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.

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 Cuckoo’s Calling.

J.K. Rowling published her first detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, apparently to see what kind of response she would get to a novel that didn’t have her name attached to it. The book received strong reviews, but barely sold anything until word leaked – or “leaked” – that Rowling was the true author, at which point it became a global best-seller, along the lines of the more modestly-reviewed The Casual Vacancy. It turns out that Rowling has quite a knack for the detective genre, crafting a legitimate hard-boiled detective story, complete with a compelling main character, along the lines of the field’s masters, just updated to a modern setting, and populated with characters and red-herring subplots you might find in a classic mystery novel too.

The detective at the heart of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Cormoran Strike, is indeed hard-boiled, a very down-on-his-luck detective, discharged from the British armed services after losing part of one leg to an IED in Afghanistan, and momentarily living in his office after breaking up with his longtime, faithless girlfriend Charlotte. Strike receives two unexpected visitors to start the novel: A new client, the brother of one of his old school chums (who died when riding his bike into a local quarry as a teenager), asking Strike to investigate the alleged suicide of his adoptive sister; and a temporary secretary, Robin, whom Strike wasn’t expecting and probably can’t afford to keep, but who takes to the work far more than either she or Strike anticipated.

The suicide in question is that of Lula Landry, a supermodel and star of newspaper gossip columns who appears to have jumped to her death from her new luxury apartment, a building also occupied by a famous film producer and his coke-addict wife, as well as an American rapper who has written several songs about Lula. Her brother, John, doesn’t believe the official verdict of suicide, and wants Strike to find the truth, suspecting two hooded black men spotted fleeing from the area of her building on CCTV footage.

The Cuckoo’s Calling brought me back to the first Hercule Poirot novel, Death on the Nile, one of Agatha Christie’s finest works because of the broad set of characters she introduced and heavy use of red-herrings, where nearly every character who didn’t commit the murder at the heart of the novel has some other secret Poirot eventually sniffs out. Rowling has also populated her book with peculiar secondary characters and suspicious suspects, most of whom have something going on they’d rather you not know about, even if it had nothing to do with Lula’s murder. (Spoiler: She didn’t kill herself. Sorry.) While I understand Rowling’s prose has always provoked oppobrium from critics, I appreciate her highly evocative style of writing, long on descriptions to allow the reader to see the action in his/her mind – which suits how I read fiction.

I’m currently re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time by reading a chapter a night aloud to my daughter – we’re on The Goblet of Fire and I’m running short of accents already – and, because I know the plots so well, I’m picking up all of the clues Rowling left along the way to point the perceptive reader to the ultimate reveal at the end of each book. She uses the same tactic in The Cuckoo’s Calling: Everything you need to know to figure out who did it is there in the book, but she blends these details into the dialogue so well that they didn’t stand out (to me, at least) as obvious clues.

The pleasure in detective novels isn’t so much about the whodunit as it is about the central detective character, whether it’s a hard-boiled shamus like the Continental Cop or an erudite eccentric like Nero Wolfe. Rowling appears to have studied the genre well, as Strike has plenty of aspects of the hard-boiled detective, but with modern flourishes, including what I might call his unusual parentage, and enough of an intellectual streak to call to mind Wolfe or Lord Peter Wimsey – which also means Rowling doesn’t have to have Strike fight his way out of most of his confrontations with suspects. His interactions with Robin, his less-interesting assistant who remains endearing for her innocent eagerness to participate in the detecting side of the job (perhaps an alter ego for the reader), also break type, as Rowling seems to have made it clear that the two aren’t going to shack up, a direction I hope she maintains in future books. It’s a promising beginning to a new series, especially if you liked Rowling’s detail-oriented writing style and the humor she always worked into the Harry Potter novels, and would like to see that brought to the hard-boiled detective arena, a genre where sparse prose is the usual rule. The next Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, comes out on June 19th.

The Grifters.

I’ve got a draft blog post up on Braden Shipley and Aaron Judge, as well as a post with predictions for the 2013 season.

Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel The Grifters is my first encounter with his work, a neo-noir novel that draws from the prose style of hard-boiled detective novels but brings it outside of the detective genre, instead focusing on the cons themselves with barely a shamus in sight. The three main characters are all tied together in simple ways, but Thompson develops them each so deeply that the result is like a modern, dark Greek tragedy, written by someone who read too much Raymond Chandler. (Note: One cannot read too much Chandler.)

Adapted into the 1990 film of the same name by Donald Westlake, The Grifters centers on Roy Dillon, a mid-20s artist of the “small con,” little tricks designed to yield up to $100 that won’t attract too much notice from the police. His indifferent, manipulative mother Lilly is herself involved with the mob, as she has been for years, now helping them rig the betting against longshots at the track. Roy avoids most lasting relationships, as part of the life of the grifter but also a consequence of a childhood with a sociopathic mother, yet ends up involved with Moira Langtry, who is also on the make but whose motives aren’t immediately clear. When one of Roy’s small cons leaves him nearly dead and in need of convalescence, his mother makes her move to reestablish herself in her son’s life – for her own purposes, of course.

Roy is the far more developed character in the book, working from an independent sense of morality, wary of his mother yet unable to fully sever ties with her, but Lilly is far more fascinating – the mother who’d eat her young and who only views others as tools for her own advancement. (It cracks me up that the actress who played Lilly in the film, Anjelica Houston, is now the voice of the overly sweet Queen Clarion in the new Tinker Bell movies.) We get Lilly and Roy’s backstory through flashback chapters intertwined with the present time, which tracks Roy’s injury and recovery, and which allows Lilly to introduce Roy to the seemingly innocent nurse Carol, an immigrant who is reluctant to discuss anything of her past.

Thompson had to have been at least somewhat thinking in terms of Greek tragedies, especially Oedipus, when writing The Grifters, as the elements are too obvious for this to have been inadvertent. The incestuous undertone to Lilly and Roy’s relationship becomes clearer the more we watch the two interact, especially since sex is Lilly’s primary way of manipulating men, either to get what she wants or to get out of trouble. The three elements Aristotle identified as critical to the tragic plot – reversals of fortune, recognition, and suffering by one or more protagonists – are all present, especially in the two-part conclusion, the second half of which even surprised me. Greek tragedies often come across today as pedantic and dull, but Thompson uses both the plot and taut syntax to keep the tension high from the hit Roy takes the stomach in the first chapter to that final confrontation that lays everyone’s motives bare.

The style and subject matter reminded me of Chandler and Hammett, as well as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I read in February, but the strongest resemblance was to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley’s novel is more violent and has less of the classical elements of The Grifters, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Thompson had influenced Crumley’s work, especially since Crumley was in college and graduate school when two of Thompson’s most significant works, this novel and Pop. 1280 were first published.

Next up: B.S. Johnson’s manic metafictional absurdist novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

I had a post this morning on Taijuan Walker, Nolan Arenado, and some other M’s and Rockies. No game for me today, but thanks to all of you for your well wishes after hearing that my daughter’s stomach virus sent us to the ER last night. She’s fine now, but everyone’s exhausted, of course.

Horace McCoy’s novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? reads like an extended film treatment, a la Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which is what it actually was, although in McCoy’s case the film wasn’t made until long after his book was published and he had already died. The film earned nine Academy Award nominations, a record for a film that didn’t get a Best Picture nod, with Gig Young* winning the award for Best Supporting Actor. While it deviates somewhat from the book’s plot, both revolve around a dance marathan that exploits desperate would-be actors and hangers-on in Hollywood in the 1930s, all run by a sleazy promoter who takes advantage of the contestants to line his own pockets. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film.)

*Young eventually killed himself and his wife of one month in 1978; his final film, Game of Death, was also Bruce Lee’s final film, compiled from unfinished footage shot before Lee’s death from a cerebral edema in 1973.

The sparse 120-page book is more a showcase for McCoy’s bleak, hard-boiled writing style and worldview than for any depth of plot, although there’s enough story here to sustain you through its 30,000 or so words. The book opens with Robert confessing to the murder of Gloria, essentially pleading no contest, after which we get the full story of how they met and how he came to kill her. The two are in Hollywood trying to land bit parts as extras – Gloria wants to be an actor, assuming she wants to be anything at all, while Robert wants to be a director, although it’s not clear he knows what that entails – and meet on the street after failing to earn parts that morning in their auditions. She mentions that she’s heard of a dance marathon being held with a small cash prize and the chance to be noticed by some Hollywood big shots, so he reluctantly agrees, mostly because he has nothing better to do.

The marathon is a rough, demeaning endurance contest, with dancers pushed to the limit by the unscrupulous organizers, including a bizarre nightly racing “derby” in which the losing couple is eliminated from the marathon, and a staged marriage designed to court positive and negative attention from the local press. Gloria is quickly revealed to be depressed and hopeless, picking pointless fights with other dancers and wishing aloud that she were dead. Robert is more interesting in going along to get along, but he’s just as aimless as Gloria, without the rage or hopelessness. When the contest ends in tragedy and the dancers are all sent off with a pittance for weeks of effort, Gloria pulls out a gun and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself but doesn’t have the guts, an ending foretold from the beginning of the story.

The book’s introduction says it was well-received in existentialist circles in France while it was derided or ignored in the United States until decades after its publication, and the connection to Sartre and Camus is apparent – but McCoy writes with a fire that the classic literary existentialists, so bent on telling us that everything is pointless, always lack. They Shoot Horses has an angle of suspense even though you know it ends in Gloria’s death, which to me reads as a rejoinder to existentialism: That life ends in death does not mean it lacks all meaning. We can know the ending of the story and still find interest in the journey. McCoy’s message isn’t uplifting – after all, his main characters are all devoid of purpose – but it’s not inherently nihilistic, since Gloria, the most hopeless character of all, is shown in the most unflattering light.

Next review: Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.

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.

Gun, with Occasional Music.

I did a final blog post on Arizona Rookie League prospects yesterday, including the Cubs’ big bonus baby Juan Paniagua; some other Cubs, Rangers, and Royals prospects; and notes on Tyler Skaggs and Jacob Turner.

Back in December, reader JD recommended Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 novel Gun, with Occasional Music to me, saying:

It’s the best and funniest modern (well, futuristic) noir I’ve read — Chandler and Hammett by way of Philip K. Dick and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And it’s shorter than a playoff game, to boot.

All of which is pretty accurate – the various pull quotes from critics include two that mention the Dick/Chandler combination, but Lethem’s dystopian hard-boiled detective novel is also more wryly funny than either writer was, and occasionally a little too wrapped up in its own sci-fi stylings (although so was Dick’s Ubik). It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the quickest, including a clever twist in the final third of the book that differentiates it from the standard (and slightly hackneyed) hard-boiled format.

Lethem’s detective, Conrad Metcalf, is a drug-addicted “private inquisitor” – but the drug addiction isn’t a big deal, as everyone in the novel is using “make,” a blend of drugs provided for free by the government and customized for each individual, including components like Forgettol, Acceptol, and Addictol, as an actual opiate of the masses to keep everyone in line. Citizens also carry around magnetic cards that track their “karma points,” which can be increased or, more commonly in this book, deducted by formal inquisitors from The Office, the Gestapo-like police presence that stands in Metcalf’s way as he tries to help a client who’s been set up by the Office for a murder he didn’t commit – one that pushes his karma down to zero, threatening him with this new world’s equivalent of prison, cryogenic suspension. Oh, and Metcalf is being dogged by a trigger-happy gunsel who just happens to be an evolved kangaroo.

The rich details of Lethem’s dystopian world start to overwhelm what is, at heart, a straightforward detective novel, one where Metcalf starts investigating one case and ends up enmeshed in a conspiracy to cover up one crime that eventually involves a second murder, Metcalf getting knocked unconscious*, and a web of lies and suspicions of adultery that doesn’t clear up until the penultimate chapter. Even though I felt little or no sympathy for any of the characters involved in the crime, Lethem layered enough complexity into that part of the story that the story maintained my interest level right to the end, both to see how the crime took place (I didn’t figure it out) and how Metcalf’s own side story would be resolved.

*If there were a hard-boiled detective story drinking game, the detective taking a blackjack or other blunt object to the back of the head, describing the carpet as it approaches is face, and waking up somewhere else would be worth two shots.

The dystopian aspects varied in their effectiveness. The “make” was at the top of the list, both because of its veneer of plausibility and because of its increasing relevance to our dependency on Big Pharma (and I say this as someone who depends on them myself). The evolved animals are largely props beyond the kangaroo, who could just as easily have been human. The “babyheads,” children with evolved brains but immature bodies, seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. The karma cards, once you get past the RPG experience-points feel, also feel somewhat prescient, written seven years before the Patriot Act and the start of our era of no-fly lists, monitoring of electronic communcations, and other erosions of privacy in the name of increasing security. It’s dark but feels more madcap than paranoid, even though there’s a clear paranoia underneath the surface. If you can gloss over some of the slightly siller sci-fi trappings of Gun, it’s a fast-paced detective story with enough of a serious underpinning to elevate it above the various pulp authors who’ve tried (and mostly failed) to repurpose Chandler and Hammett into different eras.

Next up: Alessandro Piperno’s The Worst Intentions, which, after reading about 40% of the book, I would call an Italian version of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

The Last Good Kiss.

A reader, Michael L., recommended James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss to me about fifteen months ago, knowing my affinity for hard-boiled detective novels. (This should also give you some idea of how long my to-be-read queue is.) Michael described it as very Raymond Chandler-esque, with influences from later, more “sordid” writers. It is undoubtedly more lurid and graphic than Chandler’s novels, but shares the master’s sense of characterization and his knack for weaving complex mysteries among a very small number of flawed people by layering intrigues and peeling them back one by one for the reader.

Crumley’s detective hero/antihero is C.W. Sughrue, a war veteran and possibly unreliable narrator (so maybe he’s not a war veteran) who handles unglamorous P.I. jobs like spying on wayward spouses for divorce cases or locating deadbeats for bill collectors. While retrieving a wayward author named Trahearne for the man’s ex-wife, Sughrue starts a brawl and shooting match that ends with him earning a job to locate a woman, Betty Sue, who’s been missing for ten years. Betty Sue was in San Francisco with a boyfriend when their car became stuck in traffic, at which point she opened the car door, walked away, and was never heard from again.

The pursuit of Betty Sue is the main plot point that drives the novel forward, but it’s the layering, mostly around Trahearne, that makes the novel so rewarding. Trahearne is a war veteran who fought at Guadalcanal, published three pulpy novels and some volumes of poetry, and lives on an estate in Montana with his wife, his ex-wife, and his mother, running off on semi-regular benders, one of which puts him on Sughrue’s radar. When the two men strike up an odd friendship and Sughrue’s hired to find Betty Sue, Trahearne cajoles Sughrue into letting him tag along, which is when the layering – and the lying, because no one in this story seems to tell the truth at first or even second blush – begins.

Sughrue might be the fourth- or fifth-most interesting character in his own book, which separates this from the best of Chandler, whose novels always revolved around Philip Marlowe. Sughrue certainly mimics Marlowe’s exterior toughness, dry wit, and natural cynicism (especially around the motives of others), but I didn’t find him compelling – he often takes a backseat to the beer-swilling bulldog Fireball, whose loyalty to his owner may merely reflect a desire to protect his main enabler. Trahearne is the real star of the book, complex enough to border on the ridiculous, an emotional train wreck on the inside with a buffoonish exterior. Sughrue makes his presence felt, but more as the machine that makes the other characters go; his best scene is his assault on a house in Colorado where he’s trying to rescue a kidnapping victim, and he has to deal with the house’s defenses and the idiocy of his overbearing, heavily-armed sidekick.

It doesn’t measure up to the best Chandler – which, for me, would start with Farewell, My Lovely – but it’s a quick read that was hard to put down but never insulted my intelligence while holding my attention.

Side note: I’m shocked that this was never made into a film. It certainly has all of the elements to satisfy a major studio – sex, violence, humor, sharply-drawn characters – but has the smart dialogue and layered plotting of a good Coen Brothers movie.

Next up: Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries, winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

I’m burying the lede here a little, but I want to thank everyone who’s offered kind words and positive thoughts after this week’s rumor regarding me. I have no comment on the rumor itself, of course, but so many of you have written via one method or another, including a number of readers who have never reached out to me before, that I want to make it clear how much I appreciate your messages and your continued readership over the last five-plus years. This job would not be half as much fun without you guys.

Have a safe and happy New Year’s celebration tonight. If you choose to drink, please give the keys to someone who hasn’t.

Poodle Springs.

I’m generally not a fan of continuations or parallel novels where one author attempts to complete or extend the work of another. Very few such works earn any kind of critical acclaim; I think Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife before madness overtakes her, is the only one I’ve read that is considered a strong work of literature in its own right, and it was more a work of social criticism than a narrative.

Continuations are, in my view, tougher than “authorized” sequels or prequels, because they stitch together two different prose styles and require the second writer to guess at the intended direction of the first – or to ignore it altogether. I’ve read the most popular continuation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon* and found it utterly lifeless; where even a bad Austen novel has its memorable moments, usually humorous ones, all I recall of the completed Sanditon is a lot of walking around on the rocks.

*It’s funny how often these final, unfinished novels are proclaimed by fans of the authors in question as potentially the authors’ best work; you’ll certainly hear how Sanditon, which Austen abandoned after eleven chapters due to ill health, signaled a new direction for her writing, blah blah blah – just look at the unsourced praise in the Wikipedia entry on the book. This is nearly always wishful thinking on the part of fans, combined with the fact that a fragment of a novel is miles away from a completed book.

This is the long way of telling you that I entered Poodle Springs, in which Robert Parker (creator of the Spenser character) starts with the four short chapters left behind by Raymond Chandler and builds a Philip Marlowe novel on that scant foundation, with some skepticism. Chandler is, in my view, a prose master (although novelist Martin Amis would disagree), and his style is often imitated but never matched. Take the sparse, clipped phrasings of Hammett and add some of the greatest similes ever put to paper and you might build a reasonable fake, but Chandler’s writing remains unique in this or any genre. I gave Poodle Springs a fair shake, but at the end of the day it is just a nice detective novel, nowhere close to any of the five Marlowe books I’ve read.

Chandler’s four chapters include a shocking opener – Marlowe is married to Linda Loring, who first appeared in The Long Goodbye
and seems as ill-fitting a wife for the loner detective as any candidate. They’ve moved to a tony California hamlet called Poodle Springs, but Marlowe insists on earning his own living rather than becoming a kept man for his wealthy bride. He’s approached by the proprietor of a local casino of dubious legality, at which point Parker takes over. He wisely dispenses with the Loring subplot (if we can even call it that) for much of the book and focuses instead on the crime story, one that has the typical hallmarks of hard-boiled detective fiction (small number of characters in a tangled web) but with a leering crudeness that is horribly out of place in a Marlowe novel, and prose that simply can’t match the master’s:

There was a big clock shaped like a banjo on the wall back of the receptionist. It ticked so softly it took me a while to hear it. Occasionally the phone made a soft murmur and the receptionist said brightly, “Triton Agency, good afternoon.” While I was there she said it maybe 40 times, without variation. My cigarette was down to the stub. I put it out in the ashtray and arched my back, and while I was arching it in came Sondra Lee. She was wearing a little yellow dress and a big yellow hat. She didn’t recognize me, even when I stood up and said, “Miss Lee.”

That’s a lot of words without telling us anything at all. The waiting room in question has no relevance in the story. Chandler doesn’t normally waste the reader’s time like that, nor does prose ever have that choppy sound like ever period is an obstacle you hit at full speed. Parker occasionally hits with a good metaphor – “Hollywood Boulevard looked like it always did in the morning, like a hooker with her make-up off” – although even that one would never have come out of Chandler’s pen.

Parker’s plot revolves around a bigamist, some nude pictures, and a few people with behavioral issues, standard stuff for this sort of novel, but his obsession with sex borders on the puerile, at least compared to the subtle approach of Chandler, where sex is always under the surface but never out in the open. An exhibitionist wife bares all to Marlowe – who passes because he’s married, so really, what was the point of this? – and we get too much about Marlowe in the boudoir with Linda when she’s not involved in the plot at all, including a tacked-on ending that feels like a nod to Chandler’s stillborn introduction.

Which gets back to the fundamental problem with Poodle Springs: It seems likely that Chandler never intended to finish this book. Marlowe probably shouldn’t be married, and certainly shouldn’t be married to Linda Loring. Perhaps these four chapters were just Chandler exploring an idea; perhaps he realized it wasn’t going to work. Perhaps it was his own depression after the death of his wife Cissy that led him to put Marlowe into a marriage. (He only finished one novel after her death, Playback, which I haven’t read but which seems to be considered his worst completed work.) The continuation of Poodle Springs was a commercial success, but the positive reviews of the time that claim that “you can’t see the seam where Chandler stopped and Parker picked up the pen” are an insult to fans of the master’s work.

Next up: A Finnish novel, Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare, currently on sale through that link for $5.60.