Friday, December 13, 2013

The Blackbird

Richard Stark
The Blackbird

Macmillan, 1969

A part of Friday Forgotten Books

After heist gone awry Grofield (Parker’s partner and hero of four novels, of which this is the third) ends up on a hospital bed surrounded by secret government agents. Thief and part-time actor is offered a chance to atone for his sins against the state. Charges of robbery will be lifted if Grofield helps the Secret Service to find out the secrets of the Third World countries. Somewhere in Canada a secret meeting of top officials of nine developing countries is planned and Grofield must ingratiate himself and find out what caused the meeting. Grofield is selected only because he is familiar with the leaders of the two countries - General Pozos and a politician Onum Marba (see The Damsel and The Dame). Grofield prefers intelligence job to prison term but plans to escape from the agents. He fails to escape and Grofield is delivered to Canada.

The premise of The Blackbird is very similar with the premise of another Stark novel The Handle. There FBI agents forced Parker to work on them and rob the casino. The Blackbird is more slowly than The Handle: almost half of the novel Grofield jokes and plays the fool, the sense of danger is not in sight, as if Grofield came to Canada at a ski resort. When Stark adds in his novels international intrigue, it is not very good. But the novel is good in that each Grofield’s choice is accompanied by the question "What would Parker have done in the Grofield place?".

Closer to the finale the book gains speed and Grofield has to make a difficult moral choice. The Blackbird, perhaps, is on the same level with The Damsel: entertaining, but far from ideal.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tenth of December

George Saunders
Tenth of December

Bloomsbury, 2013

George Saunders obviously does not like plots. Of the ten stories in the collection, only one has a standard narrative structure with progressive storyline. In all others only a few pages in you star to realize what's going on, plodding through the so-called "mind games." But this is not to say that Saunders’ prose is plotless. Not at all, there is a distinct plot in each story of the collection, although in the case of Saunders it is sometimes impossible to divide his prose into individual components. In his case, the style is a plot, and a plot is the style.

The most straightforward story in Tenth of December is called «Home». In it a war veteran (whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else Americans are still fighting), a young man, returns to his hometown, to his mother. She works in the church, does not pay for her house, causing her and her new boyfriend evicted. The former wife of a soldier ran away from him, apparently, already pregnant, and now remarried to the son of wealthy parents. With her new husband she has a son of the war veteran. His ex-wife does not allow to see the child, the sister is afraid to let her brother into the house, his mother is evicted, and the soldier is quite lost in this life in the civilian world. He becomes aggressive, beats the landlord, almost ignites his mother’s house and wants to beat new husband of his ex-wife up.

The story seems to be sad, but actually it is quite comical, perhaps it is the funniest story in the book. Mother of the protagonist swears in every sentence, but right with self-censorship, in the truest sense beeping her curses. Everyone says "Thank you for your service" to the protagonist, at the wrong time, and in general all behave nervously.

Starting and closing stories of the collection looped book. «Victory Lap» and «Tenth of December» have similar plot and the problem of moral choice. But the action in both of them takes place in fact not so much in "reality", but in the minds of the characters.

«My Chivalric Night» is most similar to previous Saunders’ works. Here, too, people play a certain role in the organization that reminds amusement parks of the stories from Pastoralia times.
Saunders is a superb stylist. Fascinated by the author's own words, the reader may not notice the plot. Most often the characters in his stories are people that unhappy and lonely. They can not communicate normally with the outside world, which is why so much time Saunders spends in the minds of his characters. It is much easier and more pleasant to talk to and live within yourself.
To someone Saunders’ stories may seem bleak, but gloominess should not set off the fact that Saunders is still an optimist. Most often there still is a way out of the abyss, you just need to find it. And also specific humor will cheer you up.

Stories’ main characters here are mostly dreamers. It is interesting to be in their heads, for Saunders and for the reader. Saunders does not oppress his characters, giving them the freedom and opportunity to talk. But sometimes he loses a step. For example, in «Tenth of December» a boy named Rob says that a dying man Eber “looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.” But it is too little likelihood that a young boy would choose precisely this comparison to an Auschwitz prisoner. An adult would have thought of that, more likely.

It is worth noting - and someone will put to fault - that Saunders repeats himself in this collection. I do not remember much of his early books, but there is a feeling that part of the story techniques migrated here from the previous books, the style remained the same, of course. You will not find new themes here, but degree of grotesque and fantasy decreased.

Perhaps someone instead of Tenth of December will prefer to reread Pastoralia.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Over Tumbled Graves

Jess Walter
Over Tumbled Graves

Harper, 2001

Spokane, Wash., early 2000s. Serial killer kills young prostitutes one after another, getting rid of potential evidence, and places them on the southern bank of the river, for which he eventually gets the name Southbank Killer. A characteristic feature of these murders are twenty dollars, invariably squeezed in a victim’s hand. Police take away body from the scene of murder, and in some time the killer allocates a new corpse in the same place.

When the murders are not yet linked as the work of a serial killer, Sergeant Alan Dupree, old school cop, a mocker and a hater of bureaucracy, handles the cases. Bosses barely tolerate him, but he is the best detective there is in the city. He is helped by a young detective Spivey, humorless and lacking street skills academy graduate and a relative of someone in authority.

The novel begins though not with a serial killer, but with a seemingly ordinary bust of a drug dealer, which leads to unexpected consequences. Detective Caroline Mabry in a group of other undercover detectives in the park watch the dealer nicknamed Burn when he meets with the client. Because of Caroline the dealer and the client disappear, and the whole group of detectives, except Caroline, goes back to the department. But Caroline spots suspects hiding and begins to pursue them to the bridge over the waterfall. The buyer suddenly pushes Burn off a bridge and the dealer is falling. Caroline chooses between two options: pursue the buyer or rescue the dealer from the river – and she selects the second. She does not save Burn, and he is washed away and goes to the waterfall. His body will not be found for a few more months.

Good books about serial killers are such a rare thing as the elusive serial killers - sooner or later they get caught. The debut novel by journalist Walter though has at its center serial-killer plot, it is not a pure serial killer novel. Successful novel about a maniac never confined to the cat and mouse game, it always has something else to it.

Over Tumbled Graves offers a realistic portrait of the police work and the gallery of live characters. In the center of the story is a middle-aged detective Caroline Marby, intelligent and courageous woman. In addition to a degree in criminology she also understands poetry. Marby is complex character. She cares about the investigation, but does not get obsessed. She does not roll into banality, which is already used too much: Detective loses sleep and mind because of one case. Caroline can use her head, but she is not some eccentric supersleuth. This is a woman with a pile of problems on her mind, and she has no one to rely on. Male staff worries about her, although she does not need to be cared of. Her relationship with Dupree is too far from the clichéd. It is not banal "left one, came to another", but a maze of complex emotions.

The harsh reality is emphasized with humor and satire. Responsible for humor is Dupree, spitting jokes in the dialogues and reports, and for satire are two FBI profilers. They are even the subject of a storyline where both veteran FBI agents compete who is greater. Both are concerned not with the victims, but with the opportunity to get a contract for a book or TV show. The dialogue between one of the profilers and Caroline:
«She looked down at her drink. “He told me that you were an arrogant prick who said not to even call back until we got to double digits.”

He smiled and nodded at the better translation. “That’s right. That’s what I said. Double digits.»

Serial-killer center plot is used by Walter rationally and intriguingly. The author avoids the clichés: chapters written in italics from the POV of the killer, inaccurate timing, descriptions of cruelty, illogical actions of the police. Walter knowingly specialized in true-crime: you won’t find mistakes in detailes.

Even those for whom plot may seem secondary (and it is so, any novel about a serial killer is secondary) will be captivated by the level of writing: Walter writes lyrically, but at the same time down to earth. As a stylist, Walter is a cut above the average mystery writer.

Over Tumbled Graves is an intelligent and entertaining novel; best serial-killer novel after The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Independence Day

Richard Ford
Independence Day

Knopf, 1995

Frank Bascombe, the hero of the first book of the trilogy, returns in «Independence Day». Once a sports columnist and writer, he is now a realty agent, owner of three houses in Haddam, New Jersey, divorced and wants his eldest son Paul to live with him.

Paul is 15, he has some mental problems: he still has not recovered from the death of his brother. Paul barks like a dog, not sociable and tried to steal three packs of condoms from the shop, was arrested, had resisted arrest, and now awaits trial. Independence Day is approaching, and Frank plans to take his son with him on a trip to the basketball and baseball halls of fame and on the way to talk with his son and sort out his problems.

But before the start of the weekend, Frank has to solve several problems in Haddam, sell the house to an elderly couple from Vermont and check on hot dog stand, of which he is co-owner.

Frank Bascombe is a storyteller with a truly bloated ego. He is not part of the world, and in fact he’s the creator. For each topic, the narrator has his own opinion that he sees no reason to not share with you. Largely of of such considerations, and this vast novel consists. Frank Bascombe, as one can say, sits on the reader’s ear, you can not break away from his monologue. Ordinary things in the mouth of the narrator becomes extraordinary. Parade in honor of the holiday becomes a reason to speculate about the independence, car ride with the breeze through the state leads to thoughts about the state of small cities and residential areas, his own book, found on the shelf in café, will remind of the old days as a writer.

Ford gave his protagonist a perofession of a realty agent as a symbol of truly American profession. Bascombe sees in this kind of activity nothing distinctive: he in fact does not sell the houses, but only drives people around. People buy houses themselves. This almost freelance profession can free up time for the protagonist: he is free, communicates with people, hears and sees, keeps his nose to the wind - what he has to do, if not comment on life, his own and in general?

Of course, Ford doesn’t deprive us from sneacking into realtor’s kitchen. Although the details are not quite relevant (the action takes place in 1988).

The narrative here is floating aimlessly, geared for small events, usually quite humorous. Black old woman calls the police; Frank and the seller of the hot dog stand discuss the purchase of weapons; Frank flirts with a female chef; robbery and murder at a motel where Frank stops at night; Paul and even injury is described not so much as a tragedy as ironically - now ex-wife for sure will not let my son to live with me. The novel, like life, does not offer a coherent plot.

Ford’s skills of working at the macro and micro levels should be admired. He can talk about the state of real estate in the U.S., but at the same time, with interest can build a whole philosophy around a menu in cafe. One of Ford’s qualities is he knows how to say with the words that, in general, has no verbal equivalent.

Dialogues here also are deep and live, from jokes with his son to tough negotiations with former wife.

The novel is certainly not perfect: after the incident with Paul it loses some tension. The narrative becomes more viscous, the more that all the main points has been said, but you need to listent till the end.

Several plot points, in turn, are not justified. The murder of Bascombe’s colleague and former lover remains unsolved. Shooting at the motel also remains only the reason for conversation with the protagonist witness. But it can also be attributed to the unpredictability of life, something fires, and something don’t.

But it is always interesting to hear a great writer.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

Malcolm Mackay
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

Pan Macmillan, 2013

Calum MacLean is a freelancer hitman. He kills people for money, loves his job, but he tries not to work much. There is enough money, that you don’t know where to spend, and to attract attention is not necessary. Calum takes the order, makes a hit, lays low. He works for himself and not for the organization, and he himself makes his schedule.

When a permanent hitman for one of crime syndicates of Glasgow replaces his hip, he must be replaced immediately by someone. This substitution becomes Calum. He is hired to kill the small time dealer Lewis Winter. He is planning to make a move against the organization and now heneeds to be removed, and quickly. Calum does not ask too many questions, takes an order, watch the victim for a few days and makes the hit.

In the entire history of literature writers not too often made figure of assassin a protagonist, but if they did, it usually turned out well (it is not so for TV). Nobody outtopped Thomas Perry with his The Butcher's Boy (government assasins is a separate sub-genre). Nor did Malcolm Mackay and his decent debut.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter grabs you not with twists and tickling of the nerves, but with the description of everyday life of a talented young killer. Chapter by chapter we deeps into the routine: how order is received, how the victim is being followed, how to select the killing method, how to buy a weapon, how to proceed after the hit. Mackay, like his protagonist, never missteps. Chronicle of life of a hitman turned out pretty convincing (as far as we, not related to the criminal world, can judge). The author does not misstep, does not allow children's errors, and it can even be assumed that Mackay spent some time in the company of a hitman.

The book presents no surprises, and the constant change of point of view slows the novel. In one sentence the author may be in the mind of one character and in the next in somebody’s else. It's only evidence of inexperience.

Second person narration also can not be explained. What did the author wanted to accomplished with these calls to his characters? Because of the second person the overall effect is reduced: in the book it’s not like real people live and act, but dolls, which Mackay talks to.

The novel is preceeded by the character list, with brief descriptions. Does the author so underestimate the reader believing that he, poor sod, will get lost in broad daylight? There is a limited number of characters her , and to get lost in them is not easy.

Good debut, with tasty detailes, but without a drive.