Friday, November 27, 2015

The Power of Delusion: Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches

Nick Tosches has always done his best to stir things up and look at things from a different angle. Whether searching for the last opium den; recounting the lives of Jewish crooks, discredited boxers, old country singers and drunk crooners, he's always on the look-out for incongruities, between what is, what was and what might be.  Under Tiberius, though it was hardly reviewed when it first appeared, might well be Tosches's best novel. It could even be the novel Tosches was born to write. In any case, it's certainly his most transgressive. This from someone who has already investigated organised religion and the artifacts and riches it has in its possession: in In the Hand of Dante, a Dante manuscript, and, in Power on Earth, God's banker  Michele Swindon. Tosches seems to be fighting a one-man war against the hypocrisy, if not the dangers of religion. Under Tiberius once again finds him scouring through the Vatican library. And what he discovers is something far more subversive than anything converted in his previous books, and even darker than his last novel, the blood-lusting, sometimes self-indulgent, Me and the Devil. 

 Darker and more subversive because Tosches's latest focuses on Jesus, here portrayed not as the Son of God, but as a wandering scam artist. It's a life depicted by his spin-doctor, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, the former speech writer for the increasingly unstable Tiberius, and recently cast-out from the latter's inner-circle. Falconius's text, a letter written to his grand-son, is found by someone called Nick Tosches in the bowels of the Vatican library. The letter recounts Falconius finding a shabby Judean street thief named Jesus, whom he turns into a wandering demagogue.  Together they move from place to place convincing anyone who will listen the former-street thief is the messiah, with Falconius teaching his acolyte to say whatever the people want him to say and, in doing so, they collect money to build a new temple, though the dosh is really being collected so that Jesus and Falconiius can start a new life in Rome.

Not only an appropriate book to appear at a time when evangelicals are thrusting their tendrils into the body politic, but appropriate given Tosches's track record, as well as the relatively recent publication of Reza Aslan's Zealot, a historical account of Jesus, and a book that Tosches's seems to echo. I have no idea if Tosches might have read Aslan's book- my bet is that he had- nevertheless it's as though he decided to use Aslan's book as a starting-off point, extrapolating on it as only he is able to to do. As Aslan maintains, we know but two historical facts about Jesus: he was a Jew and he was crucified. But Tosches, the hardboiled fabulator, is saying something more controversial, that Jesus, was a charismatic con-man came to believe in the hype and rhetoric fed to him by his spin-doctor.  Naturally there  are discrepancies between the two books For instance, Aslan claims, in accordance with the historical record, that Pilate was nothing more than a hardline anti-semite, while, for Tosches, he is a reasonable man with little, if any, control over Jesus's fate. Of course, one book is fiction, the other fact, even though it, Aslan's, relies for evidence no the gospels which he had already criticised for being fiction and after the fact. Neither is there a crucifixion scene in Tosches's book, nor hint of resurrection. After all, Jesus is only human. To the point  that Tosches goes to some length to describe his sexual proclivities. Clearly this is not your usual divine Son of Man. Nevertheless, the basic story is here, as are most of the main characters. So we get the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and Lord's Prayer, as well as cryptic parables, claims about bread and wine being flesh and blood and raising Lazarus.  Meanwhile, most, if not all, of Jesus's miracles are mere scams or conjurer's tricks. The dead man is revived having only slipped into a coma having ingested poison. A lame man is paid off to feign recovery. A drunk is convinced he has demons that must be cast out. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus deploys a trick amphora to dupe the guests. Though running against expectations- i.e., if one is a Christian- the book's final pages which cover Jesus's trial for sedition are, nevertheless, quite moving.

As Falconius says, people hear only what they crave to hear, particularly in troubled times. For Tosches, the essential question is whether religion leads to violence, or does violence lead to religion? Did humanity invent God simply to deal with the concept of good and evil? As Tosches put in an NPR interview: 
"A lot of my books have been [about] the question of did man invent the concept, the dichotomy of good and evil before he invented the gods? Or did he invent the gods first and then pronounce good and evil through them? [I] wanted to push people to...look at the fact that the idea of  God has never been a force for good in this world, but only for evil. And it's only been born out of weakness and resulted in bloodshed, mayhem, lies, theft."  He goes on to say, "If there is a God...the greatest gift he instilled in every human being is delusion. And that is what hope is, that we who do not have a cup of coffee today, will have one tomorrow. So it basically drives us forward."

Torches's story has been told many times, from an assortment of angles, on the screen as well as the page. There's Kazantzakis, Burgess, Silverberg, Scorsese, Monty Python, etc.. But I can't recall anyone telling it quite like this.  Perhaps the closest might be J.G. Eccarius's scandalous The Last Days of Christ the Vampire from some thirty years ago.  But Under Tiberius is only about religion in the sense that it is about mob hysteria, delusion and mass psychosis. As Falconius, in the end, say this to his grand-son, "[We] are...nothing more than finite being who seek to understand infinity; and this understanding shall never be ours."  Adding, "All gods are phantoms, figments of the minds of men...Trust no man, and trust no god. For, as all men have their birth in mortal flesh, so all gods have their birth in the minds of mortal men, and that source is never anything else than a marsh of disease and ill. Know that every prophet is a false prophet."

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Sins of the Father: Dan Fante's Fante- a Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving

I must have read Fante's Chump Change around the time it came out in 1998, and remember being impressed by its honesty and directness. Though I admit the only reason I purchased the book was because it was written by the son of one of my favourite writers, John Fante. Still, I was surprised at how much I liked Chump Change. It had a directness about it, by which I mean it was stylistically straightforward and unadorned, not unlike his father's prose. But, at the same time, Dan seemed to be writing mostly about his own life, or a facsimile thereof. It was as though he was digging beneath the surface of his father's fiction.  But even though Dan Fante went on after Chump Change to produce other novels, poetry and plays, I felt I'd probably read enough of his work to get a handle on what he was doing. Which isn't to say I wasn't tempted by his subsequent books. However, when I happened across a copy of Dan Fante's memoir, simply title Fante, published a few years back, about his family- not just his father, but his mother and siblings- and his relationship to them, I grabbed the book and quickly gobbled it up.

Fante might be a memoir, but it is every bit as dark and painful as Chump Change. Not surprisingly, the book pretty much culminates in the publication of the latter, and the beginning of Dan's career as a published writer. And, of course, it's protagonist, like the guy in Chump Change, is just as ill at ease with the world and himself, much of which Dan Fante traces back to his relationship with his writer- father, a cantankerous man at the best of time.  Yet the book also has lighter moments, and, in the end, makes a valiant attempt at being uplifting, which I found problematic but obviously, at least for the author's sake, necessary.

Fante is a book that takes the reader places Stephen Cooper's biography of John Fante, was never able to go. On the other hand, Dan Fante isn't interested in going into the minutiae of John Fante's life. This book is mostly about him, i.e., Dan Fante. And no doubt about it, his father, a man with old school values, was as abrasive as he was demanding. And it would only be in Dan's later years, in the last throes of battling his personal demons, that Dan would come to some understanding about John Fante as a father and an artist, albeit at a time when the latter was  suffering from diabetes, which would lead to amputations, blindness and eventually his death.

From growing up with a difficult father and a somewhat distant mother, to  setting out, however  wounded, on his own, Fante is a narrative in the tradition of street-wise writers like Hubert Selby and Herbert Huncke. In other words, those sinners who eventually become literary saints. Like those two writers, Dan Fante isn't interested in romanticising the life he led, or the self-abasement he endured as he moved from one crap job to another, one woman to another, while, at the same time, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. Though that might be the view of some readers. Maybe that's inevitable. Because it's only in the final pages when he begins to pull himself together that the book flirts with the bathetic. But, then,  without that light at the end of the tunnel, the book could never have existed, for the simple reason that the author would no longer be with us, having succumbed to his consumerist tendencies. Though he tried on numerous occasions, Dan Fante fortunately did not become just another suicide statistic, but survived  to tell the tale. In doing so, he's given us a first-hand account of both his and his father's life and what it takes to survive with or against the odds. Dan Fante may not be quite the writer his father was, but he's not far off. Conversely, I'm not sure even the great John Fante would have had the courage to descend to such depths, and come up with anything quite like Chump Change or Fante.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Plots and Counterplots: A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

In the last years of his life, French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to say that the genre in which he'd made his name had grown overly insular; consequently its future, if it was to retain a political edge, lay in becoming more international in scope, something akin to espionage fiction, but with a difference. I think if Manchette were alive today he might well have pointed towards the novels of Edward Wilson as evidence of what his particular revisionism should look like.  

Well-researched- no easy task when delving into the workings of the deep state- A Very British Ending is Wilson's latest in a series of novels that span the political landscape from the end WW2 to the Thatcher era. Taken together, they comprise a modern history of political events, particularly when it comes to how those events have been influenced and manipulated by the intelligence services in the UK and US. Though the title might remind readers of Chris Mullin's 1980s A Very British Coup, about the CIA's destabilisation of an anti-nuclear, populist Labour government, Wilson's book goes deeper, more expansive in its range and more biting in its politics.

More focused than Wilson's previous  books,  A Very British Ending contains an array of history-making personalities, from former prime minister Harold Wilson and  head of MI5 Roger Hollis, both of whom were, as the novel points out, thought by some in the intelligence community and elsewhere to be Soviet agents, to art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt and the CIA's poetry-loving counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. Add to that an assortment of secret operations from that era, including the black propaganda psyops in Northern Ireland called Clockwork Orange and the overthrow of the Whitlam government in Australia. However, the book's primary focus is on the plot to overthrow  Harold Wilson's government in the mid-1970s, and the degree to which the CIA influenced that and other matters.

An American who served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam before settling in Britain in the early 1970s, Edward Wilson brings to his subject an outsider's perspective and some inside knowledge. His protagonist, the working-class William Catesby who rises through the ranks of  a public school dominated MI6,  finds his career inextricably linked to the rise and fall of Yorkshire left-winger and fellow outsider Harold Wilson. In fact, the novel is really about Catesby's growing politicalisation, as the reader follows him from the end of WW2, and the killing of a German agent, to the election of Margaret Thatcher. And the higher Catesby rises, the less he likes what he sees happening to his country.  

The possibility of a coup is brought up early in the novel. Catesby and the head of the MI6, Henry Bone, are in the park opposite the home of a press baron. Bone asks Catesby how a successful coup in the UK might be accomplished.  Catesby points to the home of the press baron: "[I'd] get him and others  like him on the side of the coup plotters. I wouldn't do it through force of threats; I'd do it through flattery and persuasion- and also their self-interest in terms of money and gongs. I'd make the press barons feel that they were medieval barons- real players carving up and controlling Britain."

And that's pretty much how it plays out. Not that Harold Wilson's downfall was, in the real world, itself proof of a coup.  Though that's what some would have us believe. Of course, there were those on the right, whether in politics, UK and US security services, the media and the military who backed and, in some cases, plotted Wilson's demise. But if a coup, that could either mean  Thatcher's rise to power was a sign that such a coup was successful, or that, with the right person in power, a coup was unnecessary. However,  it goes without saying that Thatcher could not have come to power without the help of the press and various Tory high-rollers. Whatever the case, Edward Wilson's episodic journey makes the reader rethink that era, even though it refuses to come down on one side or the other. As it should be, because to this day it remains a matter of smoke and mirrors, if not plots and counterplots, making conclusions next to impossible to draw. A very British ending, indeed.

Not even Catesby knows with any certainty, only that, "Life wasn't a tightly knit detective novel where there are no loose ends." But, then, that's the deep state for you. PM Wilson was, in reality, not much of a threat to the status quo. Still, whether, senility or lack of focus, he was quickly succeeded by Callahan who would go cap in hand to the IMF for a loan (something not mentioned in the novel), setting the country on the road to monetarism. This, in turn, led to the IMF's usual conditions,  the "winter of discontent" and, ultimately, the election of Thatcher whose more authentic monetarism would have a long-lasting effect on the country. On the night Thatcher is elected, Catesby says, "Britain had become a different place. The genteel veneer was gone. Power had been passed on to a coterie of spivs and saloon bar bores." From that point on it would be, as the author says, a case of who pays, wins. An irrefutable charge, given that wealth has, over the years, become increasingly concentrated, banks have gone unregulated, services privatised and assets have been sold off at an alarming rate.

Likewise, when it comes to the deep state. Just look at revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, not to mention the dodgy dossier leading to war, the Murdoch press "wot won it" on various occasions, and Britain's status as a client-state, its nuclear capability more a job creation scheme than an independent deterrent. For me, A Very British Ending couldn't come at a more timely moment. Reading it, I kept thinking what role the secret service in the UK and US might play should moderate left winger Jeremy Corbyn be elected Labour leader and, who knows, even prime minister. Edward Wilson's writing might not be as wondrously tight and intricate as Le Carré's (very little writing is), or as articulate as Mick Heron's, but it's more than functional. More believable than Heron and even more political than Le Carré,  A Very British Ending is a highly entertaining and important book, accurate about the past, prescient about the near-future, and Wilson's best yet. I can even picture  Manchette turning- the pages, that is- in his grave.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Heartbreak On the Margins: A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson

I always like to say to those who haven't had the pleasure of reading Lucia Berlin's stories, that doing so will, in all likelihood, break your heart. At the same time, I do sort of envy anyone coming upon her stories for the first time. To discover  a writer of her ilk doesn't happen very often. No matter that she has been neglected, or, at any rate, a well-kept secret for far too long. I guess my discovery of Berlin's work came at some point in the mid-1980s through small press editions of her work by the likes of Turtle Island, Poltroon and Tombouctou Books. Naturally, I immediately fell in love with her writing. Re-reading those stories as well as the few I hadn't previously come across that comprise A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson, makes me admire her work all the more. Because what's more than apparent is that these stories come straight from the heart, and can be simultaneously humorous, sad and touching.  "I don't mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny," says one of her narrators. Not to mention her voice, range and subject matter.

Born in Alaska in1936, Berlin, over the years, led a somewhat peripatetic existence, moving from Idaho, Montana, and Texas, to Chile, New Mexico, Berkeley and Denver. Her stories follow a similar path, with protagonists, most of which are thinly-disguised versions of herself, trying to find a place in the world, gravitating, by choice or circumstances, towards the margins and those who inhabit that space. Because it's a place where friendship and community come cheek-to-jowl with isolation and exploitation, these stories and vignettes, revolving around cleaning women, hospital workers, the poor, struggling mothers alcoholics, the physically deformed, take place in landscapes and conditions Berlin knew all too well, having spent years struggling with alcoholism and other maladies. Even in the earliest stories, for which I have to admit I harbour a preference if only because those happen to be my personal point of discovery, Berlin's voice, range and eye for detail is more than apparent. Take Angel's Laundromat: "Traveling people go to Angel's. Dirty mattresses, rusty high chairs tied to the roofs of dented old Buicks. Leaky oil pans, leaky canvas water bags. Leaky washing machines. The men sit in the cars, shirtless, crush Hamm's cans when they're empty." Or Manual For Cleaning Women- "The bus is late. Cars drive by. Rich people in cars never look at people on the street. Poor ones always it sometimes seems they're just driving around, looking at people on the street. I've done that. Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.." Over the years, while her voice remains pretty much the same, her range increases, while her eye becomes increasingly observant and accurate:
We sold chances everywhere. Hotels and the train stations, the USO, Juarez. But even neighbourhoods were magic. You walk down a street, past houses and yards, and sometimes in the evening you can see people eating or sitting around and it's a lovely glimpse of how people live. Hope and I went inside hundreds of houses. Seven years old, both funny-looking in different ways, people liked us and were kind to us. "Come in. Have some lemonade." We saw four Siamese cats who used the real toilet and even flushed it. We saw parrots and one five-hundred pound person who had not been out of the house for twenty years. But even more we liked all the pretty things: paintings and china shepherdesses, mirrors, cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks, quilts and rugs of many colors. We liked sitting in Mexican kitchens full of canaries, drinking real orange juice and eating pan dulce. Hope was so smart, she learned Spanish from listening around the neighbourhood, so she could talk to the old women. (Silence)

The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap, the door will fling open gales of pain ripping through my heart blinding my eyes with shame breaking cups and bottles knocking down jars shattering windows stumbling bloody on spilled sugar and broken glass terrified gagging until with a final shudder and sob I shut the heavy door. Pick up the 
pieces one more time. (Homing)

Or perhaps it's her uncanny ability to juggle time, place and emotion in a montage that's more literary than cinematic. In a sense, she, like fellow story writer extraordinaire Lydia Davis- who. along with Emerson, contributes a welcome and perceptive introduction to this volume- shares an eye and sensibility with a certain strand of modernist poetry. Not surprising, then, that the poet Ed Dorn was one of her biggest advocates, as was Robert Creeley. Of course, there will be comparisons with widely read writers like Paley and Carver. But Berlin is different from either. Less in her avoidance of chat than her tendency towards the particular, exposing the general only when it becomes, as in the story Good and Bad- so obvious it hardly needs stating:
At first the place seemed to be deserted, miles and miles of dunes. Dunes of stinking, smoldering garbage. After a while, through the dust and smoke, you could see that there were people all over the dunes. But they were the color of the dung, their rags just like the refuse they crawled in. No one stood up, they scurried on all fours like wet rats, tossing things into burlap bags that gave them humped animal backs, circling on, darting, meeting each other, touching noses, slithering away, disappearing like iguanas over the ridges of the dunes. But once the food was set up scores of women and children appeared, sooty and wet, smelling of decay and rotted food. They were glad for the breakfast, squatted, eating with bony elbows like praying mantis on the garbage hills. After they had eaten, the children crowded around me, still crawling or sprawled in the dirt, they patted my shoes, ran their hands up and down my stockings.
And because she has an affinity for those down on their uppers, whether due to illness, lack of money, excessive drinking, soured relationships or fate, her work is even grittier and more determined than Carver's. There's no posturing here, just the elusive reality of everyday life viewed from awkward angles. Perhaps a more apt comparison might be with Fielding Dawson, whose near-perfect stories from the late 1950s through the 1970s were similar in their pursuit of the autobiographical, whether real, invented or simply tweaked by a fertile imagination.  "I exaggerate a lot," says another of Berlin's narrators, "and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie." Yet, for better or worse, Berlin's stories are not as psychological, intense or stylised. In the end, Berlin's stories live in their own circumscribed world and sphere of influence. Davis is correct to point to Berlin's pacing, her naming and her sensitivity to language. That Lucia Berlin should be widely read is obvious, hopefully this elegant and overdue volume will make that possible.

For more information, including a short biography and plenty of photographs, see the Lucia Berlin website.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Please Mr. Postman: Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, ed by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

I was just finishing Kevin Avery's excellent biography of  critic Paul Nelson when, appropriately enough, Meanwhile, There Are Letters, covering  the ten-year plus correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), arrived through my letter-box. Appropriate, because Nelson was, like Welty, a long-time advocate of Macdonald's work, having met the writer at his home in Santa Barbara where he arrived in 1976 to conduct one of those interminable interview sessions, this one lasting a week, for which Nelson was so famous.

Appropriate also, because Nelson, writing in the early 1960s, was the first person I'd come across who dared to cite the likes of Chandler, Hammett and, later, Macdonald, as constituting an important strand of American cultural life, tied inextricably to other strands, whether (the Harry Smith Anthology, Woody Guthrie, string band music, jazz, etc.), film (John Ford, Godard, Sturges) or art (Robert Rauschenberg, Pollock).

I don't know if I was actually introduced to Macdonald's work  through Welty's review of The Underground Man that ran in the New York Times back in 1971, a review that also brought Macdonald to the "legitimate" reading  public, and also an event that more or less kick-starts Marrs and Nolan's excellent collection. I think I probably had read  Macdonald before that review appeared, but Welty's piece probably turned what had been a guilty pleasure into what would eventually become a literary pursuit. As mentioned, I'd already been reading Hammett, Chandler and Himes, though perhaps it was simply a case of not being sure I was meant to be quite so obsessed with those writers and their work.  I don't know if Welty's article legitimised that pursuit, but it certainly widened the parameters by which I could appreciate such writing.

The letters that comprise this volume are further evidence to the manner in which those strands of the culture that Nelson had been referring to all those years ago, have played out. Thanks to Tom Nolan's previous ground-breaking biography of Macdonald, I knew of the Millar-Welty correspondence, but, until this volume, had never fully appreciated the depth or scope of it. What begins has a simple exchange of fan letters quickly blossoms into something entirely different. These letters, which of course often crossed paths and took several days to reach their cross-continent destination, addressed a range of literary subjects- both shared a love for Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen and Fitzgerald- and themes, not to mention personal matters, including tragedies like the death of the Millars' daughter, and politics, whether the war in Vietnam, Welty's obsession with Watergate or her White House meeting with Nixon (she hated having to shake his hand).

To intensify matters, Millar and Welty met face-to-face on only a few rare occasions. Not only were they separated by geography- Macdonald in Santa Barbara, Welty in Jackson, Mississippi- but by genre- Welty a recognised "literary" writer, Millar a crime writer by default who, to paraphrase, sought to work in the depths of darkness, to work  his way up to the light- and personal circumstances-  Millar was married, uneasily yet committed, to Margaret, a well-known crime writer in her own right, while Welty was single.

A platonic but passionate love-affair at long distance, the correspondence last over a decade, halted only when Millar contracted Altzheimers- the symptoms  he first encountered while  trying to recall events during Nelson's marathon interview- and even then Welty continued to write in the hope of jogging her friend's memory. In all, it was extraordinary correspondence relationship, as innocent as it was intimate. While it might surprise some that Millar had such wide literary tastes, serious Macdonald readers will be familiar with not only his knockabout youth and subsequent obsession with fathers, but that he possessed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Coleridge,  humane politics, environmental concerns and a range of interests, much of which surfaced in his fiction. At the same time, Ross Macdonald readers might be surprised  that Welty, as well as being a renown writer of stories and novels, was an excellent photographer, who had worked for the WPA, with at least two volumes of photos to her credit.

"In the deepest sense we could never be out of touch," writes Welty towards the end of Millar's life. While Millar was suffering, his wife, Margaret, was  having health problems of her own. Aware of the depth of her husband's relationship with Welty, Margaret could often be cruel and cutting in her comments, not only to her husband but to Welty, saying at one point, "When Ken is away, of course I open your letters to him, but only to see if there's anything in them he needs to be informed about." Welty adds, " I don't know why she told me that, but- I don't think she'd have ever found anything in any of them to give her pause." The final Welty letters are heartbreaking. Likewise, her  story, Henry, which appears as an Afterword, and alludes to Millar's condition and her feelings towards him. Any serious reader of Ross Macdonald or Eudora Welty can't fail to appreciate this volume, for which we not only have Macdonald and Welty to thank, but Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan who painstakingly put together this illuminating collection.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Post-9/11 Noir: The Good Physician by Kent Harrington

Published in 2008, Kent Harrington's The Good Physician is arguably the best of the post-9/11 crime novels. The author of two contemporary noir classics, Dia de Los Muertos and Red Jungle, Harrington is adept at creating believable characters and ever-tightening plots in which choices are gradually narrowed down to their existential essentials.

That Harrington opted to publish The Good Physician with Dennis McMillan's rather than try his luck with a mainstream publisher, is interesting in itself. I don't know if that was a conscious choice on Harrington's part, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn the book might have been too hot for mainstream publishers. It's not that it's politically radical, though it is radically humane. As Michael Connelly says in his touching afterward, "The book has a painter's soul and a terrorist's conscience...[Don't] we wish we all had the same journey, to a place where one choice could vanquish all the wrong we have done before it."

The Good Physician centres on a young doctor, Collin, who, after 9/11, wants to make a contribution to the war on terrorism, so signs up as a CIA doctor in Mexico City. There he is called to witnesses various acts of torture, which, as a doctor, he can't abide. In fact, all Collin really wants to do is paint. At the hotel where he lives in true artist fashion, he falls in love with a woman who has suffered an immense loss and is ready to pay the ultimate price while, at the same time, inflict the ultimate damage for her loss. At the same time, the doctor is also treating the wife of the head of the CIA office in Mexico. That man, Alex, who also appears in Red Jungle, The American Boys and Harrington latest The Rat Machine, is effectively Collin's boss. Not without a degree of humanity, he has, through the work he does, become hardened to everyone other than his wife.  When reports have come in that a bomb is passing through Mexico into the US, and Alex and his fellow agent have to stop it, and will do just about anything to do so.

One can imagine Hammett, had he lived into the 21st century, perhaps writing a book like this. It's world-weary like Hammett, but not cynical. It's about loss, but not without hope.  And, of course, it's also one of the best noir-oriented novels I've read for a quite a while. I'm only seven years behind the curve on this one,  but it was worth the wait.