new authors are soliciting beta reading groups and submitting their books to any of the numerous editing and proofreading services that have sprung up, with generally good results. The best of these new voices sometimes offer stories very different from the cautious formulaic work that traditional publishers seem to want from their authors. Finding an author new to me this way is like mining for diamonds: frustrating and often fruitless, but the occasional gem makes the search worthwhile. Here are a couple of recent winners.

Requiem (A Kate Redman Mystery) by Celina Grace

Newly-hired Detective Sergeant Kate Redman has worked very hard to distance herself from her upbringing with her drunken, slatternly harridan of a mother. She nonetheless remains fond of her half-sibs (by various fathers), and is glad to help them when she can. When her gifted younger brother Jay shows up at her house with a painting that his tutors think may win a prize, she is glad to see him and hear his news. Jay is currently into hyper-realism in his work, and his painting of a drowned girl on the riverbank looks a bit too much like the crime scenes she deals with professionally for her comfort. He proudly lends her the painting until the show, and mounts it over the fireplace in her new house. That night, Jay takes her to a club to hear Elodie, his model and member of a folk rock band, perform.

Kate and her partner, Olbeck, are called to a drowning at the riverbank the next morning, and Kate is horrified to see that the body is Elodie's. The girl had not been drowned, but strangled and dumped into the river, from which an early jogger had pulled her out. Kate faces a terrible dilemma: report Jay's eerily prescient painting to the investigative team or hide it. Jay hadn't come home with her last night, but sent a text that he was crashing with a friend.

This short, tight British procedural, second in a series, is a remarkably professional and enjoyable mystery. While it is currently available only in electronic format, it is as well-edited and -paced as most offerings from major publishers. I immediately downloaded and read the first, Hushabye, and hope that the author will write many more Kate Redman stories.

The President's Henchman by Joseph Flynn

When billionaire philanthropist Andrew Hudson Grant was murdered by radical antiabortionists because his wife Patti, former actress and moderate Republican Congresswoman, refused to support a bill that would have pressured victims of rape and incest not to abort their forced pregnancies, Chief James McGill of the Winnetka police arrested the culprits in one day. Within two years, Patti Grant married Jim McGill and began her run for the presidency, to honor a promise she had made to her late husband Andy. Much to the astonishment of the pundits and powers on both sides, she won.

The new First Family provides several unusual challenges for the Secret Service. McGill, who opens a private investigation business with his old police partner Margaret "Sweetie" Sweeney, will accept only one Secret Service agent and a White House car and driver for protection. And while Patti is childless, McGill has three children by a previous marriage––children who live with his ex-wife and her new husband and who must be protected in place. Those children are being threatened, likely by the sect led by Reverend Burke Godfrey, whose wife Erna was convicted of the murder of Andrew Grant and was sentenced to death.

The first client of McGill Investigations is prominent newscaster Chana Lochlan. An anonymous man has been calling her at her private number. He describes her freckles, moles, and birthmark perfectly, and promises a return visit soon. He calls her Gracie, a nickname used only by her father. Chana has no idea who this is or how he can describe her house and body so accurately.

President Patricia Grant is facing serious challenges of her own: a messy military adultery case that could polarize the country and derail her presidency from its onset, and a market bombing in Cuba attributed by its government to the US-supported rebel community.

The author manages to weave these disparate story lines together skillfully, while presenting a truly horrific villain in Chana's stalker. McGill is a little larger than life, as you might expect in a thriller, but the characters and political machinations of those we elect to do "the Peoples' business" were quite believable. The unusual mix of political thriller and P.I. novel will keep me reading in this series for some time. The Jim McGill books are available in both paper and electronic formats, and the author has also published a number of non-series thrillers. So if you were put off by the early deluge of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time e-books, take heart––and maybe another look. There are some undiscovered gems out there.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review of Mukoma Wa Ngugi's Black Star Nairobi

Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

It is December 2007, and Kenyans are celebrating Barack Obama's campaign to become the United States' first black president. They are also preparing to elect their own president when Mukoma Wa Ngugi's Black Star Nairobi begins. Polls show incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, trailing Raila Odinga, leader of the Luo ethnic group. This is noteworthy, because Kikuyus have dominated political power since Kenyan independence 50 years earlier. Despite the polls, some joke that Kenya is less likely than the United States to elect the first Luo president. They are proven correct when Kibaki is re-elected in what many see as a rigged election. The country explodes, and many police officers, divided along ethnic lines, commit acts of violence, too. More than 1,000 Kenyans die, and hundreds of thousands more flee the country.

Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi
Against this back drop, the private detectives of Nairobi's Black Star agency, Ishmael Fofona and David ("O") Odhiambo, who moonlights from his job as a Nairobi cop, investigate the death of a black American, whose body is found in Ngong Forest. It appears that the murder is connected to  a bombing at the Norfolk Hotel.

O and Ishmael are an unusual pair. Like the Ishmael of Melville's Moby-Dick, Ngugi's Ishmael is a man searching for a place to call home. He is a black man who was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and he became a cop there. After tiring of institutionalized racism in his police department, he moved to Nairobi to become a PI. In Nairobi, his dark skin lets him blend in, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he's identified as an American. Ishmael misses his parents back home, and the dreams he most enjoys are those in which he's eating "heart attack food--meat lover's pizza from Domino's or the properly named Kill Me Quick Double Cheese and Bacon hamburger at the Paradise Bar in good old Madison, Wisconsin." He's in love with Muddy, a poet and former Rwandan Patriotic Front member. O somewhat resembles Walter Mosley's amoral Raymond "Mouse" Alexander. Ishmael values O's loyalty and skills of observation and analysis, but he's uneasy about how comfortable O is with violence. O's mixed marriage with Mary, a beautiful schoolteacher, provides a window into the traditional animosity between Luos and Kikuyus.

Post-2007 election violence (AP photo/Karel Prinsloo)
Many books that invite thinking about complex issues such as identity, post-colonial racism, genocide, gender roles, and local and international politics are obviously complex. Ngugi's books of crime fiction explore these issues; yet, they are deceptively simple. Ishmael narrates in language so plain, I was initially taken aback; however, after awhile, I began to look, not only at how he is telling me, but at what he is telling me. Ngugi is a poet, and there are layers of meaning in Ishmael's choice of words. Ishmael is not a simple man; rather, he is one who values simplicity. He muses about the dualities in one's self and the differences that create gulfs and make bridges necessary between people. Ishmael thinks about what it means to feel at home physically and emotionally, and what an identity means. Ishmael's identity is found in his work, and this case changes Ishmael and O and those around them.
I loved Ishmael, O, Muddy, and Mary, and what I learned from them about Kenya. In Nairobi, the good guys and bad guys traditionally meet over Tusker beer in Broadway's Tavern. There, O and the CIA's African bureau chief share a joint, and Ishmael and O swap information with friendly criminals who lead them to look at the local bombing more globally.

I 'm looking forward to Ngugi's third Nairobi book. In the meantime, I'll read the series first, Nairobi Heat. I strongly suggest this series to people interested in international crime fiction, politics, and social issues. I've really enjoyed the thinking and research Ngugi has prompted me to do.

Note: I received a free galley for the purposes of this review. Black Star Nairobi was published on May 29, 2013 by Melville International Crime.

2007 election (AP photo/Ben Curtis)

Friday, August 16, 2013

It's a Crime These Shows Were Cancelled

Awhile back, my husband and I were grousing about NBC's having cancelled our favorite new sitcom, Go On, which led to a discussion of the last time we were this irritated with NBC. That was when they cancelled, after two seasons, the wonderful series, Life.

Life ran from 2007-2009, and it starred Damian Lewis as LAPD Detective Charlie Crews. If you're one of the fans of Homeland, you'll recognize Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody on that show. He also played Soames on the second miniseries of The Forsyte Saga and was in Band of Brothers.

The back story on Life is that Charlie Crews spent 12 years in maximum security at California's Pelican Bay facility, after being falsely convicted of murdering a good friend and the friend's family. When, finally, his conviction is overturned, he wins a bundle in his lawsuit and reinstatement to the LAPD. Reinstatement is important to him, because being back on the job will be his route to finding out who killed his friend and family, who framed him and why.

Nobody ever wants to have to rehire a fired employee, no matter how improper the firing was. Rehiring Crews is intensely uncomfortable for the LAPD, obviously because it's a reminder of a case of institutional failure, but also because the new Crews is just so odd. He discovered Zen in prison and Charlie Crews, Zen Cop, is a pretty alien creature to his colleagues, especially his new partner, the petite, tough-as-nails Dani Reese, played by Sarah Shahi.

At first, you think Charlie is awfully mellow for a guy who's wrongfully spent 12 years in maximum security and who's lost his wife (who divorced him, married a yuppie and now has two kids). But mellow isn't the right word. For the new Charlie, it's normal to be emotionally naked. That has its good and bad sides. It's not good when he uses his police lights and siren to pull over his ex-wife and her new husband to talk to them about, well, everything.

On the other hand, Charlie has a passion for fruit, which he was never once served in prison, and he thinks everything in nature is a wonder. I was going to say that expressing those emotions of pleasure and wonder is the good side of Charlie's emotional nakedness, but when he always says exactly what enters his mind––like about kiwi fruit, say, when he's in the middle of an arrest––it can be awkward.

Dani's exasperation with her seemingly hippie-dippy partner turns gradually to respect and a sort of protectiveness, though, as she sees his detective instincts are still sharp while, at the same time, his new Zen attitude makes him brilliantly able to connect to witnesses and suspects and gain valuable information.

You can watch streaming episodes of Life here or on Netflix Watch Instantly. Please just try the first episode. I'm betting you'll be hooked.

You know, I really should have been ready for NBC's cancellation of Life, considering my previous experience with their treatment of the fabulously original crime drama Boomtown. I'll be the first to admit I didn't watch the show when it first started in the fall of 2002. But a few weeks after it began, my favorite cousin was visiting when they ran a marathon of the first six episodes, and we sat down to watch one. Six hours later . . .

What a show. Set in Los Angeles, it starred Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson as LAPD police detectives, Jason Gedrick* and Gary Basaraba as LAPD officers, and Neal McDonough as LA County Assistant District Attorney. The feature that made the show so engrossing was that each episode shows an investigation from the points of view of the different characters, and not just the police detectives and officers and the ADA, but also reporters, EMTs, suspects, witnesses, crime victims and lawyers.

If you need your storytelling to be linear, you'll either dislike this show or it'll knock you right off that straight-line compulsion. In this show, you come at an incident from several different angles; you experience it at the beginning of the episode and come back to it later, with the benefit of other things you see in between. You learn more about what's going on with one character, and that adds a layer of meaning. Then another character and another layer, and so on.

Boomtown is not a whodunnit or even, really, a police procedural. In some episodes, the crime, the victim and the perpetrator are shown right from the get-go. This is a character-driven drama about real people whose work brings them into contact every day with violence and danger, how that stays with them after the workday is done and, in turn, how what happens after work affects them on the job. The show has a style and vision far more artistic than most anything you'll see on TV, but all the show's style points aside, it's the characters that keep you watching.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a streaming option for Boomtown. You can buy the DVDs for the first season, but it looks like the second season is no longer available. That may be just as well, since in the second season, NBC stripped away much of what made the series so compelling. Somehow, they thought (and not for the first time) that if they just take an original show and make it look like a thousand other shows, that would be the ticket to success.

After the Boomtown and Life experiences, I didn't have expectations of a long life for ABC's cop dramedy The Unusuals. A good thing, too, since it lasted only 10 episodes.

I won't claim The Unusuals was up to the standard of Boomtown or Life, but it was different and entertaining. Set in New York City, the premise is that Detective Casey Shraeger, played by Amber Tamblyn, is transferred from Vice to Second Precinct Homicide, where she gets a real coming of age.

The precinct's Homicide squad is a collection of misfits. That's made clear to Casey on her first day:

Detective Allison Beaumont: Here's what you need to know about the Second: Alvarez talks about himself in the third person, Banks sleeps in a bulletproof vest, and yesterday Delahoy named his mustache.  
Detective Casey Shraeger: What about Walsh?
Beaumont: On the plus side, he doesn't stare at your boobs when he's talking to you. 
Shraeger: The down side?
Beaumont: I've got great boobs. Why isn't he looking?

Definitely, the most nearly normal person is Casey's partner, Jason Walsh, played by Jeremy Renner. Walsh may not have any serious quirks, but he is obsessed with finding out who murdered his previous partner––a partner who was known to be corrupt.

The other detectives include Adam Goldberg as Eric Delahoy, a deeply pessimistic man who refuses to tell anybody that he's been diagnosed with a brain tumor and also keeps dodging the medical professionals who think he should, y'know, do something about it. Delahoy's partner is Leo Banks, the guy who lives in a bulletproof vest, which turns out to be because he's sure he will die this year, at age 42, the same age his father and grandfather died.

Each episode tells an interesting crime story, and the various guest stars and side characters are just as good as the leads. While much of the series was comic, it tackled serious subjects and had moments of real pathos.

For comedy, my favorite aspect of the show was the disembodied voice of Dispatch, whose acerbic remarks formed the soundtrack to every scene in a squad car. Dispatch's world-weary smoker's voice reminded me a little bit of old-time character actress Selma Diamond. The real voice belongs to an actress named Marisa Vural. Dispatch would advice squads to be on the lookout for suspects, like the man dressed in a hot dog costume who "may or may not" be wielding a samurai sword, or the Puerto Rican man wearing a cape and no pants, or she might remind everyone that it's a full moon, or share way too much information about last night's disastrous date.

Looking at the bright side, at least the cancellation of The Unusuals made Jeremy Renner available to capitalize on his Oscar and SAG nominations for Best Actor in the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. The Unusuals is available on streaming video and inexpensive DVD.

Now that we're entering the dog days of summer, and there's not much of anything on TV, this is a good time for you to watch these gems––and for me to re-watch them. If you didn't see them the first time around, please give them a try now.

* Poor Jason Gedrick probably swore off being in a quality cop drama ever again after this. He'd also been one of the stars of EZ Streets, a brilliant, dark cop show that aired for less than one full season on CBS in 1996-1997. That show, also starring Ken Olin (Thirtysomething) and Joe Pantoliano (The Sopranos), and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) was set in a dark, decaying city in the upper Midwest and every episode was like a movie. There is a DVD, but it only includes three of the nine episodes. It's a crime!