Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

I’ve had mixed results with Norman Mailer’s work in the past – I loved The Executioner’s Song, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction even though it’s pretty clearly a work of non-fiction, but bailed on The Naked and the Dead after just a handful of pages because of its turgid prose and Dickensian attention to detail. When I read that he’d written a noir-ish detective novel, though, I figured the genre would at least make up for any obstacles I found in his writing, and contemporary reviews of the book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, were so positive that I gave it a shot. It’s somewhere in the middle for me, overdone as a work of genre fiction, but also, I think, exploring a theme that’s basically absent from the first fifty years or so of hard-boiled detective stories.

Tim Madden is a writer who never seems to write anything, and whose wife has walked out on him, apparently for good this time. Their relationship is built on nothing much at all, but he’s broken up about it, and goes on a bender one night after meeting a couple from California in a bar in his adopted home of Provincetown (a small town at the tip of Cape Cod that, then and now, is known as a gay haven, which turns out to matter substantially in the story). He wakes up the next morning to find he has a tattoo with the name of a woman he doesn’t know, blood all over the inside of his car, and, eventually, a woman’s head in the place where he stashes his marijuana. He’s then left to try to figure out what happened – including who the woman was and whether he killed her – while various people from his past and present show up, including the woman he once dumped for his wife after they went to a swingers’ party, and complicate his efforts to solve the crime.

The novel’s style seems a clear callback to the hard-boiled novels of which I am so fond, although Mailer’s prose is more involved than the clipped tones of Dashiell Hammett or the sparse artistry of Raymond Chandler. It’s almost too well-written for the genre, in that you can tell this is a very good writer trying his hand at an unfamiliar type of writing. Nearly all of the side characters are straight out of central casting – dimwitted hoods, ex-boxers, corrupt cops – but Tim himself is unique, a writer rather than a detective, a child of privilege who got kicked out of Exeter, a former drug dealer who did a stint in prison where he met a former Exeter classmate of his who’ll also figure in the present mystery.

I’m completely interpreting here, but I think Mailer was trying to explore questions of masculinity, especially as it related to homosexuality, something that’s even telegraphed in the novel’s title, which comes from an anecdote within the book where a mobster utters that line, as if dancing would erode his toughness. (It also called to mind the Belle & Sebastian line, “We all know you’re soft/cause we’ve all seen you dancing.”) Most of the male characters in the novel are grappling with maintaining some sort of facade of manliness in the face of emotions that, I think especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, would have marked them as effeminate, if not as “gay” in the pejorative sense of the term. There’s a lot of just plain ol’ fashioned heterosexual depravity in this book, and of course given the time of its writing (published in 1984), there’s quite a bit of homophobic language, including a reference to “Kaposi’s plague,” which refers to a rare cancer that became common among gay men at the time and turned out to be associated with AIDS. But so much of that content read to me like men trying to prove they’re men – I’m not gay, see how I say awful things about gay men, they’re all (bundles of sticks), I’d like to kill them all, etc. The straight men doth protest too much.

And while I doubt “toxic masculinity” was even a term back in the early 1980s – as far as I can tell, it was coined well after the book was written – there’s a huge element of that within the book and behind the crime itself. Without spoiling the whodunit, I’ll say that men trying to either prove their masculinity or suppress characteristics that might be labeled as feminine or gay loom very large within the story, enough that when I finished the book, I found that theme was much more on my mind than the plot itself, which was a little too convoluted, with the murders kind of too pointless for this style of novel. That makes it a cerebral detective story, but maybe not as compelling of a mystery as the classics of the genre are.

Next up: Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning novel Spin.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

Too Many Cooks.

I have new Insider posts up on the Wade Miley-Carson Smith trade and the Hisashi Iwakuma contract. My latest boardgame review over at Paste covers 7 Wonders Duel, the new two-player game that uses the theme and some mechanics from the outstanding original 7 Wonders.

I don’t normally post on books in series, since part of any series’ appeal is the familiarity you get from title to title, but Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, the fifth of what would eventually be his thirty-three novels starring the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe and his milk-swigging sidekick Archie Goodwin. (I’ve now read thirteen of them, plus four books of short stories or novellas.) But this book merited some comment for two reasons, or perhaps two and a half if you consider the new meaning of the book’s title:

The story itself is one of the few that has Wolfe leave his famous brownstone, from which he solves most of the cases that come to him, usually in a climactic scene where all of the suspects gather in his parlor for the Big Reveal. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Goodwin travel to a spa/resort in West Virginia for the festivities of the Quinze Maîtres, a collection of chefs (fifteen in name, with only twelve attending due to the deaths of three since the previous meeting) from around the world who gather every five years for enormous meals, presentations on food, and, in this case, murder. When one of the twelve is killed during a tasting experiment he’s running, Wolfe first has to clear the chef who invited him to the shindig, and eventually solves the murder when the killer takes a shot at Wolfe himself.

Wolfe’s view of the world always involves food and drink (usually cold beer), as he employs a full-time chef, Fritz, and cooks frequently himself, but Stout outdoes himself in the descriptions of the dinners the Maîtres enjoy, as well as the sauce printemps that’s used in the tasting test during which the murder occurs. I found it fascinating to see how different haute cuisine – or, I guess, what Stout considered haute cuisine – looked in 1938, when the book was published, from what it has become now. The sumptuous meals in Too Many Cooks are almost entirely derived from French cuisine, directly or through some translation on the American side of the ocean, with nothing from outside of Europe, and the overemphasis on animal proteins is almost embarrassing to an educated eater today. The test in question is clever, although I wonder how feasible it would be in practice: One chef prepares the same sauce nine different ways, each time omitting one critical ingredient, and the other chefs must taste each sauce once and fill out a card indicating which batch was missing which ingredient. The test is tangential to the main plot, more red herring than essential element, but I also inferred that Stout was having a little fun with his fascination with food.

On the flip side, however, of all of the Nero Wolfe works I’ve read, I don’t think any used the n-word as frequently as Too Many Cooks does, even though most of the time it’s used it comes from the mouth of one of the southern whites in the book – such as the redneck local sheriff who shows up to investigate the murder. This prompted a question in my mind that I’ll pose to the group. In general, I don’t support the idea of bowdlerizing older works of art – film, literature, etc. – to remove language that was in the common vernacular of the time but has since become objectionable or effectively prohibited. This is how people talked and acted, and removing those words or actions (such as the awful blackface scene in Holiday Inn) not only reduces the works’ historical accuracy but has the possibly unintended effect of allowing us to pretend that this crap never happened. At the resort in Too Many Cooks, the kitchen staff members are mostly black, and everyone but Wolfe refers to them in derogatory terms, liberally sprinkled with that odious epithet. In reality, you could clean this text up, removing most of those uses of the term and replacing with less offensive words that still express the racism of the speakers, without materially impacting the text. Failing to replace those words makes the book much less enjoyable to read, and I would guess many if not most African-American readers today would find it unreadable. (Don’t even get me started on Gone With the Wind.) So what would you prefer: Leave these works as they are, as I believe we should, as testaments to our history, or “edit” them to be more culturally sensitive?

Next up: Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts.

Inherent Vice.

I was oh for two with Thomas Pynchon books and figured that was enough to assume I just didn’t like his writing style, but two strong recommendations from friends for his 2009 novel Inherent Vice: A Novel, and seeing it available for $6 at a local B&N, were enough for me to give it a short. As much as I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow and just didn’t get The Crying of Lot 49, I loved Inherent Vice, which is a laugh-out-loud funny detective story and homage to/sendup of noir fiction, replete with the cultural allusions that mark all of Pynchon’s work, but in this case in a package that you can actually read, understand, and enjoy.

Doc Sportello is the detective, a private investigator in LA in the early 1970s, working out of the standard shabby office with the standard fetching secretary out front, but replacing the alcohol usage of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade with pot – and a lot of it, to the point where reality and hallucination start to blend for Doc and for the reader. The case walks in off the street, a woman who thinks her dead husband may not be dead after all, and as is par for the course in classic detective fiction, the superficial case opens the door to a broader conspiracy that involves crooked cops, organized crime, and a lot more pot. (That last part may not be standard for the genre.) Doc ends up knocked unconscious, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, in trouble with three or four different groups, and making a lot of wisecracks when his head is clear enough to permit it.

Nobody in Doc’s circle of friends and associates is remotely normal except perhaps his sort-of girlfriend Penny, who works in the local DA’s office and isn’t shy about using him as a chip to get something she wants from the feds. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho, is actually a marine lawyer whose comprehension of criminal law is about as clear as the marine layer, and who is obsessed with a ship of unclear provenance, the Golden Fang, that turns out to be significant in Doc’s case. His friend Denis – you pronounce it to rhyme with “penis” – is so THC- and other drug-addled that he provides some of the book’s funniest moments, one involving a waterbed, one involving a lost slice of pizza, and the other involving a television set. There’s a crazy former client, Doc’s ex-girlfriend (who is also tied up in the main case), the “masseuses,” the ridiculously-named feds (Flatweed and Borderline, or F&B like food and beverage?) …

…and the cop-antagonist, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who simultaneously bows to and blows up the stereotypical cop from all hard-boiled detective fiction, the thickheaded guy who gets in the way, hates the PI, always tries to arrest the PI for something, and ends up getting the collar thanks to the PI’s hard work. Bigfoot is big and thickheaded and doesn’t particularly care for Doc, but he’s far from the dumb or useless cop we typically get in the genre – he’s a character of some complexity, more so than any other character but Doc.

While the crimes at the center of the book are involved and take some time for Doc to sort out, to the extent that he does actually sort much of it out, Pynchon chose not to employ the labyrinthine prose and highly allusive style that made Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, an unreadable mess. You may not entirely follow Doc’s thinking or his actions, but that’s only when he can’t, because he’s stoned. That much mind-alteration can make users paranoid, and Doc is paranoid … but they’re really after him, too, and his paranoia tends to serve him pretty well. Pynchon does nothing to clearly distinguish the hallucinatory sequences from reality, but it’s also not that hard to tell when the haze has set in, and Doc gets some time on the page to sort these out himself in case you’re still confused.

Inherent Vice speaks to me because I love the genre that Pynchon is both satirizing and honoring; Doc is hard-boiled to an extent, except that he’s walking around in huarache sandals and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, gives his hair a sort of perm at the start of the book that takes much of any hard edge off the character. But more than anything else, Pynchon has finally taken the humor that his adherents have long found in his books and put it in a format that the rest of us can appreciate. The book is flat-out funny in multiple ways – situational humor, clever banter, the absurdity of most of what Denis does, and even comedy around sex that comes off as, if not exactly highbrow, less lowbrow than most attempts at sexual humor too. Stoner humor doesn’t always hit the mark because much of it just makes the stoner out to be stupid, but stupid alone isn’t funny. It has to be a certain kind of stupid – in the stoner’s case an absurd twist on it, much in the way that Andy on Parks & Recreation was funny because his lack of intelligence manifested itself in these wildly illogical paths in his mind. Marijuana use isn’t funny, kids; it’s hilarious.

Making the book so readable means that the things Pynchon has always done well, like cultural references, are suddenly accessible to the rest of us. Pynchon loves to make up names – silly character names (Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, the loan shark Adrian Prussia who happens to have the initials that stand for Accounts Payable), but also band names (Spotted Dick), radio stations, songs, movies (Godzilligan’s Island), and so on, and they get sillier as the novel goes on. Many names refer to plants (trillium, flatweed, japonica, charlock, smilax), although if there’s a broader significance to that than that marijuana is also a plant, I missed it. Doc is obsessed with the actor John Garfield, who played hard-boiled characters and refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which also comes up when Dalton Trumbo’s name is broached; the whole post-McCarthy era looms large as then-President Nixon was trying again to crack down on “subversive” elements, which is a small part of the novel’s main plot line. We even get Doc’s parents, which you never get in a detective novel, worrying about their son’s career and bachelorhood and providing one last bit of comic relief before the novel closes.

I’ve since seen some contemporary reviews of the book that were disappointed that it wasn’t vintage Pynchon, and one that cited a lack of suspense (that reviewer had to be unfamiliar with the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction), but I haven’t read a novel in some time that hit on this many cylinders for me. It’s phenomenally funny, very smart, and yet at its core is a very well-crafted detective story. Maybe I will have to try some more Pynchon after all.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

My latest Insider post breaks down the MLB Futures Game rosters. I also held a Klawchat today.

Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has been a global bestseller, garnering enormous critical praise even from sources typically more hostile to mass-market potboilers. Dicker’s novel is better than your average pageturner, a book with loftier, more literary aspirations that manages to get much of the way toward its goals without losing any of the narrative greed that made it very hard for me to put the book down. (I read its 640 pages in six days, and that’s without a flight where I could spend a few hours of uninterrupted reading time.)

QbertDicker has wrapped a standard detective novel in layers of other story templates, so that the resulting book is complex and textured even though no individual plot line is all that involved. Harry Quebert is a famous novelist whose magnum opus, the 1975 book The Origin of Evil, made his name in literary circles, landed him a teaching gig at Burrows College in Massachusetts, and, as we learn early in the book, was actually written about his love affair with a 15-year-old girl named Nola (while Quebert was 34), who disappeared without a trace just before the book was published. Quebert’s protég&ecaute; Marcus Goldman, himself mired in writer’s block following the runaway success of his first novel, has reached out to Harry for help in working on his second book when Nola’s body is discovered, buried in Harry’s garden, spurring Marcus to try to solve the mystery of her murder, clear Harry’s name (assuming he deserves to be cleared), and write that second book so his publisher doesn’t nail his head to a coffee table.

That gives us a detective novel wrapped in a mentor/pupil story wrapped in a book about writing, around which Dicker sprinkles the forbidden love story between Harry and Nola, with most of the book set in the seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire. That town is populated with the various suspects in Nola’s disappearance and a contemporaneous murder, as well as various other crimes that come to light as Marcus’ investigation progresses. The side characters are well-formed with serious back stories, very reminiscent in form and location to the best of Richard Russo’s novels, most of which are set in New England towns albeit ones in economic decline. It’s remarkable since Dicker isn’t American by birth; he spent summers in a town similar to Somerset, but by and large he captures the American idiom well and has the rhythm of New England town life down better than many authors who were born here.

The copious praise was met with some inevitable backlash, and the latter does have some merit as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is smart popular fiction but hardly up to the loftier standards of some of Dicker’s obvious inspirations. The natural comparison is to Philip Roth, as Goldman strongly resembles Zuckerman (including Goldman’s mother, a horrible caricature of a meddling, overreacting Jewish mother who makes Sophie Portnoy look like Mother Theresa) in character and involvement in the narrative he’s unfolding for us. In case the parallel was strong enough, Dicker names Quebert’s lawyer Roth. Nola is Lolita (a diminutive for Lola) in age and precocity, but whether she is temptress or innocent isn’t clear till the final two chapters of the book. (Of course, Lolita herself may not be the vixen Nabokov depicts her to be, as the story is told by the thoroughly unreliable Humbert Humbert, whose name isn’t that dissimilar from Harry’s – and Harry’s reliability isn’t rock-solid either.) The whole murder in a small town motif is very Agatha Christie, although the prose is more sparing, in line with Hammett or Chandler, just not quite in league with either.

At its heart, however, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a detective novel, and a ripping one at that. Dicker has built an elaborate web of deceit through Somerset’s Twin Peaks/Broadchurch-esque populace, and starts peeling back layers slowly at first, picking up the pace dramatically at the end just as Quebert’s writing advice to Marcus advises him to do so. The resolution, while horrifying, is impressive in its tidiness and thoroughness. It fits the facts, yet I didn’t see it coming at all.

What this isn’t, however, is a great work of literature: It may be great fiction, but some of the praise for the book seems to place it in league with masters of the genre like Chandler or on par with the works of Roth and Saul Bellow. (The BBC had an interesting piece last summer, asking whether this could be the Great American Novel, which is how I first heard of the book.) The prose survives translation well and isn’t choppy or antiseptic like Stieg Larsson’s, but it’s pedestrian: Dicker tells the story, but there’s nothing special in his phrasing or rhythm. The advice from Harry to Marcus is often laughably hackneyed, and those brief interludes introducing each chapter are one of the book’s biggest weaknesses, along with Marcus’ mother and the cliched backstory on Luther Caleb. It’s the construction of the house of plots and the pacing of the main story that makes The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair more than your average bit of pulp fiction, a choice for leisure reading that will move at high speed without causing your brain to decay from disuse.

Next up: Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, a recommendation I got years ago from a fellow fan of British literature. It’s currently out of print, but you can get a new copy of the 2007 printing for over $2000 on amazon.

The Benson Murder Case.

My ranking of the top 50 prospects in this year’s draft class went up on Friday for Insiders; I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the excellent baseball-themed deckbuilder Baseball Highlights: 2045.

I don’t know how or when I came across Philo Vance, the crime-solver at the heart of a dozen mysteries written by art critic Willard Huntington Wright under the psuedonym S.S. Van Dine, although I suspect it came about when I was researching J.K. Rowling’s favorite detective novels as she did press around the releases of her two Cormoran Strike books. I grabbed the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case, because it’s just $1.99 for the Kindle (and for iBooks too), and at that price it seemed a sure bet to be, as Paddington might put it, very good value. I knocked it out on the flight from Philly to Orlando last month because Van Dine managed to create a ripping dialogue-heavy format, where the brilliant Vance solves the crime in the first chapter via abductive reasoning but waits for the investigating officer to come to the truth via standard deduction (and a lot of dead ends). Vance is maddening in his arrogance and clipped speech, but also very witty and well-suited to a format where the reader is also encouraged in a sense to play along with the lead officer to try to solve the crime.

The Benson Murder Case appears to be very similar to the famous locked-door mysteries of classic fiction; the victim of the book’s title is found shot in his favorite chair, apparently by someone he knew, with no signs of forced entry or any struggle and no direct evidence that anyone else was even in the room. Many people had good, obvious reasons to want him dead, and the lack of evidence pointing to one person being on site effectively opens up the possibility that any of the suspects were there. Vance takes one look at the scene, asks a few questions that don’t even seem to be germane to the crime, and announces shortly thereafter that he’s solved the case – but won’t tell the officer investigating it, stating (correctly, I’d argue) that the detective has to come to the solution himself to believe it, given how much Vance’s own answer relies on logic and how little it depends on physical evidence (which he openly disdains).

Vance’s diction reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonair star of eleven novels and a handful of short stories by Dorothy Sayers; Wimsey engages in more direct investigation, but his own peculiar manner of speech contradicts his high birth and education at Eton and Oxford. Wismey’s speech patterns and pronunciation made reading his dialogue unnecessarily difficult, whereas Vance’s is subtle enough that it was more mild annoyance than out-and-out distraction. That allowed me to focus more on trying to backtrace Vance’s thinking, while avoiding straying too far down the path of the obvious (where Van Dine is only too happy to lead you). So while I never went back for more of Sayers’ work (perhaps unfairly so) after reading her first novel, I’ll keep rolling with Vance, especially since the next two novels are available for Kindle at the same price.

I also read Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum recently, a dreadful account of war in China across three generations, told with horrifying detail of the violence perpetrating by the Japanese invaders on Chinese civilians and soldiers, and by Chinese fighters on each other during the same period. One scene depicts the flaying of a Chinese fighter in eerily similar fashion to the flaying scene in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Murakami’s works have a breadth of tone and emotion that Red Sorghum lacks. The horrors of war are real, but that doesn’t mean they make for fun reading.

Next up: I’ll review David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in the next few days, and have just started Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

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.

Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.

The Silkworm.

J.K. Rowling’s second detective novel starring Cormoran Strike, The Silkworm, continues to establish the detective character as the star of the series – a critical trait in any variation on the hard-boiled theme – while dropping Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, into the world of publishing and avant-garde literature. While the crime and its resolution are just as compelling as that of the first novel in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s Strike and Robin who keep the story moving, as Rowling develops each character and explores their professional and personal relationship.

Strike is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost one of his lower legs to an IED, born out of wedlock to a groupie of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, with whom Strike has next to no relationship at all, although I get the sense we’ll meet Rokeby in a future book. His foundering private investigation business has received a huge boost after he solved the murder in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which brings Leonora Quine, the wife of the eccentric and would-be transgressive novelist Owen Quine, to his office to track down her missing husband. Of course, Owen’s been murdered, in a grisly fashion that mirrors the concluding scene of his new, unpublished book Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”). Solving the murder requires Strike and Robin to navigate the huge egos of Quine’s corner of the publishing world while also engaging in the kind of textual analysis you might expect to find in a college literature class. (I would have loved more passages from the fake book, but I’m generally a sucker for metafiction – and it would be fun to see Rowling mock transgressive literature.)

Rowling seems to have had a lot of fun sending up her targets in the worlds of literature and publishing, not least in the character of Quine – a philandering artiste of questionable talent, still living off the reviews of his first novel, published decades earlier, and financial support from his longtime agent, Liz Tassel. Quine’s ability and commercial success both pale compared to those of his rival, Michael Fancourt, who appears to be his own biggest fan and who has some very curious thoughts on literature, art, and love. I don’t recognize any specific targets of these parodies, if that is indeed what they are, and while they’re all entertaining and more than just two-dimensional side characters, they only come to life at all because of how Strike and Robin work them over during their investigation.

In the first novel in the series, Robin came on board as a temp and served primarily as Strike’s admistrative assistant and chief organizer, but we knew then that she had aspirations of joining Cormoran in detective work. She gets more such opportunities in the Quine case, and the result might be The Silkworm‘s greatest strength: Rowling crafts her into a strong, compelling, three-dimensional female co-lead, so while Strike is still front and center, it’ll be hard to imagine him working without her, both because she can do things he can’t (particularly where a more sensitive touch is needed with a witness or suspect) and because he’s coming to depend on her professionally and even emotionally.

That development means that The Silkworm does suffer from some second-novel blues, as Rowling spends time on her two characters on plot threads that aren’t related to the crime (something you’d never find in a classic hard-boiled detective novel) and that don’t lead to any specific resolution or catharsis at the end of the novel. Strike’s relationship with the beautiful but damaged Charlotte, which ended at the start of the first book, takes a few more turns for the worse, while Robin’s relationship with her fiancé Matt hits the skids over her commitment to a job he didn’t want her to keep. Those diversions are still critical to the evolution of Robin’s relationship with Strike, and I can imagine further development in all three relationships (or, in the case of Strike/Charlotte, a relationship that won’t quite end) in future books in the series, but they came across as too tangential to The Silkworm‘s story.

Rowling’s greatest gift as a writer – and I believe she has several – is storycraft, and while The Silkworm isn’t as involved as any of the Harry Potter novels or even The Casual Vacancy, it is tight and gripping and, in hindsight, gives the reader sufficient clues to sniff out the killer, although I was never really sure and ultimately fell for Rowling’s final feint. The investigation is convoluted and nonlinear, with Strike and Robin pursuing multiple leads at once, and Rowling eventually telling us what they’re doing without telling us what they find so she can obscure the killer’s identity until the very end of the book. The emphasis on the process, such as Strike’s advice to Robin before her first attempt to interrogate a witness, added a realistic element to the novel.

The New York Times review of The Silkworm ended with an ambiguous opinion on the novel, that “the most compelling characters are not the killer or the victim, but the detectives charged with solving the crime.” To me, however, that is an unequivocal statement of praise – a great detective novel starts and ends with the detective him- or herself. The story’s the thing in a mystery, although the detective can become part of the appeal in that genre as well, but I enjoy detective novels when I like the detective, whether he’s hard-boiled or sunnyside-up. I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s voice and ability to craft a story I can’t put down, and now that she’s attached those to a great if unusual detective character, I’m all in.

Next up: Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

A Beautiful Blue Death.

Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. I’ll be at Citi Field Saturday and part of Sunday for this year’s Metropolitan Classic tournament.

I received Charles Finch’s debut novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, as a gift for my birthday from someone who knows of my affinity for both detective novels and British literature, making it a potentially perfect fit, with reviews and pull quotes comparing its main character to Sherlock Holmes. With that leadup, you know I’m going to tell you that I hated this book for its dull-as-an-old-butterknife protagonist, formulaic plot, and obvious resolution. It’s a sappy trifle that I was sad to see has spurred six sequels in a matter of as many years.

The detective at the heart of the novel is the Victorian gentleman Charles Lenox, a man of leisure and broad knowledge and apparently some renown in London of the 1860s for solving difficult crimes, something we learn by frequent mention of these amazing feats of deduction – all seemingly non sequiturs that make no sense to the reader because they refer to events that never happened. More problematic is that Lenox is a damn bore. He’s too perfect – kind to everyone, thoughtful, sending anonymous gifts and donations to side characters who might otherwise make the reader sad – and has a strictly platonic relationship with the widow next door, Lady Jane. Lenox’s biggest flaw seems to be a habit of disappointing his travel agent, with whom he plans long international journeys only to cancel them, but he even sends the gentleman a £50 deposit just to make everything okay.

The story itself is fairly mundane, a slight twist on the formula that’s as old as Miss Marple – a murder in a closed house, with a limited number of suspects, one of whom will inevitably be killed in the middle of the book around the time that he becomes the primary suspect himself. The first murder is that of Prudence Smith, former lady’s maid to Lady Jane, later a maid in the house of George Barnard at the time of her death. Barnard had two nephews and three business or political acquaintances staying with him at the time, all of whom become suspects as well as one or two of the servants. Lenox dispatches his Jeeves-like butler on various fact-finding missions, gets assaulted by a pair of thugs who leave a cryptic message, then stumbles through a series of incorrect theories before arriving at the right one – little of which bears any resemblance to Holmes or any other “gentleman detective” of that era.

Dorothy Sayers created the archetypal gentleman detective with Lord Peter Wimsey, setting her character in interbellum London, but infusing his character with more complexity and even a few flaws, something Lenox lacks. Wimsey was wealthy with a patrician upbringing, but speaks in a lower-class vernacular. He suffers from shell shock (PTSD) after service in World War I, which redefines his relationship with his manservant, Bunter. Yet Sayers received criticism for making Wimsey too perfect, given his breadth of knowledge and talents, which grow over the course of the series. (Full disclosure: I read the first book, Whose Body?, didn’t love the ending, and haven’t picked up the second title.) Yet Wimsey is a train wreck compared to the pristine Lenox, whose character has no flaws and no exceptional strengths, making him the worst thing a fictional detective can be: Boring. Hell, even Holmes had his cocaine. Perhaps Lenox should give laudanum a try.

Next up: I’m slogging through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, only to learn yesterday that there’s a newer, better translation than the one I’ve got. I’m halfway done so there’s no point stopping now.