One of them was George Pelecanos, whose The Night Gardener I actually quite liked. But then I turned to Right As Rain, one of the celebrated Derek Strange/Terry Quinn novels. I have to admit that I found it unbearably sanctimonious--the subject of these novels is race, and Pelecanos wields his Limbaughvian liberal straw men with embarrassing clumsiness, congratulating himself at every turn as, simultaneously, his characters emit angry speeches about white liberals who congratulate themselves at every turn. It's put me off this novelist entirely, in spite of my appreciation for the other book, which is really very skillful in its portrait of the social complexities of Washington, D.C.
Another letdown came in the form of Benjamin Black's novella The Lemur. I didn't mind the first novel by this writer, alter ego of the literary novelist John Banville, but here, in this shortened form, Black appears to have forgotten how to tell a story. The protagonist, a sour middle-aged man named John Glass, used to be a crack reporter. Now, he's married to an heiress he despises and has been hired to write his ex-CIA father-in-law's biography. He hires a researcher, the researcher finds out something, and then is murdered. Then there's eighty pages of people having the same inconclusive conversation over and over--Glass's mistress, a homicide detective, a jive-talkin' black journalist, the researcher's girlfriend--and then you find out the deadly information. There are never any clues, no gradual unveiling of detail. Instead, there are just a bunch of assholes--yes, every single character is a nasty, selfish, morally corrupt dullard--and a lot of descriptions of the wind in the trees. The book is weirdly static. Maybe it worked in its original incarnation as a serial in the New York Times Magazine, but here, it's a slog at 132 pages.
Worse yet was Will Lavender's Obedience, a book with a great premise: a college professor assigns his ethics class to solve a crime that has yet to be committed--and the crime turns out, quite possibly, to be real. Here's the passage, on page 55, that made me give up on this dreadful novel--in this scene, Dennis, an irresistebly charming young Republican, is being seduced by the Dean's wife:
She stripped off the wet bathing suit and left it in a heap at her jeweled feet...She had shaved her pussy into a fine little arrow of fuzz...Before he knew it he was coming, losing himself in the frenzied wake [they're on a boat, see. -JRL], the sloshing sound of the cove now a roar, Elizabeth with her head thrown back on top of him and her tits cupped in her own hands.
Wow. Now that's bad.
I did actually manage to enjoy two crime novels over the past couple of months. One is the new one from Sweden's Hakan Nesser, Mind's Eye, which pits Inspector Van Veeteren against an open-and-shut case that doesn't make any sense. It's dark and witty and filled with that great Scandinavian winking ennui--no masterpiece, but well-crafted, gripping, and refreshingly un-full of itself. The other good one is Stephen Carter's bestselling The Emperor of Ocean Park. I'm a little late to the party on this one, but Carter, a Yale law professor, appears to have managed to become an excellent novelist in his spare time. The book is a political thriller by way of Richard Ford or Jane Smiley--a wise, self-deprecating narrator; many smart social insights; nice, long sentences; wonderful characters. In the end, it's a little long and implausible, but it's hard to begrudge Carter the opportunity to stretch his limbs, the prose is so thoroughly enjoyable. I should add that Carter is writing about race, too--his fictional D.C. family is black--and he kicks Pelecanos's ass on the subject. I've got Carter's second book queued up and ready to go, for when I finish this new James Wood thing (How Fiction Works), which I will address in a future post. Short version: it's superb, so far. I admire rather than like Wood's reviewing, but this book is both smart and personable. More soon.