Clockers.

All of my GenCon wrap-up pieces for Paste are now up, including the top ten new games I saw, the summary of every other interesting title, and an essay on the experience of attending for the first time.

Richard Price is back in the news these days with the critical acclaim for the HBO limited series The Night Of, an adaptation of a British series, with Price as lead writer on the U.S. version. (I’m only through episode three, but it’s excellent.) Price isn’t new to HBO, writing five episodes of The Wire, and gritty urban stories are his milieu in literature as well, with his 2008 novel Lush Life one of the best novels of the century so far. I just tore through his 1992 novel Clockers, later adapted by Spike Lee into a film that also featured The Night Of‘s John Turturro, an unsparing, compelling portrait of both sides of the pointless battle in the war on drugs.

Set in Price’s fictional Dempsey, New Jersey, Clockers focuses on two primary characters, the low-level drug dealer Ronald Dunham, known as “Strike,” and the homicide detective Rocco Klein, who end up on a collision course when another dealer who works for the same person as Strike is shot and killed execution-style, and Strike’s clean-cut brother Victor surprises everyone by confessing to the crime. Klein doesn’t buy the confession, and Strike is certain Victor is covering for him (even though Strike was assigned to make the kill, he wasn’t able to follow through), so each is, in his own way, trying to get Victor off the hook without knowing who actually committed the murder.

Price’s gift in his work is his ability to create entire universes populated with a variety of realistic, distinct characters from the kids known as “clockers” working the street for Strike and his boss to the mixture of homicide and drug cops, some of whom are incredibly bigoted, to the handful of extras whose lives intersect with Strike’s and Rocco’s. There’s substantial balance in all of his portraits, avoiding the cliched cops-good-clockers-bad mentality without losing sight of the murder that set the entire story in motion, so that the reader feels empathy for the “bad” guys and plenty of antipathy for some of the “good” ones. While Klein and his partner are flawed, they’re relatively well-behaved compared to the street cops responsible for policing the drug trade at the housing project where Strike works, and Price gives us racist cops, cops on the take, drunk cops, and okay maybe the cops don’t come off too well in Clockers, perhaps worse in a lot of ways than the majority of the clockers, most of whom are kids, come off.

If there’s a message in the novel at all, and I could see Price arguing there isn’t one, it’s that the drug trade exists because of the lack of other opportunities for poor urban youth. There’s a constant dialogue among the clockers, including Strike, his boss Rodney, Strike’s brother Victor, Strike’s intended protege Tyrone, Tyrone’s surrogate dad Andre the Giant, and so on, about the limited alternatives to dealing. School is barely mentioned, and only with disdain. Young black men who work regular jobs, like Victor, are respected, but Strike et al see the brighter financial outlook from dealing and decline to take the difficult, legal route. Andre, a cop who tries to mentor some of the at-risk kids in the projects, especially Tyrone, is respected and feared, and is known to use violence to make his will known because that’s the language that works. He might be the closest thing Clockers has to a “good guy,” except that he’ll use extrajudicial means to protect the kids he’s trying to help, and the other kids are terrified of him, so if that’s your good guy … well, then you get the gist.

Price doesn’t moralize much anywhere in the book, though; this is dispassionate, plot-driven writing, and even an easy target like the wastefulness of the War on Drugs doesn’t get a whiff. (The book was published in 1992, when drug decriminalization was only far-left hippie talk.) The only time he goes astray is in the scenes of Klein’s home life; he’s an older first-time father, struggling to balance the amorphous time demands of his job with the desire to be a father and a wife who may or may not understand how his job works (he thinks she doesn’t, but we don’t really get her side of this). It’s thinly drawn, especially the characterization of the wife, but also because we don’t see enough of his family relationships to get more out of it than that he loves his daughter and is thinking about the future after his career as a detective. That’s the difference between this novel and the superior Lush Life, by which point Price had honed his plot development skills so that the scenes off the streets were every bit as compelling as the scenes on them.

Next up: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her Neapolitan Novels tetralogy.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

David Hadley Chase was a prolific British author of American crime fiction, writing numerous novels (under this pseudonym) that were, for the time, controversial for their graphic violence and implied sexual content. His first novel, the grim No Orchids for Miss Blandish, remains his best-known work, and it’s just $1.29 for the Kindle through that link (or just £4.99 in the UK). It’s gripping despite an almost nihilistic view of its characters, the rare story where the venal criminals are more compelling characters than the hard-boiled detective attempting to find them. George Orwell was a fan of the writing, but Raymond Chandler was not, calling it “half-cent pulp writing at its worst” in a letter to Cleve Adams. (Chandler later won a lawsuit against Chase, accusing the latter of plagiarizing a section of a later book.)

Miss Blandish is the heiress at the center of a theft and ransom kidnapping plot that involves two different groups of crooks, the latter, the notorious Grissom Gang (reminiscent in many ways of the Australian Pettingill family), run by a sociopathic matriarch and her mentally challenged, ultra-violent son Slim. Their plan is to steal her new diamond necklace, collect a ransom for her from her wealthy father, and then dispose of her rather than risk her identifying them … but then Slim takes a fancy to her, complicating their plans even after they get their money and try to use it to run a slightly more legitimate business.

Miss Blandish’s father hires reporter-turned-private detective Dave Fenner to try to track his daughter down several months after he’s paid the ransom without any word on her whereabouts or even whether she’s alive, and Fenner – about as cliched a detective character as you’ll ever find – uses his knowledge of the town’s underworld to find the one lead police didn’t uncover. Chase spends most of his energy and the bulk of the verbiage on the interactions between Slim Grissom, his mother, and the other dissolute members of their gang, including how they respond once it becomes clear that their faĉade of respectability in their new venture has been cracked.

The violence in the book is par for the course for the era, although No Orchids was apparently one of the first to raise the violence to this level; I don’t enjoy violence for its own sake, but to paint the picture of the Grissom gang as unrepentant and likely sociopathic killers, the violence serves a literary purpose. Less necessary and much harder to stomach is the largely off-screen rape of Miss Blandish by Slim, repeated over a period of months. When Fenner finally finds her near the end of the book, however, all of the dialogue seems to indicate that there is no recovery from this sort of trauma, both from the extent of the crimes committed and from the shame of being a victim of kidnap and a presumed rape. It’s true to its era, but fortunately we live in an era that is both more enlightened and better equipped to help trauma victims recover from their ordeals, which gave the novel’s resolution a very antiquated and somewhat misogynistic flavor. A female author would never have written this ending – or at least I’d like to think one wouldn’t. (For the record, I don’t agree with either of Orwell’s interpretations of the ending; I think he’s ignored or dismissed a third possibility, that the motive was shame.) However, for fans of noir fiction, No Orchids offers a swift, exceptionally dark take on the genre, one where the payoff is less important than the way there.

The Tiger in the Smoke.

My writeup of Saturday’s A’s-Rays trade is up for Insiders.

J.K. Rowling told fellow crime writer Val McDermid in a public interview last summer that she loved “golden age” crime novels, and specifically cited Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke as a favorite, calling it “a phenomenal novel.” The fourteenth of Allingham’s novels starring investigator Albert Campion, Tiger has very little in common with the detective novels of other Queens of Crime like Agatha Christia and Dorothy Sayers, focusing more on the criminal than on the detective.

Campion is barely in the book at all, which starts out covering the peculiar case of a young widow, Meg, related to Campion, who is about to remarry but who has received several blurry photographs that appear to show her dead husband alive and walking the streets of London. That investigation resolves itself rather quickly, but opens up on to the “tiger” of the book’s title, a violent psychopath who escaped from prison and is after a supposed treasure left on the coast of France at the house of the widow’s fiancé. From that point, the focus of the novel shifts from Campion to the criminal, Jack Havoc, whose background is something of a mystery but whose manipulative character and force of personality dominate the final half of the book.

That change of focus means this isn’t a detective novel in any real sense of the term; Campion is so ancillary to the main plot that the film version of The Tiger in the Smoke dispensed with him entirely, handing his few lines to Inspector Luke or other characters. This makes for an excellent character study, as Allingham delves into Havoc’s background, motivations (beyond mere greed), and desperation, but not much of a crime novel, with a heavy-handed, forced conclusion that relies on a series of coincidences to put Havoc alone with the widow at the site of the treasure even as a multinational police force is closing in. Once Havoc is on the run, having joined and then largely left behind the criminal gang to which his co-conspirator in the original deception belonged, his character is less at issue and we’re left with a more conventional chase narrative.

Which brings to me to my key question: What is it that Rowling finds so compelling about this book? The prose is highly descriptive, which is a hallmark of Rowling’s style as well, and I have a feeling that Allingham’s use of “Wotcher!” inspired the same term in Rowling’s Nymphadora Tonks. (I also wondered if the offhand reference to a “Joe Muggles” in Three Men in a Boat may have helped give rise to the term “muggle,” which Rowling has said she derived from the English word “mug,” meaning a fool or a gullible person.) But there’s no sense of mystery in Tiger, no building narrative towards a climax of plot or action; I never once thought that Meg would die at the end of the book, and the only real question was whether Havoc would die (and how) or be captured. Once we’ve had a window into his personality – delusional with persecution mania, perhaps, with abandonment issues and a sociopathic willingness to manipulate others for his own ends – even that seemed to answer itself. It’s genre fiction that dispenses entirely with the conventions of its genre, but does so without fully compensating for the absence of the typical elements of detective fiction – the mystery of the killer’s identity, the process by which the detective solves the case, or both – with something else.

Next up: I’m almost finished with The End of the Battle, the final book of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, a farcical sequence based on his own experiences in World War II. It’s currently just $2 for Kindle, but you’d have to read the prior two volumes for it to make much sense.

The Yard & Adam Bede.

The Yard, Alex Grecian’s first prose novel – he’s previously co-authored the graphic novel series Proof – is a hopelessly formulaic, lurid crime story that feels far more like an attempt to create a franchise than a desire to tell an actual story. Set in London just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror has ended, The Yard wants so badly to tell us how awful Victorian society was for those outside the privileged classes that it pelts the reader with a series of hoary details that beat that horse until it’s glue and steak frites.

The Yard opens with a cheap attention-grabber – a dead cop is found stuffed in a steamer trunk at a London railway station with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. This introduces us to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, a group of a dozen (now eleven) detectives assigned to look solely at homicides, of which there are far too many in London for this unit to handle. We also encounter Dr. Kingsley, the amateur forensic pathologist and assigned Voice of Reason whose mere presence makes this feel like the pilot for CSI: London. The detectives, led by the just-promoted Inspector Walter Day, work to solve the murder of their colleague, eventually splitting into factions to investigate potentially related crimes, including the murders of several bearded men, which eventually put several of the detectives in jeopardy (of course) and lead to two resolutions.

Grecian’s characters are his saving grace, and if I had any desire to continue with the sequel The Black Country, it would be to follow them. He’s crafted four strong police characters in Day, Inspector Blacker, their boss Sir Edward Bradford, and the constable Hammersmith, each of whom has a well-defined personality and admixture of positive and negative traits. (There are no worthwhile female characters, so the book flunks the Bechdel test entirely.) We get too much of Day’s home life without any real payoff, but Hammersmith’s back story turns out to be critical in defining the character and explaining some of his subversive actions.

Unfortunately, Grecian panders to the audience from the start by keeping his crimes graphic and offering repeated “shocks” to end maybe half of the book’s hundred-odd four-page chapters. We have the initial police murder, and then the murders of the bearded men who were shaved and then had their throats slit. We have a dead child, left to die in gruesome fashion, and the kidnapping of another by a man who may be a pedophile (Grecian implies this but, in a welcome bit of self-restraint, spares us any such details) but is certainly a psychopath. We have prostitutes, one a surviving victim of Saucy Jack himself. We get lots of time in Kingsley’s lab, with murder victims and others like the child laborer whose jaw was eaten away by phosphorus due to her work in a match factory. None of this was essential to the central plot, just extraneous details to titillate the reader and satisfy the same cravings that make lowbrow shows like Criminal Minds so successful.

The two central crimes also failed to grab my interest, and their resolutions revolved too much on coincidence and too little on actual policework for a novel ostensibly about police work. We learn the identity of the cop-killer before the quarter mark, and we get interludes from his perspective that add nothing beyond making it clear he’s a dangerous loony. He keeps showing his hand to the detectives, and he’s eventually found out through dumb luck. The so-called “Bearded Killer” is revealed a little later in the book, but it’s a crime without intrigue and only comes into play because Hammersmith ends up the target here before another idiot gets in the way and takes the razor intended for the constable. The Yard doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes, solving cases in a few hours through the powers of deduction, but I can’t say London would be any safer through these bobbies blundering through their cases and waiting for the killer to all but turn himself in.

* I’m dispensing with a full writeup for George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which appears on the Bloomsbury 100, as it was dull and a tough slog, a real disappointment after I enjoyed Middlemarch. Adam Bede is preachy, with its too-perfect characters and over-the-top depiction of a girl in trouble treated unfairly due to Victorian attitudes. (I’m sure it’s all quite accurate, but I don’t imagine this story would have changed many Victorian minds through its telling.) Adam is a simple, kind laborer who wants to work for a better life, falls for the wrong girl, then eventually falls for the right one, the end. It reads like a first novel, which it was, and takes so long to even get into the main plot that I would have given up after 100 pages had I not been so hellbent on finishing the entire Bloomsbury list.

* Next up: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which was a finalist for both the the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the year when the board declined to give the award to any title) and the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal (losing to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz).

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.

The Killer Inside Me.

I’m off to Arizona for some Fall League scouting this week, so barring a rainout there won’t be a chat or podcast, and dish posting may be sporadic.

I’m a huge fan of noir films and novels, starting with the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but, having finished both of their canons, moving on to darker crime novels like those of Jim Thompson, whose The Killer Inside Me is the third and most unsettling of his novels I’ve read so far. The basis for a 2010 movie starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, the novel delivers exactly what the title promises: It’s a first-person account of a sociopathic deputy sheriff whose solution to almost every problem is to kill whoever’s causing it.

Lou Ford is the narrator and killer in question, a cliche-spouting officer of the law who has a troubled background that has limited him to low-level police work, even though he has the intelligence of his father, a successful doctor who may have recognized that his son was mentally unstable. Ford’s narration is of dubious reliability, and he only gives us glimpses of his history of violence, but is more transparent when describing his predicament when an attempt to exact revenge on the town’s wealthy industralist backfires on him (in part through his own duplicity). Every solution he conceives involves violence, usually committed by him but pinned on someone else. After a few deaths too many, however, the facade he’s constructed starts to crumble as he realizes his bumpkin act isn’t fooling the powers that be any longer.

Thompson utilizes violence as a literary tool, as a window into “the sickness” inside of Ford and as a physical manifestation of the character’s inability to properly process negative emotions such as frustration or insecurity, largely avoiding lurid descriptions of Ford’s actions. Thompson largely avoids the question of a first cause, other than a hint that Lou may have been abused when he was a teenager, and focuses instead on the character’s almost robotic responses to difficult situations. He’s the pre-Anton Chigurh, but with a complexity that McCarthy’s arch-villain lacked, showing glimpses of emotions directed at others (through the lens of his own well-being, of course) and a wry sense of humor in between the spasms of violence.

The Killer Inside Me functions as a perverse character study, but its main appeal is its suspense – will Ford continue to kill with impunity, or will the various authorities stop him – and if they do, what kind of fight will he put up before he’s caught or killed? Ford even confesses to another murder he believes he has to commit – whether for practical reasons or due to “the sickness” is unclear – well before it takes place, then takes his time getting around to it, as if he’s enjoying toying with the reader’s emotions, or merely enjoying reliving the murder in his own mind.

The hazard of any novel that uses first-person narration where the narrator is the central character (and probably an unreliable narrator too) is that other characters become two-dimensional because we only see what the narrator sees, or what he wants to tell us. Thompson conveys the sense of a net closing in on Ford in part through the sheer number of characters whom Ford suspects have figured out his ruses, yet none of them has any depth because of the limitations of Ford’s own perception of others and their emotions. Ford is textured and at times opaque, but Thompson gives us a character who doesn’t describe other characters well because he can’t understand their emotions other than fear.

I didn’t enjoy The Killer Inside Me as much as the similar pop. 1280, which is more nuanced in its portrait of a ruthless killer, or The Grifters, which revolves around confidence men double-crossing each other in a study in sociopathy. Thompson’s ability to portray these half-people, consumed only with themselves and unable to feel anything for others, is disturbing in its realism, but that darkness is an essential ingredient in noir and, I admit, part of what I find so compelling in his novels.

Next up: I’m about a third of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and knocked off Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native last week.

The Keeper of Lost Causes.

I haven’t had a chance to respond to most of the feedback on my post about moving from Arizona to Delaware, but I do want to thank everyone who wrote to offer praise, support, prayers, or other kind words. I’ve read it all and I appreciate every bit of it.

Jussi Adler-Olson’s first Department Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, seems to have capitalized on the craze over Stieg Larsson’s novels to become a best-seller here in the U.S., another Scandinavian crime novel featuring an emotionally scarred detective as its protagonist. Adler-Olson’s story relies less on shock value to create narrative greed and features much stronger prose, so while it lacks the social criticism inherent on Larsson’s work it’s a much better novel overall.

Department Q is what we’d call a cold case department, created by the Danish government (in the novel, at least) as a matter of political expediency and used by one police chief to put homicide detective Carl Mørck out to pasture. Mørck was one of three detectives ambushed at a crime scene shortly before the novel opens, an attack that killed one of his colleagues and left the other paralyzed, while he is left to deal with survivor’s guilt and his own inability to deal with these emotions. The unsolved disappearance of a popular, pretty Danish politican five years earlier becomes the case that draws Mørck out of his depression, appealing to his curious side and his insatiable need to find the answer, while also drawing him into a peculiar partnership with his entry-level assistant, Assad, a man of surprising skills and an uncertain background.

The crimes at the center of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were extremely disturbing, involving violent rapes, torture, and murder, although exposing and criticizing a culture of violence against women was Larsson’s main point in writing the books. It made the first book an unpleasant read at times, even more so than in the more mundane passages where the book simply suffered from awkward prose. Here, the crime is vicious but the violence is mostly threatened and isn’t sexual in nature, while the criminal is deeply disturbed but not the kind of sadistic serial killer at the center of Larsson’s first book. Murderers of both sorts exist in the real world, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about all of them; Adler-Olson creates plenty of tension and loathing without having to resort to torture-porn writing.

The real appeal of The Keeper of Lost Causes is its adherence to classic detective/mystery structures in the investigation. Mørck and Assad do actual legwork and uncover the crime bit by bit, relying very little on coincidences and never needing a huge leap forward just to get the reader to the denouement in time to finish the novel. Adler-Olson limits the duo’s discoveries to what they could glean from the available evidence and reasonable deduction, even though the reader is generally a step or two ahead thanks to the author’s inclusion of passages from the perspective of the kidnapping victim (whom the detectives don’t know is alive until the very end of the book). Modern crime novels frequently focus so much on building up the personality of the lead detective – he’s troubled, he’s an addict, he doesn’t play by the rules, blah blah blah – that they forget to build the investigation slowly, with incremental progress, as you might expect a real process of deduction to progress. Adler-Olson probably shouldn’t be praised for doing something so obvious, but when it’s not that common in my exposure to this branch of popular fiction, it feels like it’s worth the plaudits.

Next up: I’ve already devoured Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending and have moved on to Adam Johnson’s Pulizer Prize for Fiction-winning The Orphan Master’s Son.

pop. 1280

My draft reviews are all up now – full recaps for every NL team and every AL team, plus my chat from early on day two, my day one recap, and Friday’s Behind the Dish podcast where I talked a bit about day one.

When I reviewed Jim Thompson’s The Grifters a few weeks ago, a reader said I should read his Pop. 1280 next, as it was his best work. It’s much tighter, definitely funnier and yet in ways far more fitting of the “noir” label, setting up the reader again and again for twists that turn a situation that seemed almost silly into a vision of paranoia and sociopathy.

Nick Corey is the narrator and protagonist of pop. 1280, the apparently hapless sheriff of the sparsely populated county of Pottsville in an unnamed state (probably Texas). Corey finds himself disrespected by the local criminals, including the two pimps at the town’s whorehouse, and verbally abused by the haughty sheriff of the more populous neighboring county. His manipulative, domineering wife Myra rules the roost at home, where they live with her simple-minded peeping-Tom brother. Nick presents himself as the amiable dunce, but the reader learns quickly that he is anything but friendly or a fool, and is either coldly rational and without empathy or is delusional and psychotic.

Thompson’s portrayal of the character is skilled and precise, crafting boundaries and expectations for the reader and then knocking them down as the character develops before the reader’s eyes. I don’t know if Nick is actually a sociopath – he might have a personality disorder, like narcissistic p.d., although that’s a better question for a psychiatrist who likes to diagnose fictional characters with mental illnesses – but he commands your attention. I found myself hanging on his words; I was eager to read what happened next, because he was unpredictable and his schemes were clever, but also because I wanted to hear what he said next because his words were less predictable than his actions. One by one, Nick identifies his problems and “solves” them, without significant regard for the consequences because he seems to believe that the rightness of his actions will protect him from any negative results.

One question the book didn’t and likely couldn’t answer was whether Nick’s standing in the town was a function of the public’s fear of him – did they recognize how dangerous he was, and leave him in office out of fear? I couldn’t view Nick as a reliable narrator, but at the same time we receive no other information beyond what he tells us, leaving us with no choice but to accept his version of events. Myra manipulates Nick, and cheats on him, and yet there are times when her demeanor towards him changes from condescension to fear, as if she’s witnessed a change in his personality from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. He’s one of the most interesting antiheroes I’ve come across in any genre.

Next up: Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.

Parker (a.k.a. Flashfire).

The top 100 prospects ranking is out now – you can view the entire list of names or jump right into the top 25 capsules, as well as the ten prospects who just missed the cut. My ranking of all 30 farm systems went up on Monday. I also did a Klawchat today. Wednesday will bring the AL top tens, with the NL on Thursday along with a fresh chat and the finale of the Baseball Today podcast.

I’ve mentioned Donald Westlake’s Parker series, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, twice before, thanks to the series of reissues by the University of Chicago Press and the fact that they keep sending me copies of these books. The latest one to show up in my mailbox was Flashfire, which has been reissued under the title Parker because it’s the loose basis for the movie currently in theaters, starring Jason Statham as the title character and Jennifer Lopez as his romantic foil of sorts.

Based on the Wikipedia description of the film’s plot, it seems like the screenwriters made a number of changes for the worse, attempting to ratchet up both the drama and the romantic tension in ways that violate the spirit of the novel and of the Parker series in general. Westlake’s writing here is sparse, as stark as his pen name implies, a stripped-down version of the more literary noir novels of the Chandler/Hammett cohort, and the plot is straightforward although not exactly simple. The novel begins with a bank heist where Parker is betrayed by his three partners, who keep his share as an “investment” in their next job, a massive jewelry theft planned for Palm Beach. Parker has no choice but to let them leave with his money, instead plotting a slow, thorough revenge on his former mates. The plan ends up intertwining him with a local realtor, Leslie, who starts to figure out that he’s up to something other than just shopping for real estate, which turns out to be critical when Parker is shot by hit men sent after him for reasons not entirely Parker’s fault.

The novel’s main separator for me was the interaction between Parker and Leslie, where Leslie’s interest in him goes from purely opportunistic – he’s her ticket to a better life – to something resembling romantic, while Parker remains all business at all times, and views Leslie as a useful asset but nothing more, even contemplating killing her if she becomes too problematic. The imbalance replaces the generic romantic tension of mass-market detective/mystery novels with a different kind of tension, as two people who need each other try to use each other within the parameters they’ve each set for themselves, one trying not to get too close, the other trying to get just close enough. I’m disappointed to see that the film alters this formula a little bit to try to appeal to a broader audience, which doesn’t seem to have worked anyway; sticking to the book more faithfully might have garnered stronger reviews, bringing in a different but at least more substantial crowd.

The one flaw in the book is Parker surviving the attempt on his life by the hit men due to a highly amusing deus ex machina, a white supremacist militia that might as well have been organized by Joe Arpaio and that happens to be patrolling the area of the Everglades where Parker is shot. For a character who survives and succeeds on his wits in most of the books to live to see another day thanks to a band of idiots happening to be in the right place at the right time is a copout unworthy of the character or of Westlake. Even his decision to get into the car, under duress, with two people likely to try to kill him was questionable; I expected him to make some kind of move rather than submit to near-certain death. I won’t pretend that the Parker novels are great literature, but the plots are always interesting and tightly crafted, so this one plot point was all the more irritating for its relative cheapness. Outside of that, Parker fits the bill for me for plane reading – quick, engrossing, serpentine, yet never pandering or insulting.

Next up: Joe Posnanski’s book on the 1975 Reds, The Machine.

Lush Life.

I discovered Richard Price’s 2009 novel Lush Life on Lev Grossman’s list of the ten best novels of the 2000s, where it was one of only two novels I hadn’t read (the other is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Price’s novel was, and still is, just $6 new on amazon, and after picking it up I found out Price wrote the story and/or teleplay for five episodes of The Wire, which would have been enough to sell me on the book in the first place. (He even appeared as the leader of the prison book group where D’Angelo Barksdale gives his thoughts on The Great Gatsby, one of the best episodes in the entire series.) Lush Life does have a lot in common with that TV series, in its realistic depictions of the police and the criminal underclass, in outstanding dialogue that’s almost a little too sharp to be real, and in the deft weaving of multiple storylines revolving around a large ensemble of characters. It’s the best novel I’ve read this year.

Lush Life begins, after a brief prologue, with a murder, a mugging gone wrong in the small hours on a street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where three drunk white men are accosted by two teenagers in an encounter that leaves one of the men dead, another passed-out drunk on the sidewalk, and the third unable to tell a straight enough story for the police. From that starting point, Price branches the story further and further out, tracking the two surviving victims, the two assailants, the murder victim’s father and stepmother, and the various detectives investigating the case (and the higher-ups who either want the case closed quickly or forgotten entirely).

By setting the book in the broad tableau of Manhattan urban life, Price can touch on a vast range of themes without ever making one central or lapsing into preachy or pedantic prose. Race sits at the heart of the novel because the victims were white while the assailants weren’t, and because the white-dominated media loves a privileged white victim of urban crime. Yet Price avoids most explicit discussions of race or racism, allowing the story to unfold through dialogue and changes of perspective that also show scenes of the economically disadvantaged project kids, two of whom are responsible for the crime, most of whom are shown without much hope of upward mobility outside of theft or the drug trade. The media are largely shown as leeches. The higher-ups at 1 Police Plaza are more interested in results that keep them employed than, in this case, closing a difficult-to-solve case. Even the detectives who caught the body here – led by Matty Clark, a McNulty-esque character with less of a drinking problem – are far from saints, motivated to close the case and move on to the next one so no one breathes down their necks, even if they don’t get the right perp, while Clark becomes entangled with the victim’s family with unintended consequences.

The most remarkable aspect of the novel is just how much Price manages to pack into a book of about 450 pages, between the richly developed characters and the myriad plot threads that spread from the initial murder and in many cases come back together at the novel’s close. I finished Lush Life feeling like I’d just watched a six-episode season of a TV drama, something as intelligent as The Wire yet surprisingly fresh and compact. The dialogue sparkles and the characters never seem to sit too far to either side of the wide expanse of grey between the two stock extremes. It’s also darkly funny in places, sometimes with gallows humor, sometimes with the stupidity of the kids getting caught with cars full of marijuana smoke or the venality of the cops, lawyers, reporters, and business owners whose lives are indirectly affected by the murder. It’s not groundbreaking literature, but it is highly intelligent fiction that never talks down to its reader and possesses the narrative greed of a good detective story even though the reader knows who committed the crime and is less concerned with their capture than with the evolution of the story in between those two points.

Next up: Don DeLillo’s very strange novel White Noise, part of the TIME and Radcliffe 100 lists.