This Month's Favourite
Oakley Hall, So Many Doors (Hard Case Crime)
Praised by Pynchon, Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan, Oakley Hall has sometimes been referred to as a writer's writer. That could be the case, but it could also be something of a misnomer, since Hall was, if nothing else, a populist who had no qualms about pursuing a mass readership. After all, this is the person who wrote one of the great westerns, Warlock, that near-Marxist tale about an Arizona mining town. But Hall wrote twenty-five other novels, most of them historical in nature, invariably taking place in the west. His subjects included industrial disputes (Separations), the Mexican Revolution (Adelita) as well as Native Americans as well as the "taming of the west (Warlock, Bad Lands, Apache). He finished of a fifty-year career with the coming-of-age Love and War in California preceded by five novels featuring the infamous Bay Area journalist, wit, bon vivant, and disappearance artist, Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1950, and out of print ever since a 1959 edition, So Many Doors was Hall's second novel. It seems an unlikely choice for the Hard Case list of books. After all, one does not immediately think of Hall as that kind of pulp crime writer. But he did produce a handful of books that fit, easily or not, into that category, not only So Many Doors, but Murder City and Too Dead to Run. Set prior to, during and just after WW2, the California-set So Many Doors moves from Bakersfield to San Diego, amidst graders, "cat skinners" and bulldoze drivers, their job being to flatten the land for future developers. But it's really a tale- like David Goodis's doomed lovers crossed with Jim Thompson's working-class malcontents- about the failure of men and women to understand one another, resulting in a kind of emotional sadism. All taking place in a world in which everyone appears trapped, whether by class, job, or gender. That a murder has been committed seems as inevitable as the changing landscape and fortunes of the country itself. (Published by Hard Case Crime in November)
Best of the Rest
Lou Berney, November Road (Morrow)
It's November, 1963, in New Orleans, just after JFK's assassination. Frank Guidry, a suave, middle ranking New Orleans crime boss finds himself peripherally connected to JFK's death. Realizing his life could be in danger, not so much from the authorities as from New Orleans crime boss and assassination-fixer Carlos Marcello, he leaves the city and heads west, to Las Vegas where he hopes to seek sanctuary with a rival crime boss. Along the way he meets Charlotte, travelling with her two kids and their dog. She has recently ditched her hard-drinking but boring husband in Oklahoma and is also heading west. Though smart, she has no idea who she is dealing with. But, then, neither does Frank. One of those road novels that once you take the first bite, there is no way to resist the entire meal.
In Tidhar's latest, the Jewish homeland is in Palestina, East Africa ("It feels like a historical accident"), as proposed by some major Zionist figures in the early years of the 20th century. It's a world in which "there is still a Hitler, but it had escaped a Final Solution." Pulp detective writer Tirosh who lives in Berlin, returns to visit his homeland. He is meant to give a lecture, but wherever he goes mayhem follows him, and his original reason for being there gets lost in the mulch. All because he ends up searching for his niece who has gone missing. But this is not only an alternative world, one in which "you wonder what Jews are like when they are defined by the great Holocaust that shaped them, the survivors that formed of them creatures of power and guilt: more easy in their ways, more comfortable in their skin, or chaps just a nation as all other nations...," but an in-between world, where everything is breaking down and set to come apart at the seams. As usual, for a Tidhar novel, Unholy Land is prescient and nostalgic at the same time. If you know Tidhar's work- my favourite is still A Man Lies Dreaming, you won't want to miss this. If you've never read Tidhar, this is a good to start. You won't be sorry. (Published by Tachyon in November).
Mick Herron, This Is What Happened (John Murray)
Herron's This Is What Happened is a genuinely creepy tale, but one that, unlike his recent efforts, does not center on, or have anything to do with, Slough House and that group of marginal and much maligned British agents. And, I for one, was glad of it. No matter how much I enjoyed those novels, I was beginning to think Herron was stretching himself a bit too thin, and that he should set his sights on something different, if even for a book or two. The good news is that This Is What Happened is every bit as good as the Slough House novels. This one takes place in London where a gullible, lonely woman, new to the capital, is kidnapped by a misogynistic, psychopath who, to keep her prisoner, feeds her a a false dystopic narrative. It's both a novel, written in Herron's concise and spine-tingling prose, about misogyny, and a tale about how easily people can be manipulated on a steady diet of what can only be described as extremely fake news. Though, after moaning that I was growing slightly tired of Jackson Lamb and his minions, I found myself hoping they might pop up to save the day. Which I guess means I'm now ready for yet another Slough House episode from one of the finest writers around when it comes to espionage crime fiction.