Saturday, February 12, 2011

You're smart, but you're no good

My best crime reads consumed in the calendar year of 2010, in no particular order...

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Crumley, like Ross Macdonald, pushes the private eye trope to its believable, logical end. His protagonist, C.W. Sughrue, has a deep sense of morality, but he only relies on it as a last resort. Unlike the Philip Marlowe-style, both Sughrue’s heart and his junk often override the moral choice. The plot isn’t exactly airtight, but the depth and stubbly charisma of Sughrue and the often gorgeous writing more than make up for it.

Also, you can’t beat this first line: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

I cared more about Fireball the alcoholic bulldog than I did about any character in The King’s Speech. It’s a testament to Crumley that his lyricism and characterization are compelling without feeling forced. He was also plug ugly, a heavy drinker, and huge in France. James Crumley, everyone, James Crumley.

For those who like: Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Kenzie & Gennaro.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The handsy, sweaty granddad of the roman noir, Cain’s book was Camus’ inspiration for The Stranger, was banned in Boston, and remains both the blueprint and class of amoral antihero thrillers. What’s striking is how well the book has aged. The seduction scenes are graphic and unsettling, without being overly salacious –the protagonist uses charley horses and lip-biting-til-blood-gush as foreplay. The language is spare and naturalistic, but with these intensely lyrical moments that still seem believable coming from the thoughts of a dim-witted savage. And, similar to Lolita in this one way, you end up caring about abhorrent, miserable fuckups. All that in 100 pages.

For those who like: Jim Thompson, Fargo, James Ellroy

Lush Life by Richard Price

It was either Lehane or Price, or Lehane quoting Price, that said that the crime novel has become what used to be known as the social novel –moving across multiple racial, ethnic, and class groups; concerning itself with the street-level effects of the ruling class’ decisions; basically moral and somewhat didactic. Price himself has admitted that he doesn’t particularly care about cops, but used cops in particular and crime in general to be able to enter the myriad different communities packed into NYC’s Lower East Side.

The strengths of Price’s writing –the dialogue, the sense of place, the detail, are in full power here. His weaknesses – a tendency to run a bit long and let subplots hamper the main narrative force- are also in effect. But Price is an inherently democratic writer, so I’m willing to indulge those flaws because they feel like necessary byproducts of his all-encompassing dedication to character. He gets so deep, and his eye is so sharp, and the first half is so ridiculously good that I don’t think anyone out there can touch him. He’s producing literature.

For Those Who Like: The Wire, anything described as being “like The Wire”, Dickens.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

I promise to impose a moratorium on talking about TFoEC for what remains of 2011. It feels revolutionary, even after 30-plus years. In terms of content, it’s revolutionary in how dead-end joblike Higgins makes crime seem –not “dead-end” in the “live by the sword” way, but “dead-end” in the “50 years old and a cashier at Walgreens” way. In terms of style, it’s revolutionary: the book is 65% dialogue and 35% everything else, but the dialogue is natural and wicked sharp.

There is no protagonist in this book, as Higgins steadfastly refuses to levy judgment on anyone. There is a plot, but it operates subtly enough that you don’t feel its pull until very close to the end (a rare, rare attribute for a crime novel, where even the best tend to gain a terrible, inescapable momentum towards the end). It’s a book that simultaneously is not like any other book and yet feels incredibly familiar.

Finally, the “kidnap the bank manager/rob the bank" chapter is a masterclass of crime writing. It shows, from very start to very finish, a textbook bank robbery while dramatizing the two terror-defined moments of the bank manager’s life, one in flashback, one in present time. As The Town did with other sources (like a certain Michael Mann movie – The Last of the Mohicans) , it shamelessly ripped pieces of TFoEC off and subsequently made them shitty.

For People Who Like: Boston, crime, Boston Crime.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

There are other books, in the honorable mentions, that I enjoyed more, that I would more readily return to, that are higher up on my “favorites” list. Ellroy does precisely what I’m not a fan of –making shit as lurid and depraved and nihilistic as possibly possible. But you know what? He does it really well, and he does it intelligently. For all his blowhardisms in the public sphere, Ellroy’s a careful and considered writer, even when writing about, I don’t know, psychosexual cannibals who wear peoples’ rectums for rings.

The Black Dahlia, like Chandler or Chinatown, deals with L.A. in its formative years, when celebrity was becoming a past time and possible pursuit for young naive women from sea to sea, but before institutions had solidified enough to at least present a sheen of respectability. It can be read as your typical LA underbelly of celebrity book, or as Ellroy’s wrangling with the ghost of his mother and his own inner demons, or as a straightforward thriller. It’s repellent and engrossing and manages to seem both high-brow and completely pulpy. Your basic “lady in the street but a freak in the bed” of crime literature.

For People Who Like: Wallowing in the filth that is humanity; The Red Riding Trilogy,

Yr. Honorable Mentions:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson – An empathetic and elegantly-crafted book, and one that refuses to wallow in its subject matter, despite every temptation. If you like your crime British-flavoured (some sort of meat pudding? Terry’s Chocolate Orange?), or if you like your crime not too crimey, it’s a consistently rewarding read.

One Shot by Lee Child – If you’re stuck at the airport, going to beach, or heading for a marathon deuce, and you can only reach for one book, then you reach for one book in one series starring one man: Reacher.

The Tin Rood Blowdown by James Lee Burke - Burke is like the league-average, innings-eater of crime writers. He’s not an ace, but he’s consistently undervalued by making a difficult thing look deceptively easy.

The Burglar by David Goodis – An odd little book – Cain by way of the Beats. The style is interesting. The plot? Not so much. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Last year’s would’ve beens that I can remember: Phillip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, Ross MacDonald’s Find a Victim, and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

No comments:

Post a Comment