Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wise Men

Stuart Nadler
Wise Men

Little, Brown, 2013

Father of the narrator of the story, Hilly Wise, Arthur Wise became rich overnight. Small-time lawyer, Wise and his partner Robert Ashley has represented victims of the crashed plane, and won a class action lawsuit against the Boston airline.

In 1952 Wise is making the first major acquisition - on the beach in the place called Bluepoint he buys a huge house. In the summer the whole family - Arthur, his wife Ruth and their son, 17-year-old Hilly - moved into this house. In the next house Robert settles in. Lawyers receive a big deal of offers, all airlines are afraid of this pair, and Wise gets richer with each passing hour. However, he becomes irritable, and does not talk much with his family, spending all his time in office. There is no telephone communication between the houses there, and Wise makes a black servant Lem Dawson carry documents from one home to another. Wise prohibits Hilly approach Dawson, thinking that blacks is nothing but trouble. Hilly himself spends his time freely before admission to a prestigious university. He is not particularly bright, not particularly pretty, plays baseball, but that ends his talents. No matter what his father said, and Hilly still decided to start friendly conversations with Dawson.

Things change for Hill when he saw for the first time a man and a girl about the same age with Hill came to Dawson. Girl, Savannah, is the niece of Dawson, and the man is her father. Savannah Ewing’s father once played professional baseball, and now mostly drinks, gambles and beats his daughter up. Dawson helps her niece with everything he can. Hill becomes obsessed with Savannah and, knowing how she lives, decides to help her. He collects things and food from his home, which Ruthie buys without purpose, loads them into the car and drives to the house of Ewings. But Savannah and her father Charles does not want to take anything from Hill, considering that they do not need charity.

Wise Men is a story of obsession. Possession also in the sense that once you started to read the novel, it is not impossible not to finish it, and after the end, it is impossible not to love it. It is a deep family story of a father and son, each possessed in its own way. Father is by aircrafts, although aircraft as such is of little interest. He is obsessed with the struggle for justice, but for such justice, which would be profitable as well. And planes generate income. In one chapter Hilly mentions that his father makes a profit on each take-off around the world.

Hilly Wise is obsessed with a girl from the past, with whom he had of all relations only a gentle kiss on the August night, and a common desire to sleep in the car. In the absence of other dreams in life, search for Savannah becomes his dream.

But both Wise deceive themselves. Hilly is obsessed with not with Savannah, but with only the moment of his youth, a fragment of the past. Wise Sr. under aircrafts is trying to hide his relationship to the closest person to him. Both Wises became hostages of something unattainable and missing, but this inaccessibility, it seems, is not their fault, but it just happened.

The first third of the book certainly is the strongest: the house on the edge of the ocean, with a strange servant, the poor girl and her father, with stolen documents, oppressive atmosphere. Nadler gave his narrator voice pure, innocent, shy, but with a lot of understanding.
In the story about the feelings are mixed the story about money, but Nadler does not cut from the shoulder. Money is always difficult, no matter how much they are of them, much or nothing at all. The author avoids morality that a huge amount of money brings unhappiness. People build their faith, not money.

The second part is at least the key, and the third, although it is weaker plot-wise, ends unexpectedly. One of the faults of the book is a plot twist in the third part. Arthur Wise himself was in a plane crash but survived. This allows Nadler to wrap up the plot, to show the vicissitudes of life, but such a move, for all its beauty, is too unvelievable. This somewhat breaks the general believabillity of the book.

Recently, the term "airplane reading", a book that you read once and throw it in the airport, is on the rise. Wise Men is airplane reading, but in another sense. This book is business class; first-rate prose.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Yellow Medicine

Anthony Neil Smith
Yellow Medicine

Self-publushed e-book, 2011
(originally published by Bleak House Books in 2008)

Bad cop Billy Lafitte after Hurricane Katrina was fired, but the brother of Billy’s ex-wife, the sheriff of Yellow Medicine County, arranges to hire Billy as his Deputy. At the new place Lafitte keeps doing bad things: solving problems by force, taking cuts from the drug operations and generally enforcing the law with unlawful methods. But Billy's got a good heart. When a bassist of a psychobilly band Drew, which Lafitte is fond of, asks Billy to help her boyfriend to solve the problems with the two meth dealers, Lafitte happily agrees, suggesting that the problem will be a breeze.

Lafitte could not guess that a breeze will turn out two corpses with their heads cut off and all the members of psychobilly band killed.

Anthony Neil Smith, whose imagination never failed him, would not be himself if he didn’t added into the plot lots of madness: in Minnesota, a terrorist group of Malaysians operates who are disguised as drug traffickers. First reaction: What the hell? But such was the reaction of Lafitte, when he found out about the terrorists from the FBI agent Rome. Next, the situation for Billy is getting worse and worse, given the fact that he is being chased by not only Islamists, but federal agents, suspecting that Lafitte helps this terrorist cell.

Bad-ass Billy Lafitte is truly a unique creation. More unique is that Smith manages to build a novel around the obvious anti-hero, but with brains and a heart. Billy arranges crusade against terrorists, but he does it not save the country, but to save his own sking and skins of his loved ones.

More tragic is that in Yellow Medicine we see a man who is stumbling once (more so if twice), and no one else will give you a hand and will not believe him.

In the novel, there is a second anti-hero, an FBI agent Rome. He incarnates here a soulless government machine that does not care about a single individual, but only about the entire nation. It is not clear which is worse, the terrorists who want to destroy your country, or your very own state.

Yellow Medicine is strikingly similar to Faculty of unnecessary things by Soviet writer Yuri Dombrowski, though they are made of different dough, and Dombrowski and Smith could not read each other. But both of them tell a story about a man who is in such trouble, of which seems to be no way out, and the only thing left is to be honest with himself and to act according to your conscience.

This is Smith's third novel, and it is bigger than the two previous ones, although the book doesn’t turn into a thriller (for the better). And yes, Smith is a master how to begin books (and and end them too).

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Darkening Field

William Ryan
The Darkening Field

Minotaur Books, 2012

Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia, who showed himself in a stolen icon case as the smartest detective and loyal to the State citizen, is again asked by the NKVD to assist in another investigation. In Odessa at the film studio young Masha Lenskaya mysteriously died, who was the mistress of Yezhov. She’s been found hanged, and the NKVD suspects that this case is not so clear as it seems.

Korolev is immediately sent to Odessa, who must pretend that he’s on vacation. At the studio Korolev will receive all the necessary help so that he can investigate questionable death, keeping his mouth shut. Komsomol member and excellent pupil, Lenskaya didn’t have any enemies, but from at the beginning the examination shows that the girl was murdered. In Odessa suddenly appears a gang of Thieves, led by an authority amongst the Moscow Thieves, Kolya («the only higher authority amongst Thieves in Moscow was God, or maybe Comrade Stalin»), that makes contact with Korolev and warns him of anti-Soviet conspiracy. Korolev must find Lenskaya’s killer, and at the same time to try to deal with the threat of rebellion.

William Ryan's previous book The Holy Thief was bizzare mutant, attractive primarily because of mixing British humor and terse prose with the realities of Soviet everyday life. This book, the second in a series about Moscow CID detective Korolev, is devoid of charm of the first. Ryan took Korolev from smelling of fear Moscow and threw him into the devoid of distinctive features agricultural college. People here still call each other "comrade" and "citizen", mention Stalin, but the spirit of the Soviet Union weathered. Uprising, arms smuggling, counter-revolutionaries - the novel could easily occur in Latin America, one of the young Thieves even says «jefe».

All that is left in The Darkening Field are sluggish plot and a few jokes. The strongest part of the novel is the first chapter, where Korolev in the workers' hostel is arresting a drunk who killed his brother. This chapter is the highest class:

«The hostel was split into two main rooms, with a cooking and washing area separating the two, and the further they advanced towards the centre of the building the less the noise of his boots was evident. There were other noises - coughing, the rustle of clothes, the snoring of sleeping workers, dripping water, the cluck of a chicken picking its way between the beds. There was still no sign of Shishkin, but that might be the least of their problems. Women and children were being ushered into the cubicles and young men woken from their sleep to stand and examine the Militiamen with bleary eyes. Korolev could hear people following them through the building, but he didn't look round. If he looked, he'd have to confront them, and that would mean trouble. He squared his shoulders and marched on, feeling the sudden heat from the cooking area, where red-faced women crouched over primus stoves - the sound of them like the roar of a blast furnace».

I wish Korolev soon returned to Moscow and began a new case.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Grifter's Game

Lawrence Block
Grifter’s Game

Open Road Media e-book, 2010
(originally published as Mona in 1961)

Conman Joe Marlin at the beginning of the novel runs from a hotel in Philadelphia, leaving behind a 600-dollar bill. Marlin lives from scam to scam. He is single and looking for rich ladies whom he can "milk", and milk them to the limit he does, and then disappears. In Philadelphia, his scam has gone wrong: Marlin nearly has been fooled by a con lady, the same as he is.

With the remaining money Marlin comes to Atlantic City, where right on the train station he is stealing other people's bags from storage. Solid-looking, Marlin checks in the hotel by the beach, where he hopes to find a lonely and bored beauty that can be his free meal ticket. In his room Marlin checks stolen luggage and besides clothes finds a bag full of heroin. On the beach Marlin meets stunning Mona, vacationing here with her husband, an elderly businessman. And what a coincidence, that the stolen bag belongs to Mona’s husband Brassard. Quiet husband of Mona is a drug dealer, most likely related to the organization. Marlin has a plan to remove Brassard and pick up Mona and her husband’s money.

Grifter's Game is first Block’s novel, which was published under his own name. Block began writing this book as another softcore novel, but then turned towards crime. There are only a few spicy scenes in the book, and indeed, compared to Grifter's Game, any modern novel will seem hardcore porn. Style of the novel is similar to the style of the hundreds of other paperbacks of the time:

«I licked it another time. There was no mistaking the taste, not now, not after many years. When you work in a racket, even briefly, you learn what you can about the racket. You learn the product, first of all. No matter how small your connection with the racket or how little time you spend with it, this much you learn. I had played the game for two months, if that, in a very small capacity, but I knew what I had on my dresser.

I had approximately sixty cubic inches of raw heroin.»

Novel’s plot also does not offer any frills, but Block pays attention to detail and offers a few surprises along the reading. The largest of them is the unpredictable final, hard and somewhat shocking.

Block completes one chapter with a paragraph:

«It was a cheap evening. I didn't risk a penny. I'm not a gambler.»

With Lawrence Block there is no risk: you pick any of his books, and they are all good.