Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Dispatcher

Ryan David Jahn
The Dispatcher

Macmillan UK, 2011

Ian Hunt is a police dispatcher in small town Bulls Mouth, Texas. Most days Ian plays solitaire on his computer, occasionally distracted by calls about lost keys or beating by a drunken husband. Four months ago, he buried his daughter Maggie: the procedure was formal, the girl's body was never found after she was abducted seven years ago out of the bedroom window. After his wife divorced him, Ian lives alone in a small apartment, drunk unconscious by the end of the day to fall asleep faster.

At the end of one shift Ian receives a call from a girl asking for help. Hunt recignizes the voice: it is his missing daughter’s, alive, but someone is chasing her. Now the 14-year-old Maggie did not have time to tell his father who abducted her, the attacker grabs her and takes away.

Who kidnapped Maggie and where she was all those years, we learn in the initial chapters of the novel: a local hospital janitor Henry Dean for seven years held the girl in the basement. And Maggie was not the first one he abducted and kept locked. Now after the phone call Maggie expects help from her father, and Hunt will do everything possible to bring his daughter back.

The main feature of the novel lies in the fact that the name of the abductor is known from the start. David Jahn relies not on ingenious solutions (guess who the villain), but on the psychology of all the participants of the drama. The story is told from points of view of three characters: a chapter from Hunt’s point of view, then Maggie’s, then Henry’s. Jahn puts his cards on the table, but he has a few aces up his sleeve.

If the second Jahn’s novel «Low Life» was claustrophobic thriller narrated by one protagonist, the structure of Jahn’s debut is similar to the third. The debut «Acts of Violence» also switches narrators, but then it turned out too fragmented picture, which is why «Low Life» was stronger work. «The Dispatcher» is more compressed book, and the different points of view make the story fuller. Each participant sees what is happening in his or her own way, and each of them is convincing. Stylistically Jahn is integral, no matter who of the narrators tells a story, you do not have the feeling that all three characters monotonically mumble with the same voice. Jahn captivates emotional pressure, he even sometimes causes us to sympathy for monster Henry.

Store is no sore, and in addition to psychology there will be more decent action, violence, driving on a deserted highway. «The Dispatcher» was published not only in the UK, but also in the U.S., and I’m pleased to see that Jahn finally started to be recognized at home, too. This author is uncompromising and emotional; he deserves an audience wider than he has now.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Killing Time

Donald Westlake
Killing Time

Penguin Books, 1966

Tim Smith is a private detective, working in the small town of Winston. Moreover, Smith is the only private detective in this twon. At the beginning of the novel, he is sitting in a bar, drinking coffee, minding his own bussiness, when a man enters a bar and tries to shoot Smith. The PI disarms the attacker and calls the cops, and as the police are going to lock an unknown man up, someone with a rifle from a distance is killing hapless attacker.

The deceased is a hitman from New York, and Smith concludes that someone wanted to remove him very much. This is not surprising: Smith works for the City Hall and knows about everything that is going on in the town, has incriminating files on everyone and stores these files in a safe in his office with the alarm. While working in Winston Smith has collected lot of dirt on corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen, rotten cops and bribing citizens, but Smith himself is in dirt.

A reform group comes to the town which is cleansing state towns of corruption in the government, and Smith quickly connects attempt on his life with the advent of a new political force in town. Attempts on Smith’s life will continue, and he is not sure who to trust, but he knows that he must find a villain, until he killed the only private eye of Winston.

«Killing Time» is Westlake's second novel, and it is assumed that this is a kind of homage to the novel «Red Harvest» by Hammett. Both of them are really written in the hard-boiled style, and both are told in the first-person from the point of view of a private investigator. There are the differences between them, of course, this is not a remake, not rewriting of the classics. In the Hammett's novel (written forty years earlier) unnamed Continental Op was a stranger in the town, where he had been sent to by the detective agency. In the Westlake’s novel Smith knows every dog Winston and every dog knows him. At the same time, Smith is not exactly a private investigator in the classic term. He’s not being hired by clients, he is on City Hall’s payrol, he is a fixer who solves its problems, while fat Hammett’s PI works for a detective agency, and we have repeatedly seen how he was hired and how he took up his clients' cases.

In this novel, as always, the plot will have a few twists and turns, but the investigation part of «Killing Time» is inferior than in «The Cutie», and two subsequent novels of the writer (not to mention the Hammett). Much more Westlake succeeded in creating the main character, who does not understand how far he fell, thinking of himself as an honest and perfect man who lives in an imperfect world.

The end is a killer, and the book itself breathes despair. Damn good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Don Winslow

Arrow Books, 2011

Ben and Chon grow marijuana. Best marijuana in California. The total market is theirs, and the money flow like water (although Ben and Chon almost doesn’t think about them). They had clashes with other drug gangs, but the conflicts were resolved quickly. Chon is a former SEAL mercenary, had participated in military operations in Afghanistan, and therefore knows how to get rid of enemies. Chong is the muscle, Ben is the brain. He is responsible for the financial side of things. Ben still obsessed with oriental scholars, engaged in charity work in third world countries, and tries to be a real Buddhist. They are both in love with the local Playgirl carefree Ophelia, whose friends call her just O. And O, in turn, is in love with Ben and Chon, not preferring one to another.

Friends enjoy life, smoke their own product, admire the beauty around. Until Chon receives an email from the Baja Cartel with the video of cut off heads. Chon and Ben risk of losing their own heads if they do not work for the cartel. And the cartel, and the head of the cartel Elena Lauter, has its own problems, so the cartel has to expand - from Mexico to California, fror hard drugs to distributing marijuana. Chon and Ben used to work for themselves and are not willing to work for someone. Friends understand that together they can not cope with an army of mercenaries. Ben wants out and to leave for for Asia, but Chon is ready to fight. During the first meeting with the cartel’s representatives Ben and Chon tell the Mexicans to go away (see the first chapter), and Elena does not like it. But the savages have to fight with wild and cruel methods.

(Ben wants peace.
Chon knows
You can't make peace with savages.)

Corrupt DEA agent gives advice to friends: «You want my advice, boys? And girl? I'll miss you, I'll miss your money, but run.» Friends do not have time to leave, and the cartel kidnaps Ophelia, and Ben and Chon are in trouble up to their necks.

Winslow tells his story playfully, provocative, inserting in the text unusual abbreviations (for example, O calls her mother Paqu - Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), lists (hilarious) and politically incorrect jokes. If I write that Winslow wrote his novel in poem-prose, I will be laughed at and probably will hear "You exaggerate", but in this case it is not an exaggeration. Winslow writes poetry and prose by inserting fragments of free verse in his prose.

(O's face
Lights up when she sees them
Big smile. «Hi, guys!»

Antsy style helps the story to move with an exorbitant rate. Winslow throws the reader sentences like a stick to the dog – get it. And the reader is running, because he can not not to. (In this case you don’t feel yourself like a dog, Winslow avoids cheap tricks.)

The story told in the book is very rooted in reality. The author with incredible authenticity describes how a large cartel works. Winslow knows what he writes about.

At the same time, the novel is over the top, everything there is exaggerated. Cool characters, cool story, cool violence, cool villains, and if Winslow stoped somewhere between fairy tale and reality, «Savages» would have been nothing more than a mediocre action thriller, with cardboard characters and over-embellished story. But Winslow is over the top in everything, and in this lays book's success.

Drug dealing for Ben and Chon is a hobby, but this hobby brings good money. They violate the law, but you sympatize them. The more fun it was to get to the end of the book, and see how it would end. Will the author punish the heroes who are essentially criminals too, but not as brutal as the Baja Cartel, or won’t? (Personally, I was happy with the ending.) No less interesting in the novel a love triangle is. Relationship between two friends and a girl is not about the type that we see often in crime films or books. All three lovers do not envy each other. Ben doesn’t want to have Ophelia alone, Chon doesn’t as well. O also selects the two of them. It's a free love, and in that its manifestation is rarely come across in American literature (although the word "love" here does not mean platonic love, a threesome is there, all right).

Winslow wrote GONRI (Gripping Original Novel, Read It).


Friday, September 7, 2012

Los Alamos

Joseph Kanon
Los Alamos

Island Books, 1998

In the spring of 1945, Michael Connolly is sent on a secret military base where the best minds of the U.S. build an atomic bomb in order to use it against Japan. Connolly is not the military officer, he is a former reporter, "rewriter," as he calls himself, but the Army needed an outsider to conduct an independent investigation.

Near the military base was found an unidentified man, murdered. His head was smashed, but the strange thing is, he was found with his pants down. Police suggests that the victim was a homosexual and was killed for that reason. In the area three weeks earlier there’d been a murder like this, a man was also killed, with traces of copulation.

Army knows the identification of the second victim, he was a security officer at Los Alamos Karl Bruner. General Groves explains the situation to Connolly, pointing to the delicacy of the situation. On the one hand, the murderer of the security officer must be found, but at first it has to be found out whether his death was related to the project. The existence of the Manhattan Project, even in the White House, is known only to a few people. Groves gives an order to investigate quietly, so as not to distract scientists from work. Connolly is appointed to replace slain Bruner as security officer to investigate undercover. The partner of the deceased officer Mills introduces Connolly the ropes, telling what Bruner was himself, how he liked to know everything about everybody.

On the first cocktail party for the project participants and their families Connolly meets with Oppenheimer and Emma Pawlowski, the wife of one of the scientists. Connelly quickly falls in love with Emma, so does she.

Of some writers sometimes it’s said that they are writing the same book for whole life. This can be seen, in some cases, as a compliment, but it is possible and as severe criticism. Joseph Kanon writes the same book over and over, and I can not say it's a compliment. «Los Alamos» is his debut novel, and it is 95 per cent like «Istanbul Passage», and «Alibi». I suspect that the rest of Kanon’s books are the same. What changes? The names of the characters, the scene, a little different the premise. All the rest is one endless self-repetition. The main character is always the same, an American semi-professional associated with espionage cases. He always has a lover, someone's unfaithful wife. He is helped to investigate by an inspector or police detective. The era is also one and the same, about-World-War-II.

And yet it all would be okay, but the most incredible of all that is that all novels have the same ending, a drop of water, an identical copy of another drop, and the third is copy of the copy. Everywhere the same hospital, rewriting the results, the uselessness of the truth.

«Istanbul Passage» was a bright and fresh, «Alibi» was a dull copy, because I had read the same thing in “Passage”, «Los Alamos» - well, would you please stop? This is the only reaction. Does the author have no imagination? Why did he not change his direction? Why repeat himself over and over? He has an ear for dialogue, and the story (one and the same) is tense and exciting, and he can write.

If after reading of "Passage" and "Alibi" I picked up "Los Alamos," I would have thought that the publisher is trying to fool me, offering me the novel I already read but by another title.

And one, not so polite, question to Kanon: what, your record has stuck?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Devil I Know

Claire Kilroy
The Devil I Know

Faber & Faber, 2012

The novel is written in the form of questioning. Someone named Fergus in 2016 questions the novel’s protagonist Tristram St Lawrence, who was involved in a real estate boom in Ireland in 2006, and then in the collapse of it.

Tristram at the beginning of his confession tells how he nearly died on a plane to make an emergency landing in Dublin. There at the airport hotel Tristram meets accidentally an old friend Desmond Hickey, real estate developer. Hickey immediately takes Tristram to the bar to drink. But Tristram can not drink. Tristram is a former alcoholic, barely survived after a binge. When Tristram has not arrived at his mother's funeral, everyone thought that he’d died ("It was another Tristram St. Lawrence" - Tristram jokes every time). Tristram is rescued by a mysterious character who instructs Tristram by telephone. A stranger appears as Monsieur Deauville, and from that point, as this man made Tristram to join the "Alcoholics Anonymous" and pulled him out from death, Tristram follows instructions from Deauville.

Tristram and Hickey come to the bar, where Hickey buy them a pint, but after five minutes in there Deauville calls Tristram and says that a taxi is waiting for Tristram, it's time to go. Tristram returnes to the castle, which belonged to his mother, but now to Tristram himself (he, after all, is the thirteenth Earl of Howth on the title). His father is living in the castle and does not even want to talk to his son. In the castle Tristram also finds servant Larney who seems senile and talks in riddles. Hickey makes Tristram a business proposal, and at the direction of Deauville Tristram agrees to it.

This book boasts a delightful blend of the real and the unreal. Start with the fact that the action takes place in the future, in 2016. From the beginning, it is not clear whether the narrator is alive or not, it is unclear to whom he tells his story. At the same time, the real estate boom in Ireland really was, as was the collapse, and accuracy in the details regarding property is respected. «The Devil I Know» is, of course, the picaresque novel. If measure it for the quantity of black humor this novel is like "Master and Margarita" plus "Dead Souls" by Gogol. Characters are still those boobies, but, of course, a purely British boobies. All this is compounded by an unreliable narrator, and here I can clearly see some parallels with Stephen Fry. Tristram is Black Adder (from TV series of the same title), and former alcoholic, and a simpleton, which Ireland has never seen, and the person who has become a puppet of the devil. He is certainly an apocryphal, grotesque, hilarious character, but charming, clever even, just trying not to use his wit.

Page-turner is not always equal a good book, but in this case it is a good page-turner. You should get all the fun right away, and read the book quickly, the plot goes like a storm, though it seems there is not a lot of action here. Claire Kilroy writes clever, brilliantly and boldly. Her writing is multi-colored, but without excess.

The theme of real estate today may not be the most relevant, but the devil is always something out there somewhere.

It’s a great novel, call it fantasy, the mainstream, even a modern fairy tale. Very good.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Colum McCann

Random House, 2008

The story of Gypsy poet and singer Zoli Novotna is told by several narrators from several layers of time. In 2003, the journalist comes to the Roma settlement, where Zoli Novotna once was born. Gypsies share stories of the past of legendary Zoli with him.

In the early 30's, when Nazis became power, the laws began to change, and Gypsies were killed and evicted from the land. All Zoli’s family, except for Zoli and her grandfather Stanislaus, had been shot. Zoli with her grandfather hide in the woods with a horse, while not adjacent to the tribe of Gypsie harpists. Zoli at that time was six years old, and while she and her grandfather was hiding in the woods, Stanislaus’s taught her to read and write on "Capital", which he always carried with him, breaking the gypsy traditions, because girls were not allowed to reading and writing skills.
The girl is getting married early, at age 14, for a gypsy named Peter, who is much older than her. Grandfather soon dies, and the war ends. Success comes to Zoli, but later, after the war. Stephen Swan, who is the narrator in one of the parts of the novel, is English, but with Slovak roots.

Obsessed with the ideals of communism, after the war, he traveled to Czechoslovakia, where Stephen is patronized by local poet Martin Stransky. Swan translates into English, lives just like everyone else, often gets a cold. In 1950, Swan met with Zoli.

Stransky was the first to discover the poetry Zoli, and drew attention to her. He wants to publish her book of poems. Roma have no written language, and Stransky and Swan, as his assistant, transfer Zoli’s songs and poems, existing only in oral form, on paper.

McCann in this novel is like the heroine of the novel Zoli tells his story so fascinating that you even stopped to care what is happening. McCann writes really well, loudly, correctly placing the intonation, he’s especially good in the first half of the novel. Beginning is fascinating, when the story is told from the point of view of a six-year girl, it’s touching and funny. The author's style is truly British, he avoids Gypsy’s words, does not insert italics gypsy sayings, not trying to assimilate his style. No less successful is the second chapter, when the first-person narrator Stephen Swan becomes gradually fascinated by strange beauty of a Gipsy Zoli. Swan seems fascinated by form and not substance. He is mesmerized by otherworldness of the poet herself, her tongue, her voice, the ability to attract attention. But Swan never tells about the content of poems and songs of Zoli (McCann in the text itself rarely gives examples of Zoli’s poetry).

The second half is not that written worse, but more monotonous. Kicked in disgrace, Zoli as Gingerbread, is rolling across Europe, small events heppen with her, but they do not mean much, and similar to each other. The interest is waning, besides McCann inserts into the narrative Zoli’s letter to her daughter, and the question of whether Zoli will survive or not, by itself disappears. «Zoli» is is a one-man show (or rather ome-woman), because there are no other characters. And this author has difficulties. If the reader is interested in Zoli as an individual, it will be interesting to trail the story, if not - you hardly even will read to the end. You can not be interested because McCann inspires us to believe in the tragic nature of the heroine, the complexity of her fate, her troubles, but the novel lacks something that would show us an aura of mystery around Zoli. We spent too much time with the character, so we learn almost all about Zoli, a little too much. Besides if you’ll look at the gypsy sober, you can see not a gifted woman, which no one understands, but selfish thief, cheating woman, traitress.

«Zoli» is an uneven novel, above average, but read it only if you’re in the mood.

Hard Man

Allan Guthrie
Hard Man

Polygon, 2008

Baxter's family’s got troubles. 16-year-old daughter of Jacob Baxter May married 26-year-old sadist Wallace, cheated on him, became pregnant, and Wallace did not like all that. Jacob feares that Wallace now will use violence to his daughter. The father asks his two sons, Rog and Flash, "talk" with Wallace, so that he’d leave May alone. But a karate expert Wallace does not like to listen to other people's instructions, and the whole Baxter family this first time is left with minor injuries after a conversation with Wallace on the souls.

Jacob finds a solution. He wants to hire a local ex-con Pearce, who would "solve a problem" with Wallace and become a bodyguard for May. Pearce with his difficult character and financial problems ponders offer to earn a few thousand, but after weighing all the pros and cons, he refuses to eat the stranger’s shit. Baxter family has to persuade Pearce in more sophisticated ways. The action begins to accelerate, the plot flies like swirl.

Pearce has been a hero of another Allan Guthrie’s novel, «Two-Way Split». Pearce's past is full of violence: killed a drug dealer for his sister's death, served time, saw the robbers killed his mother, took revenge for the death of the mother, barely escaped punishment. Peirce never had friends, except his dog. As well as a permanent job, but «Pearce needed the money. Arsewipe. Maybe he should think about proper job. Only thing he'd done since he got out of prison was debt collecting. And that wasn't an option now Cooper was inside». But Pierce, who is just that «hard man» from the title, is not the only main character in the book. Guthrie slowly puts the pieces, revealing the characters of all Baxter’s family members. This is a hell of a family, so prepare for the parade of errors, unexpected twists and black humor.

With humor there is no problem, but with everything else ... The previous two Guthrie’s novels also were crowded with characters who are cruel, crazy and unpredictable. Favorite writer’s method was taking a large number of characters in one pile and see how they will deal with common problems. At the same time, Guthrie changed narrators in the process, but did not do it very often, staying with one character enough time to avoid flickering in the eyes from the narrator’s switching. Reading «Hard Man» the eyes will just dazzle. The author so often changes the angle of view, that in the end you just stop to closely monitor these cuts. You just get headache, and no fun.

The second half of the story is divided into two sub-plots and Pearce ends up on the sidelines. Somewhat unexpectedly to see how the main character of the book suddenly stops practically participate in the development of the plot. Guthrie in the first half of the book takes us inside the mind of Pearce, to just throw this character away without visible results.

In the novel, there are a few surprises, but their stock is running out quick, and the ending is already possible to predict in a few dozen pages before the end.

In the first two Guthrie’s books, we saw what he was capable of («Two-Way Split» was wonderful, «Kiss Her Goodbye» is a little worse). This is no good. The first half of the novel was promising, but then the novel turned sour. It is better to find his first two novels, this is not a must.