Sunday, May 26, 2013


James Ellroy

Open Road Media ebook, 2011
(originally published in 1982)

After the death of his partner Wacky Walker, a young patrolman Fred Underhill learns from newspapers about the murder of a woman with whom he once spent a night. Underhill makes a connection between the murder of Maggie Cadwallader and murder of a woman from those times when Underhill’s partner was alive. Both murders are similar in method and means, and Underhill, ambitious and in dreams of the badge of a LAPD detective, violeting the law, begins to conduct his own investigation, gradually focusing on one suspect, a womanizer and gambler Eddie Engels. Having found Maggie’s brooch in Eddie’s apartment, Underhill is convinced that Eddie is the killer. Underhill puts the collected evidence (except the brooch) to his boss, and the boss assignes the patrolman to a working group, led by an experienced detective and violent psychopath Dundee. Independent group (clandestine) of four detectives is to gather evidence against Engels, preferably by proving that, in addition to Maggie, Engels had killed several other women. But the Underhill’s plan and the work of the group leads to wrongful arrest, and Underhill loses his badge. But he will come back to the death of Maggie, a few years later.

After the stunning debut Brown's Requiem Ellroy somewhat disappoints with his second book. Clandestine is the same Brown's Requiem, only transferred 30 years in the past. The main character changed private detective license to LAPD badge, became younger and the fascination with classical music is replaced by golf. Otherwise this is all the same ambitious, narcissistic, eccentric man who dreams of conquering the world (within his means) and get the heart of one and only. Both novels even are written in the first person.

Ellroy here delivers, of course, but only sporadically. Underhill marries a woman with a prosthetic leg. In the novel appears the boy in his nine years with the growth of an adult male. Homosexual provides an alibi (and this is the fifties) for a murder suspect. Even the final denouement is logical and natural, though Underhill is not Fitz Brown, he thinks slower.

But Ellroy missed the important thing: all that has happened to Underhill in the years following his departure from the LAPD, the author packed into two chapters:

«It started getting bad with Lorna gradually, so that there was no place to look for causes and no one to blame. It was just a series of smoldering resentments. Too much giving and too much taking; too much time spent away from each other; too much investing of fantasy qualities in each other. Too much hope and too much pride and too little willingness to change.

And too much thinking on my part. Early in '54 I told Lorna that. "Our brains are a curse, Lor. I want to use my muscles and not my brain." Lorna looked up from her breakfast coffee and scratched my arm distractedly. "Then go ahead. You used to tell me 'Don't think,' remember?" »

Fred Underhill has changed a lot over the years, but in the second part of the novel after his almost divorce from his wife for some reason he is still the same. Family life of Fred and Lorna is what would amount to a novel that would probably be more complex than what happened in Clandestine.

It is sad that Ellroy has squandered his talent on self-repetition.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Point Doom

Dan Fante
Point Doom

Harper Perennial, 2013

JD Fiorella is a former private detective. Now he is 46, he lives in Los Angeles with his elderly mother, attends AA meetings and suffers from nightmares and headaches. JD’s father was a Hollywood screenwriter and a loser, but who left a million dollars in insurance. The son changed a lot of jobs, for a long time he lived in New York, where he worked as a private detective (read - a hired muscle) for the former FBI agent, but after one incident with the Russian mafia Fiorella was forced to flee from New York to Los Angeles. Then he went on a binge and then his nightmares began.
Now JD is off the sauce, and his buddy from AA meetings Woody even finds Fiorella a job – a used car salesman in the Toyota salon. But Fiorella soon finds Woody killed and decides to find the killer and avenge the death of his friend.

What a wonderful novel, and how many flaws it has! Dan Fante, son of novelist John Fante, and, importantly, a good novelist at that, takes the best from his father: hard realistic writing, attention to detail and tenacious authentic dialogue. «Point Doom» even begins in the manner of so-called realistic novel. A former alcoholic and a loser is experiencing a lot of problems and sees no way out of his dreary existence. Applying for a job of a used car salesman is right from the classics of American literature of the last century. Voice of JD Fiorella is a breathy monologue of a disaffected man who will soon turn fifty. JD is surrounded by losers like him, the former TV stars, now forgotten by all, and drunkards who are hated by even their own children (drunkurd themselves), and JD has no friends. Even about murdered Woody Fiorella realizes that Woody was not just another buddy from AA, but a true friend, only after the death of Woody.

This bitter story about a former detective with drinking problems has in itself also classic hard-boiled detective story, where the main character takes revenge for the death of a friend. Fante immediately adds elements of noir, when it becomes clear that someone decides to spoil protagonist’s life.

Needless to say that all this is read in one breath, while in the gaps you still manage to savour episodes and dialogues. But the closer to the finale, the less enthusiasm I had. Chapters in the third person with a story of a serial killer are too mechanically written, there is no charm of Fiorella’s voice. And the serial killer as a plot element reduces the level of confidence. While usually the villain is a Nazi, there it is a victim of Auschwitz becomes violent maniac. The killer, of course, is very unusual, but be that as it may, he is a serial killer who is always devoid of serious reasons to murder. And it looks funny: a detective against 80-year-old serial killer victim of Auschwitz. The last third of the book reads too much like a mediocre thriller.

Despite its shortcomings, Point Doom is a very talented book. It is hardly a serial killer novel, and rarely a book does not cause rejection, when there is a serial killer in it. For the first half the novel gets A, for the second - C, and as a result it’s B-.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Quarry/Hit Man

Lawrence Block
Hit Man

Harper Collins, 2009

Max Allan Collins

Perfect Crime Books, 2010
(previously published as The Broker)

These two books written with a difference of more than twenty years share a common theme: both are about assassins. The formal difference between them is that Hit Man is a collection of stories linked by one character, and Quarry is a full novel, though quite short one.

Hired killer from the Lawrence Block’s book is named Keller (almost killer), he is about forty, he lives in an apartment in New York, alone (in some stories, he has a dog). Keller gets contracts a woman named Dottie, who serves as a secretary for the old man, who lives in the town of White Hills. Dottie calls Keller, he comes to the old man's house in White Hills, receives the job’s details from the old man acting as a broker, buys a plane ticket and flies to that city, where a future victim lives. While preparing for the job Keller can solve crossword puzzles, visit houses for sale, dreaming, as if he lived in a certain town, or takes part in auctions for philatelists, in general, he just kills time, as does any traveling man when the work itself takes relatively little time.

While each story of the collection is built around a murder, Block devotes relatively little space to very process of "taking away" the victim. Block more interested in how the assassin could spend his time when he is not doing the work. Keller walks his dog, Keller collects stamps, Keller makes acquaintance with a pet sitter, Keller saves grandson of one of the victim from the pool, Keller drink ice tea with Dottie on the veranda. The collection could well be renamed to "Everyday life of a hitman."

«Keller, riding substantially more than a thousand miles, albeit on a plane instead of a horse, was similarly charged with killing a man as yet unmet. And he was drifting into the Old West to do it, first to Denver, then to Casper, Wyoming, and finally to a town called Martingale. That had been reason enough to pick up the book, but was it reason enough to read it? »

Despite his relatively young age, Keller is behaving like a man much older than his years. Outside of work, Keller has a measured and leisurely life. Hit Man is a leisurely read too, where there is much to enjoy.

Quarry from the novel by Max Allan Collins doesn’t have a measured Keller’s life. At the very beginning of the novel the hitman kills a man dressed as a priest at the airport bathroom, after finding in his lining two bags of heroin. Quarry clearly understands his profession: he is an assassin, not muscle. He is supposed to kill their victims, not interrogate them using torture. Quarry hides heroin in the airport safe box, thus giving a lesson to the Broker, a man who gives orders to Quarry.

Quarry is a Vietnam veteran who'd become a drunk, if Broker had not picked him up and teached (so to speak) him how to be a hired killer. Quarry has been five years in the business, but he begins to tire of his work. Quarry is irritated by everything: his shiftless life, Broker that holds Quarry for a fool, and his partner in a new business in a small town. Quarry promises himself out of the game, but first he needs to finish the last job, and this is where things go awry.

«I was spoiled, maybe, from five years of smooth runs, five years of nothing-goes-wrong and then all of a sudden Boyd loses his edge and almost gets me killed last job. Then Broker pulls that half-ass, last-minute airport deal on me, where it's not enough I off the guy, I got to play strong-arm and delivery boy too. By that Broker betrayed the trust I had in him and our working arrangement. »

Quarry is an anti-hero created by Collins and you may find it difficult to empathize with him. But when the hitman is in trouble, the reader goes on his side. Collins’s prose is stinging, exposed wires. Dialogues sometimes seem fake, but Collins buys you over with the pressure and energy, apparently with an influence of Mickey Spillane.

Both books have become classics of the genre.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Poacher's Son

Paul Doiron
The Poacher’s Son

Minotaur Books, 2010/Constable & Robinson, 2013

Narrator of The Poacher's Son Mike Bowditch is a game warden in the state of Maine and he is a rookie. His job is thankless, difficult and, most importantly, poorly paid. Mike sets cleared traps for the bear, writes tickets to tourists, coming out from Boston on a fishing trip, and all alone lives in a small cabin in the woods.

Mike almost at once forgets about bears and sharp-tongued fishermen, when near the tavern a deputy sheriff and a timber company executive are killed. At night, after the killings, Mike’s father Jack Bowditch, a drunkard, a brawler, a womanizer and a poacher, whom Mike had not seen for two years, calls and leaves a strange message on the answering machine. The next day, all state police are already looking for Jack Bowditch: after the arrest Jack beat a deputy sheriff up and ran. Detectives believe that Jack Bowditch killed a cop and a manager after the meeting at which the announcement was made that all the land in the county was bought by a large company, which means all the inhabitants of the land would be forced to leave the land.

Mike is the only one who believes in the innocence of his father. Going against the orders of his boss, Mike gets into the thick of the action, hoping to find the real killer and clear his father's name.

Being a first-rate whodunit, The Poacher's Son is also a powerful statement on the theme of fathers and sons. Choosing the profession of a game warden, Mike wants to be the opposite of his poacher father. Mike does not feel (or felt) no love for his father, but still believes in his innocence.

Doiron, by placing the action of the novel in the wild woods of Maine, filled his book with disparate wildlife, but making it obvious that the most dangerous animal in the forest is not a bear or a wolf but a man. Even the even-tempered Mike closer to the finale almost loses his balance and almost turned into a psychopath because of extreme nervous strain.

Flashbacks in the book are truly memorable, the details of warden’s life is phenomenal, and in addition to that, The Poacher's Son puts some traps for the reader when touches upon the topic of honor and conscience of the officer of the law. Is it possible to bend the law for yourself, when it comes to the life of the beloved one? What matters more, the freedom of the father or badge? If you can not clear the name of the father, can you let him get away?

With The Poacher's Son you can go on a bear: it one hundred percent will knock you down.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Three-Day Affair

Michael Kardos
The Three-Day Affair

Mysterious Press, 2012

Four college friends agree to meet after a long break. Will, the narrator, has become a sound engineer and moved to the suburbs after the murder of the bassistof the band, where he played the drums, and he wants to share the idea of seting up an indie label with friends. Will is sure his well settled friends will help him with money. Nolan went into politics and runs a campaign to the state senate. Jeffrey earned millions during the dot-com boom. Evan is about to become a junior partner at a law firm. Jeffrey and Nolan arrive in Newark, and Evan is delayed, so the three friends are planning a weekend full of golf and the telling of tales. But on the first night of the meeting Geoffrey tries to rob a store and then pushes a young saleswoman from this store against her will into the car where his friends are waiting. Will doesn’t understand what’s happening but follows the instructions of his friend, and so the three law-abiding friends for the first time break the law on a grand scale - kidnapping. The girl is taken to the recording studio, where Will works. Jeffrey explaines to friends that he went bankrupt and lost all his millions, and, in desperation, he commited the crime. Friends realize that their hopes for a brighter future have come to an end.

The Three-Day Affair wins the reader's heart not from the start. The heroes of the novel are office workers, hipsters, kids of middle class parents, quite effeminate creatures. Problems in their lives are nothing comparing to the problems of hard workers, criminals and sociopaths, the traditional heroes of noir. White-collar workers are rather well-off: they do not know hunger, cold and constant humiliation. When dreams of the middle class break - not becoming a senator, not creating a label, not becoming a partner in the firm, - tired used car salesman and pickpocket dance on the ruins.

Crime of the three characters also looks like a whim of assured people. Some mind-boggling theft in the bakery, kidnapping a young dumb cashier, it’s immediately apparent that these thoughtless actions are easy to fix without any consequences. This is where the fun begins.

Friendship begins to crack, kidnapped girl confuses the facts and the situation is getting worse. Kardos with flashbacks makes the projection of the past: college friends, too, have the secrets from each other.

White collar or not, but the emotions come out, and that's when you start to empathize to unlucky kidnappers.

The Three-Day Affair is a debut novel, astute, well-crafted and gloomy. Oh yeah: finale here is mind-blowing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Point and Shoot

Duane Swierczynski
Point and Shoot

Mulholland Books/Mulholland UK, 2013

I should immediately warn you: Point and Shoot should be read only after if you are familiar with the previous two books of the trilogy. This third book about Charlie Hardie does not really work as a stand alone novel, which, if read in isolation from the previous books of the series, will not have much sense.

For the same reason, write a review on Point and Shoot is pretty hard: a reviewer every time is risking to step on the minefield of spoilers. Those who have read the first and second books already know what happened to Charlie Hardie before he, at the beginning of the third book, found himself on the Earth's orbit. Those who have not read previous books, you’d better run and get Fun and Games and Hell and Gone as soon as possible.

The first novel of the series was not for me not just one of the best thrillers of 2011, but one of the best thrillers ever written. Duane Swierczynski’s imagination knocks you down, and the novel could justly be called the King of the Pageturners. Hell and Gone had a very different pace: the novel was important as part of the whole story, but on its own was a disappointing read. The author went too far with the melodrama, and the book smelled of cardboard and stupidity.

The third book was to be decisive: Will Swierczynski be on the level of the first book, or will fail, as in the case of the second? Point and Shoot is a worthy conclusion of the trilogy, but still not up to the level of Fun and Games. In the first two books Swierczynski used so many unexpected twists that it seemed there’d not left any for the third. Certainly not. In Point and Shoot imagination is bursting, so there will be enough surprises for a few more books. Having started the book on the orbit of the Earth, Unkillable Chuck as a meteorite will rush to Earth to save his family.

Disappointing point in the novel is only that a sense of fatalism disappeared, which was plenty in the first book. The plot wobbles, twists surprise, Charlie is striking in its indestructibility, but from the very first pages it becomes clear how the book will end.

And hard to read lines like these with a straight face:

«Hardie decided he wanted a beer. Like, yeah, right now. It was the morning in Philadelphia, but it was afternoon here in space. He should have insisted that they install a cooler in this damned thing, maybe arrange for monthly shipments of quarter-kegs or even a couple of six-packs. Beer is packed with nutrients, right? If you're going to stick a guy in a tin can, at least give him a couple of cans to open every now and again.
But no. The satellite was too small for such an extravagance as a beer. »

However, the trilogy is complete. BOOM! It’s your own fault, if you haven’t read it yet.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Butcher's Boy

Thomas Perry
The Butcher’s Boy

Scribner, 1982

Unnamed assassin, whom we know only by a nickname from the title, appears in the book not at once. At the beginning of the novel someone blows up a union leader of one production company in his own truck, and this death comes to the attention of the Department of Justice analyst Elizabeth Waring. A young employee every day filters the flow of information, helping the department to highlight those daily deaths which could well have been assassinations. But even having isolated suspicious death, Waring and Organized Crime division often can not get out on the trail of a killer, or to prove with absolute certainty that this or that person has been killed by a hitman.

Started out at the site of the explosion of trade union leader, Elizabeth barely has time to look into the case file, as she is immediately recalled to Denver, where under mysterious circumstances an elderly senator has died.

A senator's murder is the work of the butcher's boy, which for the first time appeares on the pages of the book. After poisoning the old man the hitman returnes to Vegas, having done the job for a few days before the agreed deadline and waiting for his "fee", of such amount, that it should be enough for a comfortable existence for many years. But in Las Vegas the hitman feels that something is wrong and that theere won’t be any payment. Someone gave the task to remove him. One death follows by another and the butcher’s boy needs to find a way out - to make whoever seek him give up on him. But it will not be easy.

The Butcher's Boy only masquerades as an action-thriller about a hired killer; in fact it is a book about the professionalism and professionals. In the center of the novel is the struggle of two specialists, two masters of their craft. Hitman and analyst of the Department of Justice are complete opposites of each other, but it is if you look only at one side. They stand on opposite sides of the law, and their work methods are different, but both of them are Professionals with a capital letter.

The butcher’s boy and Waring are both single, have no family, no friends, both of them are doing their job diligently and carefully, checking all possibilities; both look like the cold-blooded species, but are also subject to emotions. The entire novel waring is on the trail of the unnamed assassin, but she doesn’t even know that she’s on a track. The hitman is always one or even two steps ahead of the law. He has an advantage that Waring hasn’t - no one knows about him and he does not leave any marks.

But why in this wild race if the hitman is making mistakes, then he fixes them without consequences for himself, but if professional Waring is wrong, there is nothing to fix? Probably in the novel lies an idea that the professional works without error, if he is alone, he has no resistance, he does not waste his energy in vain. Waring only nominally is a loner, yet she is part of the government machine. And in any machine there is leaking, broken parts, and part of the energy is consumed by friction. If Waring worked alone, she probably could catch the hitman, but she is only an analyst, the lowest link in the great chain.

As to literary value of the novel, I can say about it somethimg like that: you read the first half of the book with an open mouth. You read the first half of the novel, not understanding what is going on. Perry shows and does not tell: the accuracy of the details here is awesome, from the type of the ice, which is right to freeze the body, to the wiretaps in the hotel rooms. The hitman is just doing something essential to his survival, and we are watching him, trying to guess where this or that action will lead to. The nameless hero rarely remembers his childhood and his teacher, the butcher, who taught the boy everything he knew himself.

«There is a magic elixir to make you disappear," Eddie had said. “It's money. If you have enough of it you can go anywhere and do anything and nobody will ask you where you got it. But that's only if you've got enough of it so you don't ever have to do anything to get more.”»

The book is hardly life-affirming, but The Butcher's Boy convinces in one thing: there is always a way out, even when there is not.

Perhaps, the best novel about the hired killer ever.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Karen Russell

Vintage UK, 2012

Theme park Swamplandia! was at the peak of success, until Hilola Bigtree, the main attraction of the park, had died. The Bigtree family every evening made a show for tourists who on the ferry arrive to the marshy fringes of Florida to look at Hilola, female wrestler with alligators in the swamp pit. The father, nicknamed Chief Bigtree, with his wife was in charge of an amusement park, and their three children, the eldest 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osceola and the youngest, the narrator of story,13-year-old Ava, helped their parents. Swamplania! offered cheap beer and many other attractions, but mostly families came from the mainland to look at Hilola, which, in her words, once won the tournament among female alligators wrestlers. But Hilola, not yet forty, got cancer, chemotherapy didn’t not help, and Hilola died during one of her shows, had not emerged from the swamp pit.

In the absence of the main star Swamplandia! can offer visitors nothing outstanding, and gradually the flow of spectators dried up until even cheap beer lovers stoped coming.

«Where had all the families gone? The families were gone. All at once, it felt like. Families had been our keystone species of tourists on Swamplandia! and now they were rarer than panthers. Red-eyed men with no kids in tow started showing up at the Saturday shows. Solitaries. Sometimes they debarked the ferry with perfumed breath, already drunk. Sometimes they motored over from the Flamingo Marina in Loomis County on their own junker boats, and always they seemed far more interested in the cheap beer and the woodsmoke black racks of the fried frog legs than our tramway tours or our alligator wrestling—somehow Swamplandia! seemed to have earned a truck-stop reputation as a good place to “get obliterated” on a weekend night. One guy I found urinating on the side of our gift shop—the actual wall, even though the public bathrooms with the vault toilets were just a five-minute walk down the trail! I hated them. When we had a crowd of these red-eyes, the Chief would not let me wrestle and performed the whole show himself. The Chief liked most every tourist with a wallet but he cooled on these guys. He blamed the World of Darkness for them, too.»

Naturally, the park is immersed in debt, though, in general, no one especially shakes Chief Bigtree down.

Young writer Karen Russell could take the action of her debut novel not in the jungle swamps of Florida, but in the jungles of some other world, and it would have been a fantasy at the intersection with realism. But Russell has remained true to realism, with a touch of fantasy. The reversal of the sum is not changing, and Swamplandia! turns out an exciting book, whatever genre it is.

In the first half of the novel Russell builds and develops the mythology of the world of Swamplandia!. Bit by bit the world is becoming wild and original. Everything plays on the entourage, from names and nicknames to describings of the correct feeding of alligators and proper clamping their mouths. World of Swamplandia! is in itself mysterious and alluring, and half of its charm is that the story (most of it) tells by the child, in fact - the child, which in exception of her family and the park has not seen next to nothing about life outside of the park and doesn’t understand the surrounding world, one that is outside of the park and wetlands. For the same reason, the comic effect is achieved when we read about the life of Kiwi Bigtree on the mainland. He is quick-witted young man, but sometimes he does not understand the elementary things. In the end, we see that civilization has an effect on everyone and in a short time: Kiwi closer to the finale already goes to bars and knows how to swear.

Having built up the mythology, Karen Russell can only regulate the world, and the story tells itself. Already mythology starts to pays off the writer. And if everything goes well with Kiwi, not so well for Ava. However, you look closely at the heroes, as the plot begins to accelerate to the finale. Perhaps the only fragment of the novel, which is not up to novel’s high standards, is a description of travel of Ava and Bird Man to a fictional hell (though it can be called the real one). Prose loses some elasticity, and it becomes tougher to burst through the text, as difficult as for Ava and her companion burst through the swamps and jungles.

From the book’s end you can make a useful thought: good is not where you was born, good is where you feel good. Russell’s Swamplandia! is a great, "swamp" reading, both literally and figuratively: sucks you in and you can’t help it.