Thursday, December 26, 2013

Purgatory by Ken Bruen

When compiling the list of  favourite crime novels of 2013 there were some glaring omissions. No mention, for instance, of the latest by George Pelecanos,  Walter Mosley, Scott Phillips or  Reed Farrel Coleman. My reason for not including a number of books was simple enough: I not yet read them  (blame the publishers for not sending copies). Also, no mention of  Jean-Claude Izzo's magnificent Marseilles Trilogy- Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea- probably because  I'd read all three years ago. And no Gone Girl. But wasn't that one published in 2012? On the other hand, it was a list of my favourite books, not a list of the best books of 2013.

Had I read it a few weeks earlier, I would certainly have included Ken Bruen's Purgatory, the most recent in his Jack Taylor series. For me, it came as a pleasant surprise, mainly because I've never been able to work my way through an entire Bruen novel. Which is ironic given his style- short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes more like free verse than prose. On the other hand, I don't hold the view of a pundit-friend who maintains Bruen's novels are more akin to comic books, that he writes for people who don't like to read, that he over-relies on Irish stereotypes, and throws in an excessive amount of many cultural references- songs, quotes, movies, t.v. programs- leaving it to the reader to work out what they stand for.

Well,  that's a bit unfair. After all, I've got nothing against comic books or, for that matter, novels that are easy to read. Nor do I have anything against cultural signifiers- though I admit Bruen does tend to over do it- so long as I like or can comprehend what they signify, and it's not simply a matter of name-dropping or product placement.  And even the most casual reader would have to admit that Bruen has some important things to say about contemporary Ireland, if not the world in general.

Purgatory- which  I guess is the state in which most of us live- might be easy to read, but it's also very funny, with more than its share of serious observations and, as one would expect, dark moments.  Having said that, it could be that I enjoyed the novel because it's the first by Bruen  I've read since watching the Jack Taylor series on TV earlier this year. It was only while doing so that  I realised how good Bruen's dialogue can often be, with some great one-liners and pithy observations about Catholicism and the Celtic Tiger. Maybe it's simply that Bruen is better visualised than read, or that he should be read as though visualised. I was reminded  of Billy Wilder's comment to James M. Cain to explain why he might not be the right person to pen the screenplay for Double Indemnity: "Jim, that dialogue of yours is to the eye." To which Cain responded that he knew it was to the eye, but he could also write for the ear. Wilder obviously didn't think so.  But what I think Purgatory illustrates is that Bruen can write for both the eye and the ear. Okay, it doesn't offer much in the way of suspense- most readers will know  who the killer is quite early on. Not that it matters, because  Jack Taylor novels are really about... well, Jack Taylor. A consummate outsider with a cranky disposition, now wrecked and ruined by drink, drugs, work, his age, and demands made on him by the state and world in general, yet with enough humanity and wit to still do what he thinks is right. Now that I've revised my opinion of Bruen, I'm going to have go back to those earlier Jack Taylor novels and see what they have to offer.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ten Favorite Crime Novels of 2013

(in no particular order)

-Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge)

-Under the Eye of God by Jerome Charyn (Mysterious Press)

-Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze (reissue, Stark House)

-Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (PM/The Green Arcade)

-Others of My Kind by James Sallis (No Exit)

-The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre)

-Three Steps to Hell by Arnold Hano (reissue, Stark House)

-Dead Lions by Mick Herron (Soho Press)

-Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, anthology, ed. Sarah Weinman (Penguin)

--Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (reissue, Cannongate)

Bubbling Under:

-Grind Joint by Dana King (Stark House)

-Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen/Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street)

-Dark Times In the City by Gene Kerrigan (Europa)

-The Red Road by Denise Mina (Orion)

-Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney (reissue, Canongate)

-Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney (reissue, Canongate)

For a full annotated version of the above list, see my article at the L.A. Review of Books.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

Conspiracies and paranoia are, of course, the essence of noir fiction. And Max Collins, a throwback to the days when the likes of Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer churned out novels for paperback companies at a super-human pace, is well aware of that fact. Since 20th century America is infested with such conspiracies and paranoia, Collins has had no problem finding the appropriate subject matter. Having said that, these days conspiracies are a dime a dozen- from 9-11 to Obama’s secret agenda. Even so, present day paranoia seems to at least in part have its origins in the Kennedy assassination in Dallss, November 22nd, 1963. Ask Not is the latest instalment in what Collins calls the “Nathan Heller memoirs,” which began in 1983 with his True Detective and represent some eight years of American history, from prohibition, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, the origins of Las Vegas, the Lindberg kidnapping, and Huey Long to Rosewell, the Black Dahlia, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the death of John F. Kennedys. Some eighty years of American history, or at any rate, a secret history, all fodder for Heller’s investigative eye. Collins’ last three books- By By, Baby, about the death of Monroe; Target Lancer, about a failed assassination attempt on JFK in Chicago just weeks before the real thing, and involving the same characters, and now Ask Not, which moves into post-assassination territory. Here Heller investigates the numerous unexplained deaths- whether “suicides” or outright murder- focusing, for the most part, on noted columnist and TV celeb Dorothy Kilgallen, (here called Flo Kilgore), who at the time had been  looking into the assassination, and whose death remains suspicious. 

Collins has definitely done his research on this one, enabling him to bring an array of facts to life, albeit with a dash of novelist’s license.  As he admits, he has long been interested in the subject and has read all the relevant material. Though it appears the book mostly relies on Douglass’ excellent JFK and the Unspeakable. But Heller has also poured through numerous fringe books, watched the relevant films and visited the various websites. He’s certainly no nutter, but he's also no conspiracy-denier.  The problem here is how to interject a fictional Nathan Heller into this historical occurrence. Collins does this by allowing Heller to take on the guise and findings of real life investigators, while intervening in particular places, such as the death of alleged LBJ henchman Mac Wallace, an instance where the mystery remains unsolved.

Yes, Collins’ book does cover the same ground as fiction writers Ellroy and DeLillo. But Ask Not is unlike either of their books (Collins is said to purposely avoid reading Ellroy for just that reason). For one thing it sticks as close to the facts as possible, or at least to the facts according to Collins’ research. The result is like a pulp version of the events, without Ellroy’s obsessional, high-octane prose, and DeLillo’s literary contextualisation. It’s simply a different take, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though Collins’ narrative seems somewhat thin in comparison.  But then that’s Collins’ shtick. He prefers to simply state his case and move on. After all, this guy produces a lot of books, including the graphic novel Road to Perdition. Consequently, the book floats on a cushion of historical fact, sometimes feeling as much like reportage as fiction. Having said, and despite its thin and occasionally clumsy narrative, I rate it as one of the year’s best crime novels if only because it’s actually about something, serves a function, and is, in its own way, an important book.

It should be said that one need not have read the previous two books in the trilogy to appreciate this one (perhaps the operative question should then be ask not what the novel can do for you but what you can do for the novel). Though, as I’ve said elsewhere you have to work hard to suspend your disbelief when you read these books simply because Heller, as the “p.i. to the stars,” has done it all, knows everyone worth knowing and some who aren’t, and has intervened in at least fifteen crucial events in twentieth century American history. Call me cynical, but that’s stretching credulity to breaking point. But, okay, I’ll go along with it. Particularly since Nathan is getting on in years, and his his days are obviously numbered. Still, if you want to learn about what happened in and around those events in Dallas, you could do worse than read Ask Not.  As for where Collins goes next with his Heller memoirs, he strongly hints that it might well be the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Heller’s pal and former boss Robert Kennedy. Then there’s always Watergate. After that things get murky, while noir becomes more an excuse, or at any rate a commodity, than a manifestation. Anyway, by then Heller most certainly will be living with the worms. Though these books are easy to criticise, I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.