Archive for Noir

Patricia Abbott: Shot in Detroit

shot-in-detroitOvid tells the story of a beautiful sea nymph who caught Jove’s ever roving eye. However, wise old Proteus had predicted that her son would outstrip her father’s glory, and Jove, wanting none of that, sent his grandson, Peleus, to marry her instead, contenting himself with vicarious conquest. A son was indeed born, and hereafter Peleus, despite his own achievements, was known chiefly as the father of Achilles. With all the (deserved) attention being paid to her daughter Megan, I can only hope that a similar fate doesn’t befall Patricia Abbott, who has written a very fine crime novel called Shot in Detroit.

Shot in Detroit is the story of white, bohemian, thirty-something female photographer living in suburban Detroit. Violet Hart makes a living shooting weddings and other commercial projects, but her heart is in her more artistic endeavors. She’s been shooting the once grand but now decaying and abandoned buildings of the city, but that once provocative subject is feeling played out. Everything changes when her boyfriend, a black mortician with a flair for imaginatively dressing the deceased, asks her to photograph one of his clients so that his distant parents can see him one last time before he’s laid in the ground. Even as she takes this first shot in a somewhat makeshift fashion, she realizes that she’s found her new visual obsession — the dead of Detroit, of which there are far too many. Her new passion leads her down some pretty creepy rabbit holes, filled with many complications and ambiguities, and a few very weird fellow travelers.

The first thing to know about Shot in Detroit is that it is not a traditional mystery. The deaths remain random, never settling into any kind of pattern, or revealing a genius serial killer behind all the carnage, which in some ways proves even more terrifying that the usual thriller. Rather, it’s a crime novel about themes and characters, about artistic obsession, race relations and the sad decline of a once great city in which violent, premature death has become sadly commonplace, more in the vein of Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine than Agatha Christie.

After last year’s excellent Concrete Angel, Abbott has produced another compelling and disturbing novel, once again demonstrating that the Abbott family has more than one praiseworthy writer. (Jamie)

Megan Abbott: You Will Know Me

CoSrbLKWIAEbX-BI haven’t picked up a Megan Abbott book since her fine books set back in the 30’s and 40’s – she’s since turned her gaze toward contemporary teen culture and I haven’t been as captivated. This one, however, I picked up just to take a look – it has incredible advance buzz – and was instantly grabbed by the theme: gymnastics. With the Olympics around the corner, what could be more perfect? Of course, being a Megan Abbott novel, this isn’t a happy little story of triumph over tragedy but a study of a family in deep crisis.

I was first reminded as I read (and I inhaled this in a few hours) what a really terrific writer Abbott is from the very simplest of standpoints: prose and character. She’s also truly a noir writer in every sense. I am often irritated by contemporary tough guy noir as to me it seems slightly fake and forced, but Abbott’s version of noir is more of the turning-over-rocks-to-see-what’s-underneath variety, and that I can totally get behind. In this approach she’s following the footsteps of some wonderful writers, but I’d most closely align her with the Barbara Vine incarnation of the late, great Ruth Rendell. I know Abbott herself looks back to American women writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, but I really see a Rendell-ish turn here as in, halfway through the book, it’s obvious nothing else that happens is going to be good.

While Abbott doesn’t have the classic noir point of view that absolutely everything is corrupt, she’s pretty close. She turns her eye to the all-American Knox family: mother Katie, father Eric, and children Devon and Drew. Devon is a flat out gymnastics star, and her parents are completely caught up in her success. In fact, their relationship seems to center around Devon’s achievement to the detriment of Drew, who is dragged behind Devon from meet to meet and gym to gym.

As the book opens they are at a celebration of the gymnastics team’s success, but things for the team become darker when, shortly before an important meet, it’s discovered that the boyfriend of one of the young coaches, a young man everyone had liked, has been killed in a hit and run accident. It’s unclear at first how this affects Devon and her family, but Abbott then proceeds to explicate the incredible sacrifices of time and money Devon’s parents have made in attempting to achieve the unspoken dream: the Olympics. The father is a charter member of the booster club who has raised all kinds of money to make Coach T’s gym the best it can be,

Then there’s the formative accident that’s shaped Devon’s life: when she was 3, two of her toes were cut off by the lawnmower, forcing her into gymnastics to help her with balance. Abbott’s description of the gymnastics culture seems spot on to me, and she seems to have two central concerns in this novel. One is, what is the price of a driving ambition like Devon’s? She’s able to shut everything else out completely when she performs, but she’s dragged her family along for the ride.

The other is even more central: how well do you really know anybody? This story is truly Katie’s as she starts to wonder how well she knows her husband, and how well does she actually know Devon? Or even little Drew? As Devon hits adolescence, like many mothers before her, Katie’s assumed she’ll always know everything about her child. Then the gate of adolescence comes down and changes everything.

There’s also a crime, as it’s quickly obvious the young man wasn’t killed in a random hit and run. The driver seems to have been someone he knew. While Abbott is a beautiful creator of character and setting and a lovely prose stylist, she’s also a true mystery writer. The crime at the heart of the novel is truly mysterious and has tentacles that reach through every character’s life. The ending has a great twist to it. Abbott is also finely tuned to the mores of the middle class and the little rifts and differences that make up middle class culture. In 50 years an anthropologist could do far worse than to turn to a Megan Abbott novel to find out how people really lived.

Michael Harvey: Brighton

BrightonThis is one of those books that, as you read it, you know is a pinnacle for the author. It’s one of the best things Michael Harvey has written (which is saying a lot) and it may be the best thing he will ever write. It’s set in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston in 1971 and beyond, and focuses on two boys, Kevin and Bobby. Kevin is the secret pride of his family – a baseball star, an honor student who has tested out of Brighton to go to the best school in Boston, the Latin School – while Bobby is a slightly rough character who has been taken in by Kevin’s grandma, the family matriarch who owns a taxi business.

After an incident of terrible and far reaching violence, Bobby gets Kevin out of Brighton. Fast forward to the present: Kevin is about to win a Pulitzer prize for a story he wrote set in Brighton, and Bobby is a career criminal who mostly works as a bookie and never got out of the neighborhood

What’s so extraordinary about this novel isn’t just the writing – though the writing is the kind of clean, muscular prose that American crime writers have long excelled at, stretching in a line back to Raymond Chandler – it’s the way Harvey grounds his characters and makes the Boston setting come to fully realized life. Like an artist who can sketch a scene with a few well placed brush strokes, Harvey does the same with words.

Kevin and Bobby are so real – outwardly so opposite, inwardly, bound as brothers – they might as well be alive and walking around the streets of Boston. For all I know, they are. Like his fellow Bostonian Dennis Lehane, Harvey also has a flair for the operatic; some of the violent segments and even the eventual perpetrator are almost over the top, but like Lehane, he more than carries it off.   The extreme balances out the ordinary, powering this well told story as Harvey examines the lives of the characters and how where they grew up shaped them as adults.

As I finished this book, thinking about not only whodunit but about Bobby, Kevin and Brighton, I wanted to read it again. It’s by far the best book I’ve read this year, a true classic that deserves to be savored.

Steve Hamilton: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Nick_Mason_final2-194x295One of the things crime novels excel at is investigating morality. The most common investigation in a more or less classic mystery involves absolute right and wrong. A noir novel tends to investigate the trickier edges of morality, as Steve Hamilton does brilliantly in his new novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason. The book opens with Nick walking out of prison, always a good start to any book.

Then the story backtracks – how did Nick get out? How did he get in? This is a true noir novel – Nick is in no way an innocent though he seems to have some inner core of decency, and he certainly has formulated a set of rules that help him get through each prison day. It’s this formulation that snags the attention of Darius Cole, who has a virtual office set up in his cell, along with a couple body guards and a couple prison guards who serve as his lackeys.

Spending time with Nick, Mr. Cole tells him that prison is just “geography” – he may be in Terra Haute, Indiana, behind bars, but in his mind he’s back home in Chicago, where Nick comes from and where he helped commit the crime that landed him in prison. Mr. Cole has the power to get Nick out, set him up in a fancy north side townhouse, and all Nick has to do is answer the phone when it rings and do what he’s told. He won’t be free, he’ll just be mobile.

Creating this kind of constrained character set up is also something crime novels excel at, and this is a great set up. Hamilton is one of the most effortless and clear voiced of storytellers, and his books move with a true undeniable energy.

And to be honest I was equating Nick somewhat with Hamilton’s other creation, reluctant PI Alex McKnight, but when Nick goes off the rails his resemblance to Alex ends. And yet, despite the very horrible things Nick does, I was still on his side to a degree. A scene with his daughter even brought me to tears. I’m not sure what alchemy is at work here, but I ended the novel both horrified by his actions and feeling some affection for him as a person.

That’s a pretty difficult juggling act, and Hamilton nails it. Hamilton sets this one up for a sequel, and leaves many threads hanging. I was fascinated and compelled enough by Nick to want to keep reading, and to want to know more. Time spent reading a novel by Steve Hamilton is always worthwhile, from his first one, A Cold Day in Paradise, to this one. The thing that maybe sets the two books apart is that now Hamilton has the undeniable true voice of an author who knows where he’s going and what he wants to accomplish. In other words, a writer at his peak. I’d advise getting out of his way and enjoying the ride.

Vu Tran: Dragonfish

dragonfishThis startling novel by newcomer Vu Tran is a fascinating blend of old school hard-boiled writing and sensitive psychological examination, while still maintaining a distance and sense of mystery about the central characters. I think Tran’s closest writing relative might be Patricia Highsmith, which is high praise; it’s well earned by this terrific novel.

It’s the story of Officer Robert Ruen and his troubled relationship with his ex-wife, Suzy. The novel kicks off with a memory: Vietnamese refugees aboard a boat heading for safety, and also with the intrusion into Officer Robert’s home by two young Vietnamese thugs, who are looking for Suzy. Tran introduces story strands and details but only slowly reveals their meaning as the reader is drawn further and further into his story, one that utilizes Suzy as the virtual McGuffin that keeps the plot humming.

In bits and pieces we discover Suzy’s background and her real name—Hong. Suzy is a name Robert made up for her. It seems ridiculously American, and called to my mind all kinds of Asian stereotypes, especially, of course, The World of Suzy Wong. Tran seems interested not in stereotypes, but in perceptions based on stereotypes. Robert expected Suzy/Hong to behave in a certain way—she is Asian—and it prevents him from actually understanding her, despite the fact that Suzy often met the expectations he had.

The main gist of the story is the search for Suzy by Robert, as a proxy for Suzy’s new, thuggish Vegas gambler husband, Sonny. As the backstories of the characters unspool, including some absolutely gripping portions of narrative concerning the refugees on boats and their eventual stopping-off point, Malaysia, the pieces of the story begin to assemble like a puzzle, coming into focus as another piece is added. It’s another bit of perception and understanding on the part of the reader.

A mix of American and Vietnamese perceptions and stereotypes and the terrible unhappiness of the missing Suzy/Hong permeates the story, making the reader desperate to discover where and who she is. While this is a crime novel, the mystery part of the story concerns Suzy and why she behaves as she does, a question never perfectly answered. Robert’s quest ends unexpectedly and in a satisfying way, as far as the plot is concerned. As far as the characters are concerned, there are questions left unanswered, but they left me thinking as I closed the book. This is an astonishing, and very promising, first novel.

Jan Brogan: A Confidential Source

Jan Brogan’s second novel featuring reporter Hallie Ahern finds Hallie making a fresh start in the “small, crazy state” of Rhode Island, at the Providence Chronicle. She’s come down from the heights of the Boston Globe after blowing a big story and is in recovery from a substance abuse problem. Her apartment is crappy, her best friend is her twelve step partner, she owes money to her mother, and the super ambitious, intelligent Hallie hates her new job. In a typical female written mystery novel, this would be a set up for a Cinderella style change, where the heroine uses her guts and brains to pull herself out of her hole. It might include some other memorable or eccentric female friends and even a cat. Author Jan Brogan obviously doesn’t know these “rules” though, and she delivers a very “noir” novel with a heroine who makes so many wrong choices and decisions it’s hard to keep up.

The book opens with a bang – Hallie is in her corner convenience market buying a lottery scratch ticket – when the owner, Barry Mazursky, is gunned down while she’s in another part of the store. Hallie isn’t a witness but had not only been fond of Barry, but had also gotten a look at the other people in the store right before the shooting. When Hallie goes into work to write a first person account of what happened as well as a sentimental memorial piece about the Barry she felt she knew, both Barry’s secrets and Hallie’s life begin to unravel. Hallie, an addictive personality in general, had been addicted to calling in to a semi sleazy late night radio talk show; when the host of the talk show gives her a tip she follows up on it, citing him as her “confidential source”. Everything seems to go wrong after that. To research gambling, Hallie finds herself hooked; she trusts the wrong people and doesn’t trust the right ones; and worst of all her story has such a huge factual hole in it that it sends her back to spelling-bee duty and deeper into debt. She couldn’t be more depressed when she once again becomes a part of the story she was only wanting to report.

Hallie’s ambition frequently gets in her way, but it also makes her a believable, if not always likable, character. This is a smart book with several twists and a really compelling ending that had me turning pages pretty quickly. The details of the reporters’ life are very well done (and Brogan is herself a reporter) as are the details of life in Providence. She gives the city a personality that would do regional masters like Estleman or Lippman proud. With that as a caveat, I found myself sometimes distracted by the details and wanted more for Hallie personally, but that just proves that Brogan’s a good writer: Hallie reads like a real person, and you end up wanting to know more about her. This is a distinctive and dark book, maybe not for the squeamish (Brogan can be a bit ruthless), but very well done and deserving of a closer look.

Ken Mercer: Slow Fire

This is a knockout debut. It’s about ex LAPD narcotics detective Will Magowan, who has hit bottom and who has taken a job in tiny Haydenville, California, as their new police chief. The mayor, a little desperate, has reached out to Will as a kind of last resort because of a pervasive methamphetamine problem in town. The source can’t be found, and other things are happening that are seemingly unrelated—this is a mystery, however, so of course every thread ties together.

Really good writers can often get away with some over the top stuff merely because of the force of their narrative and their ability to create wonderful characters. I think if they were movie stars, this might be called “charisma.” Mercer seems to have this writing “charisma”. His character of Will is beautifully drawn with a heartbreaking backstory that Mercer teases out throughout the course of the novel (I’d advise you not to read the dust jacket). This book is absolutely as noir as it gets, except that you believe in Will himself. What’s wrong is everything else; no can be trusted, or be expected to stand up, or to be who they say they are—and if they do any of those things, it doesn’t end well for them.

Assisting Will is a very green rookie, Thomas, who Will quickly nicknames simply “T.” Thomas has some good instincts, and after a rough start, he begins to think he can learn from Will. It’s a good and classic partnership—jaded older guy and green newbie. Mercer’s writing manages to make it fresh, as he also manages to make the scenes with Will’s estranged wife fresh. They have some baggage between them but then again, the baggage is pretty heavy stuff. It’s on the backburner narrative wise as Will gets caught up in the meth problem that’s pervading the town.

How is the meth issue tied to the accidental death of an eco minded kayaker, or to the disappearance of many of the town’s dogs? Will is starting to figure it out when the mayor more or less turns on him—Will’s pretty convinced the problem stems from one of Haydenville’s more prominent citizens, writer Frank Carver, a well known but long ago published author who has come back to Haydenville with his sons and who is the town’s claim to fame. Will has only a short deadline to prove his theories are correct.

One of the things I really liked about this book was that it could have gone the way of a more literary type thriller—Mercer certainly has the chops to go that way—but by full heartedly embracing the genre, he soars into the stratosphere with his story, which is full of classic noir elements and mystery tropes (ex-wife, powerful bad guy, newbie detective, doubtful city official). He soars by making Will so indelible, and through the sheer force of his storytelling. I cannot wait for another book about Will Magowan.

Craig McDonald: Print the Legend

Considering that it revolves around Ernest Hemingway’s 1961 suicide by shotgun, I suppose it would be indelicate of me to say that Craig McDonald’s Print the Legend blew me away, but in the noir spirit of the book I’ll say it anyway. Most of the action takes place four years later at a 1965 academic conference about Hemingway in Idaho, close to the scene of the crime. Slimy University of Michigan professor Richard Paulson, his spunky wife Hannah, Hem’s friend and fellow manly writer Hector Lassiter and shadowy FBI agent Donovan Creedy all come together with widow Mary Hemingway and a gaggle of fatuous academics to struggle for the great man’s legacy and shed light on his death.

Everyone has their own agenda, Paulson trying to prove that Hemingway was murdered, Creedy seeking information damaging to J. Edgar Hoover, and Lassiter looking to bolster his own literary reputation as well as protecting that of his friend. Things get wild and wooly quickly, McDonald effortlessly spooning Hemingway fact and legend into a mix that includes booze, stolen and forged manuscripts, LSD, gunplay and murder—the most shocking scene of all occurring in our very own Ann Arbor after pregnant Hannah’s return.

The academic world is novel territory for noir fiction, but McDonald makes it his own with truly impressive originality and ingenuity. While not quite achieving the immersive period authenticity of Megan Abbott or the twisted, dark vision of James Ellroy, McDonald carves out his own patch of the neo-noir landscape in Print the Legend, and, like Hemingway himself, does it with breathtaking brio. (Jamie)

Craig McDonald: One True Sentence

Instead of proceeding chronologically with the events of his protagonist’s life, Craig McDonald has hop scotched around to different eras in his series about pulp writer and Hemingway pal Hector Lassiter. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s hard to see how he could have waited until his fourth installment, One True Sentence, to plunge into the teeming waters of Paris in the twenties, the “Moveable Feast,” the place, as Gertrude Stein said, “where the twentieth century was.”

But now that he’s gone there, the talented and knowledgeable McDonald takes full advantage of the possibilities – in one memorable scene Hector, having defenestrated a would be nihilist suicide bomber, is prevented from plunging himself by Hemingway and attended to by Doctor William Carlos Williams and nurse Gertrude Stein as Ford Maddox Ford and Leon-Paul Fargue pull down and extinguish the burning curtains.

One True Sentence is more of a traditional mystery than the previous wild and wooly Lassiter books, with an opening murder that becomes a series of murders. Someone is killing the small magazine editors of Paris, and Gertrude Stein assembles the mystery and crime writers in her circle including Hector, the sultry Brinke Devlin, and the prim Estelle Quartermain, giving them the mandate to solve the murders, an idea the official Paris flics aren’t very high on. Of course in the era of reinvention no one but stalwart Hector and Hem are what they seem to be, and even as Hector falls into bed with Brinke investigators turn into suspects, the hunters become the hunted and the City of Light turns very noir indeed.

McDonald has a lot of fun, peppering the legendary milieu with literary in-jokes and trivia while still crafting a compelling and complex mystery which engrosses and surprises to the very end.

The Lassiter series is unique in crime fiction, a hardboiled take on the twentieth century through the lens of a no nonsense pulp writer savvy in both high and low culture. One True Sentence is a fine addition and leaves the reader eager for his next appearance. (Jamie)

Ed Lin: Snakes Can’t Run

Bouchercon serves many purposes and offers many pleasures, but one of them is discovering new authors. Attending a panel composed of authors of whom I was already a fan—Theresa Schwegel and Barry Maitland—I encountered Ed Lin. I mentioned him to my pal Jim Huang, and he said, Oh, yes, S.J. Rozan is very enthusiastic about him. After reading his book, I can certainly see why. The mild mannered pleasant fellow on the panel at Bouchercon seems a far cry from the type of hard edged noir that he actually writes.

His character, Robert Chow, is an “ABC” or American Born Chinese, and struggling with the many versions of his identity. He’s a Vietnam Vet (the book is set in 1976, so it’s a recent experience) working as a cop in New York City’s Chinatown. He’s also a former alcoholic, so some people that encounter him aren’t too sure what to make of him if they knew him when he was drinking.

This book was written by an American but it bears more resemblance to some of the more excellent foreign fiction that’s gained wide exposure over here—it claims a place next to authors like Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason. The Chinatown setting is a total immersion: a different perspective (understandable) from the ones offered by American writers like Leslie Glass or even the excellent S.J. Rozan. I like both of those authors very much but Lin’s perspective is an absolutely Chinese one, and it’s fascinating.

Robert assumes different personas: at work with his boss; with his partner, a fellow vet; and with the various denizens of Chinatown. He even stops by the toy store run by a friend at night to offer help to Chinese otherwise afraid to approach the police. All of this is a rich and tasty background for the actual story of the “human snakes”—illegal immigrants brought here for a price, who then have to work as virtual slaves to pay off the debt incurred. The story is kicked off by two of the snakes found dead and mutilated under a bridge. Chow’s only clue is that the Snakehead, or smuggler, in charge of the operation is known as “Brother Five.”

Robert and his partner through hard legwork find various candidates for Brother Five, but like any mystery writer worth his salt, Lin makes sure there are several red herrings in the mix. And like any good noir writer, he also makes sure that not one of the possibilities is actually untainted. His matter of fact story telling style makes it hard to tell which one is the bad guy—it could be any one of several guys. And Robert Chow is himself an appealing flawed character who is finding his way through the world, hoping to make detective, hoping to get along with his mother, trying to be a good boyfriend to his girl, Lonnie, trying to help his partner with his marital situation.

This is an atmosphere rich and character dense book, and the setting of Chinatown and the subtleties that govern the different factions within it (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukinese: there’s a definite pecking order) are masterfully done. Towards the end in true noir fashion Chow thinks to himself, as he visits the various players in the drama, that he wants “to confirm that I had ruined my reputation in all corners of Chinatown,” making him very much the classic mystery outsider. Even his name, the American “Robert” and the very Chinese “Chow” place him in the middle of no-man’s land. This is a writer well worth watching.