Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Crime Roundup

Hmm. This is the time of year when I generally make myself a giant pile of crime novels and plough through them with something close to ecstasy. But so far this summer there have been several piles, and the ecstasy has failed to materialize. I was never terribly hopeful about the state of crime fiction in general, but has writing in this genre gotten worse lately? Even a few well-known writers whose work I have repeatedly been assured I would love, and the reading of whom I had been holding off for the right moment, have disappointed.

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.


Matt said...

"Sloshing": a word that should not be used anywhere near the vicinity of erotica.

Anonymous said...

For good Pelecanos, I highly recommend Shoedog, and King Suckerman, both of which are terrific and free of political cant (which is not to say the latter is free of politics). King Suckerman is titled after a (fictional) blaxploitation film of the same name which is central to the plot, and the way Pelecanos writes about the film's effect on its characters (black and whote residents) is excellent.

I haven't read Right As Rain, and I'm surprised to hear that it has such heavy handedness. (I was also under the impression that his politics were left-wing, but I could be wrong on that).

E. said...

I recommend "In the Woods" by Tana French. As virtually every blurb parrots, it's "part police procedural, part psychological thriller" -- but it's French's prose and exploration of character that I find compelling and, at times, brilliant. It was published in 2007 and came out in paperback just this spring. Great cover, too.

Just opened a package containing "How Fiction Works" and am already enthralled. I look forward to your entry on it.

Anonymous said...

James, I will give those Pelecanoses a shot. I'm not sure what his leanings are, but he's certainly a writer obsessed with class, and he seems to have some kind of vendetta against perceived elitism. And I have no patience for that kind of crap. He does have some chops, though, so thanks.

Elizabeth, I picked that up and put it down a dozen times...I think the first page put me off...but oddly, it must have stuck with me, because I went to the library this morning specifically to get it, and it was gone. Perhaps I'll just pony up at Rhian's store.

Anonymous said...

That James Wood book really is great.

What did you think of "Benjamin Black's" first book, Christine Falls? I bought it a long time ago and keep meaning to read it.

M. Sáflo said...

Sorry to saddle you with another recommendation, but you should really throw something by Lawrence Block on the pile if you haven't tried him yet. I'm in no position to make this judgment (Hasn't stopped me yet!), but to my mind he's the best crime writer going right now. There's a certain something to his writing - an unhelpful word for it would be "readability" - that I can't put my finger on but find irresistible. He does the series thing, though I can't think any crime novelist but Leonard who doesn't, and while that and the subject matter originally made me wary (downbeat story of an off-the-books PI, comic novels about a gentleman thief) he regularly aces them. I'm currently reading one about a contract killer which is put together more like linked stories ("murder vignettes"? eh?) than a novel and it's incredibly enjoyable, particularly the way you're manipulated into never *really* thinking he's such a bad guy.

An old book of his called Grifter's Game was the launch title for Hard Case Crime, and it's probably still the best in that line. If you pick up anything, really, I'd point to that. It's an almost perfectly engineered little noirish thriller.

Anonymous said...

k., I liked Christine Falls OK. The main character is fairly compelling, and I still might give The Silver Swan a try. I actually took it out of the library but didn't get to it in time.

Saflo, oh man, I hope I end up liking Lawrence Block because he has written, what, seven million books? It's on the library list. Thanks!

rmellis said...

Didn't Lawrence Block write a How to Write book? I remember liking that one quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

OK people, I bought the Tana French, a Lawrence Block ("Hit Man," since it reminds me of the Richard Stark novels I like), and Michael Connelly's Crime Beat nonfiction thing. Thanks for the recs...

E. said...

JRL, just saw Tana French has a brand new (released in the last two weeks) follow-up to "In the Woods" called "The Likeness" -- yikes, that's fast! On the other hand, I think "In the Woods" originally was published in Ireland or the UK, with a slightly delayed US debut, so maybe a sequel so quickly on the heels isn't so speedy as it appears.

Looking forward to hearing what you think about all your new gets --