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Category Archives: American

AARON MARC STEIN. Days of Misfortune (1949).

DaysMisfortune.jpgA lack of basic literary art characterizes this modestly sized but long-seeming episode from the casebook of archeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. During a pause in their excavation of Mayan ruins near the secluded town of Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, the pair dig up the recently slain body of an unidentified norteamericano. Because the dig happens to be located alongside the home of their friend and pilot Pablo, and because Pablo happens to have gone missing in the meantime, Mulligan and Hunt decide to embark on a more contemporary sort of excavation. They dig into the peculiar activities of several other American visitors to the area, and buried within the hodgepodge of gringo scheming that they turn up are the rudiments of a solid mystery plot. Likewise, the Mexican scenery and the aura of ancient evil that surrounds the so-called Days of Misfortune—five accursed, monthless days that lie stranded at the end of the Mayan calendar—afford a colorful backdrop that Stein (who also wrote prolifically and somewhat more famously under the name George Bagby) uses effectively at one or two points. Overall, though, he leaves the reader to sort through shards of clumsy exposition, flat characterization, and missed narrative opportunity.

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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAVID FULMER. Chasing the Devil’s Tail (2001).

Someone is murdering the “sporting women” who make the Storyville section of New Orleans what it is. Or, rather, what it was—for the year is 1907. Storyville, a 14-block area that became a district of legally sanctioned vice in 1897, is a thriving hub of morally dubious activity. The fabled “oldest profession in the world” flourishes there, and so does the world’s newest art form, a style of music known as “jass” or “jazz.” (The heyday of the District, as it was known, lasted until 1917. That year, the U.S. Navy deemed it to be a threat to wartime discipline and shut it down.) This tale opens with the killing of one prostitute. Then comes another. And another. And so on. Each homicide takes place in a different Storyville brothel, and the method of murder differs each time as well. The only element that unites these crimes, other than the victim’s mode of employment, is the placement (by the killer, presumably) of a black rose on or near the corpse.

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For writers today, especially those who deal in tales of historical crime, the serial murder of fallen women is an evergreen trope. A string of dead whores calls forth the cultural memory of Jack the Ripper, and it makes for a powerful, readymade theme. Yet it’s a theme that, all too often, allows writers and their readers to keep a certain distance from the dark material at hand: The poor “unfortunates” who become murder victims loom as faceless emblems of a benighted time gone by. Fulmer, to his credit, deploys this trope in a nuanced and credible way. Shrewdly, he abandons the common genre practice of using first-person narration, and thus he’s able to offer a sympathetic, God’s-eye view of the women who plied their trade in the mansions of Basin Street and vicinity. He observes, for instance, that they frequently (and understandably) sought comfort and intimacy not from men, but from each other. More generally, Fulmer excels at delivering incisive pen sketches of lived experience. In his authorial care, we come to know—or believe that we know—what it felt like, and sounded like, and smelled like, to stroll the banquettes of the Vieux Carré in the early years of a new century.

Writerly flair also gives Fulmer an edge when it comes to populating the tale with actual personages of that time and place. That standard technique of historical fiction can result in awkward efforts to blend historical truth with fictional truth. (It can be especially problematic in a detective story: Readers know that such “real” characters aren’t plausible murder suspects.) But Fulmer has a deft way of bringing into his narrative such people as Tom Anderson, the so-called King of Storyville; E.J. Bellocq, a photographer whose portraits of Storyville prostitutes form a powerful, haunting record of those women and their milieu; the fabled whorehouse madams Lulu White and “French” Emma Johnson; and, most centrally, the cornet player Buddy Bolden—a titanic presence in the early history of jazz and also, in Fulmer’s telling, a tragic figure who was essentially driven insane by his own talent.

Another emissary from the history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, offers the bit of aphoristic wisdom that provides a title for the book: “You best be careful if you go chasin’ the devil’s tail, ’cause you just might catch it.” Fulmer has Morton spout that line to Valentin St. Cyr, the fictional sleuth who has star billing here. BellocqPhoto.jpgSt. Cyr, half African and half Italian by descent, functions ably in the half-lit, half-legal world of the District. Employed as an enforcer and problem solver by Anderson, and by some of the savvier Storyville madams, he is just the right fellow to launch a hunt for the “devil” who’s terrorizing the Crescent City.

That hunt, unfortunately, isn’t as compelling as it might be. Readers have scant opportunity to follow St. Cyr in working through a set of clues, because real clues are thin on the ground. (That black-rose motif? It never amounts to much.) There’s a big, stinky red herring: Each of the slain women had a clear connection to Bolden, and Bolden conspicuously lacks an alibi for each murder. There’s a long, anguished, but essentially empty quest by St. Cyr to find an alternative explanation for the killings. (St. Cyr, a boyhood friend of cornet player, never harbors any doubt as to Bolden’s innocence.) Finally, there’s a flash of insight that leads the detective to discern the unlikely suspect who is, in fact, the culprit. Fulmer, though, does little to set the stage for that epiphany. Some readers will be able to guess at least part of the solution, but only because there are only a few directions in which the story can go. Chasing the Devil’s Tail, in short, is a tale in which the chase has far greater resonance than the moment of capture.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

WADE MILLER. Uneasy Street (1948).

The name Max Thursday carries a whiff of satire; it seems to emanate from the same source that gave Garrison Keillor a name (Guy Noir) to call his comic radio private eye. But Thursday is the real deal, a tough and breezy operative who plies his trade in San Diego much as his fictional colleagues Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe ply their trade in those great cities to the north, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He’s a figure of pastiche, not of parody, and this sophomore outing in the Thursday series borrows competently from the twists and tropes that drive earlier classics of the P.I. genre—The Maltese Falcon, in particular. Here, as in that story, the sleuth-hero falls in with a crew of schemers who sometimes work together and sometimes work at cross-purposes. UneasyStreet2.jpg Either way, intrigue ensues, and killings ensue as well. What unites these shady characters is their quest for a certain object of desire. Uneasy Street, in fact, is a tale of two such MacGuffins. First, there is an antique music box that Thursday receives from an old woman at the start of the book. No sooner does he take custody of the item than someone comes along and stabs the woman to death. Thursday flees the scene, keenly aware that what he’s carrying is no mere trifle. Second, there is a painting by Velázquez, El Bobo de Coria (“The Fool of Coria”), which not only serves as an eminently chase-worthy “dingus” but also also nods toward a theme that underlies every tale of this type: Desire, the yearning to acquire, is folly. A subsidiary theme, of course, is that we need a wise fool—a jester who appears in the form of a detective—to reveal that truth to us.

The case unfolds over the span of less than two days and culminates early on the morning of Christmas Day. Most of the action, including two murders, occurs on Christmas Eve Day, and Miller punctuates his fast-moving narrative with references to the last-minute shopping frenzy and the holiday merry-making that occupy ordinary San Diego folk. Miller doesn’t have anything terribly new to say about life and death and love and greed, but he—or “they,” since a pair of writers lay behind the Miller pen name—delivers his wisdom with the requisite casual noir poetry. (Concerning an art collection owned by a client of Thursday’s, the author observes: “Here was no museum resulting from love of art or even precious things. It represented mere possession. The result was the same as emptying a small boy’s pockets except that the great vault laid bare an old man’s soul.”) Miller also delivers a solid trick plot; like the music box that Thursday lugs around with him throughout this adventure, it contains a seamlessly hidden secret.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAN BROWN. The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Conspiracies are afoot, and these aren’t run-of-the-mill conspiracies of the sort that allegedly take down mere U.S. presidents. In fact, the fate of the Western world’s dominant religion is at stake. For two millennia, two institutions have vied to claim the true legacy of Jesus Christ, and now their largely secret struggle has erupted in the form of a quadruple homicide. The Catholic Church, with the ultraconservative modern sect Opus Dei as its vanguard, looms on one side; a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which traces its origins to the medieval Knights Templar and its mission to the time of the Crucifixion, huddles on the other. DaVinciCode.jpg Caught between those mighty institutions is Robert Langdon, a professor of “symbology” at Harvard, who has come to Paris on what he had hoped would be a quiet scholarly visit. In the opening sequence of this tale, the French Judicial Police summon Langdon to the Louvre so that he can shed light on the outlandishly brutal murder of Jacques Saunière, head curator of the museum. (Three other killings occur at roughly the same time.) The scene crime is awash in blood—and in symbols. It doesn’t take a symbologist, however, to surmise that Saunière was a man who knew too much.

Might the same be true of Langdon? The Louvre episode, he quickly discerns, was one move in a grand and deadly game. Multiple parties are tangling over a fabulous quarry—the Holy Grail!—and Langdon has no choice but to join the fray. Clues to the meaning and location of that legendary object are said to appear in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, and that’s where the pseudo-discipline of symbology comes into play. With help from Sophie Neveu, a French cryptographer who happens to be the granddaughter of Saunière, Langdon follows the clues purportedly left by da Vinci (along with a welter of other puzzling signs) on a trail that leads from Paris to London and finally to a destination that may be the Grail’s final repository. The interlocking conspiracies that Langdon unearths along the way are as momentous as can be, casting doubt on the faith of billions, and they give heft to what is otherwise an old-fashioned quest saga.

Outraged critics have attacked this outrageously popular thriller for being riddled with errors and predicated on fraudulent sources. On that front, they are on firm ground: Brown claims more truth for his tale, and takes more creative license with history, than he really should. Yet many critics have also heaped scorn on Brown’s writing style, and much of that criticism is beside the point. His prose displays neither subtlety nor originality, but it’s eminently true to its purpose—which is to thrill. The standard that applies to high adventure differs from that of high literature, after all. Readers will learn little about the inner life of Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu, and they will care even less. But those who admire raw storytelling verve will find it in these pages.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2013 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Thin Man (1934).

This last of Hammett’s five novels partakes of an old myth—that of the retired hero forced back into action by the flowering of an evil that only he can stamp out. The hero is Nick Charles, a onetime private detective who has escaped the fleshpots of New York and now manages his wife’s fortune in the Golden West. The evil involves the disappearance of a former client of his, a wealthy inventor named Clyde Wynant, and the murder of Julia Wolf, Wynant’s assistant-cum-mistress. ThinMan.jpgCharles, who’s back in New York on a short trip with his wife, Nora, finds time amid a regimen of cocktails and wisecracks to interview suspects and to spot the killer among them. He is a reluctant hero; Nora, who craves adventure, has to goad him into taking on the case. But he demonstrates that he hasn’t gone soft, after all, and he puts the world aright.

Or does he? Hammett tries to marry two genres, each of which marks a departure from his earlier work: the traditional whodunit, complete with clues and suspects, and the sophisticated comedy of manners. And in that attempt, he doesn’t quite succeed. His outlook was ultimately too grim for either genre—too nihilistic, too full of moral despair. Unlike his prose, his view of what motivates people wasn’t in any way clean. (The classic movie version of the novel, by contrast, succeeds winningly. In the translation of the story to the silver screen, the plot becomes at once leaner and more clever, and each character takes on the safe outlines of a satiric type.) Beneath its glossy finish, The Thin Man anticipates the seedy fictive world of Raymond Chandler: It contains intimations of incest, and it hums with contempt for a moneyed class that the author depicts as being indistinguishable from a class of criminals. These are evils that a hero might subdue but that he is powerless to dispel.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN. Recipe for Homicide (1952).

A tale that pivots around an apparent scheme by Communist saboteurs to poison several batches of U.S. Army soup rations just can’t date very well, and this novel fully reeks of the McCarthyist hysteria of the Korean War years. At its best, it serves up choice artifacts to include in a time capsule of that period: scenes from both the shop floor and the executive suite at the Barzac Canning Company, located in a Midwestern industrial city called Northbank; glimpses of thriving mid-century American institutions, including the stock market, the public-relations industry, and the FBI; and, yes, samplings of the addled public mood that emerged after McCarthy and his ilk had Red-scared a good many Americans out of their wits. RecipeHomicide.jpg Much less fascinating, however (yet also typical of its era), is an assembly-line mystery plot that combines a fetish for science with a bias toward random, hurly-burly action. Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, a pathologist at the Pasteur Institute, delivers the science; readers can watch as he and his comic sidekick, Dr. Motilal Mukerji, run a Reinsch test or section the brain of a murder victim. Covering the action side, meanwhile, is Bob Gilmore, PR manager at the soup company, who gets caught both in a political crossfire and in a literal crossfire. These two protagonists—neither of them quite fits the role of detective—take turns at stirring Blochman’s weak broth.

[ADDENDUM: For a shrewdly observed and generally countervailing perspective on this book, see the review posted online by Mike Grost. Certainly, Grost gives Blochman more credit than I do. “Blochman,” he writes, “shows US daily life as the operating ground of many powerful forces, technological, scientific, economic, political. It comes across as a very interesting, dynamic place.”]

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2013 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN D. MacDONALD. Darker Than Amber (1966).

DarkerAmberNew.jpgSalvage jobs come to Travis McGee in all sorts of ways. Sometimes a client approaches him in the standard fashion, with a hard-luck story about something valuable (a pile of cash, an honorable reputation) that has been lost or stolen, and he or she will hire McGee to recover it. Sometimes a friend will introduce McGee to another friend who happens to need the services of a guy like him—a beach-bum Paladin who works only when his finances are low or when his blood is up. And sometimes the job simply drops onto him. On this occasion, the job plummets from a bridge with a slab of concrete tied to her curvy, long gams and lands near the spot in the Intercoastal Waterway where McGee has parked his fishing boat. McGee rescues the damsel from the deep, whereupon he and his fishing pal, an economist and eminently worldly philosopher who goes by the lone name Meyer, nurse her to a semblance of health. Along the way, they learn that her name is Evangeline (“Vangie”) Bellemer, that she was a top-dollar call girl who had recently widened the scope her criminal activity, and that notwithstanding her evident charms (she has eyes flecked with a yellow that’s “darker than amber”), she’s a vulgar lass whose short, fast life has cast her beyond the reach of even McGee’s powers of redemption. Still, McGee retains a soft spot for Vangie, so when her comrades in crime succeed in their second attempt to eliminate her, he resolves to avenge her death. True to form, he also has an eye on salvaging a lode of ill-gotten cash that Vangie had hidden in her South Florida condo.

There is no mystery here. In this novel, as in other entries in the McGee saga, the identity of the bad guys is plain almost from the get-go. So is the fact of their badness; there are no shades of moral gray here, either. Nonetheless, McGee practices the art of detection to a notable degree. Along with Meyer, who plays a strong supporting role, he assembles the stray pieces of information that Vangie had let slip about her cohorts, and about the deadly scam that they are running against the clueless tourists who hit the Sunshine State as relentlessly as ocean waves. That scheme involves persuading lonely, well-off men to embark on what ends up being a fatal one-way Caribbean cruise. McGee and Meyer not only divine the nature of the scam, but also engineer a counter-scam that unfolds aboard a cruise ship and that enables them to nab Vangie’s killers. These heroes definitely know their way around a boat, just as they know their way around the highly fluid social dynamics that make Florida what it had already become by the mid-1960s—“a sunny place for shady people,” as the saying goes. DarkerAmber.jpg MacDonald, for his part, knows his way around the written word: He gives McGee, who acts as narrator, a voice that is street-smart yet soulful and a style that is pungent (albeit sometimes overwrought) yet precise.

[ADDENDUM: I’m not generally a fan of this kind of book. But recently I spent a week on the South Florida coast, and I figured that I had to give the Travis McGee series another try while I was there. I’m glad that I did. Years ago, I read the début installment in the series, A Deep Blue Goodbye, and wasn’t at all impressed by it. But maybe I’ve changed since then, or maybe this tale is just a cut above the earlier book, or maybe it helps to read about McGee while taking in the sunny, seedy, sad world that he inhabits. No doubt all three of those points are pertinent. At any rate, I’d now say that I view the McGee series much as I do the Nero Wolfe saga. In each case, you get classically sharp American prose, and you get a winning pair of protagonists (McGee and Meyer, Wolfe and Goodwin) who retreat from the world into an idealized haven (a Manhattan brownstone, a Fort Lauderdale houseboat), where they conduct what amounts to a never-ending symposium on the follies that mark the passing scene. What you don’t get is any real complexity of plot, any real depth of mystery. And every so often, I’m quite happy to make that trade-off.]

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel