Review: Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian

Georges Simenon

The first of the many, many Maigret novels. Many smart people love these novels, but I’m not yet convinced. The writing is strong, the characters compelling, and the plot serviceable, but there’s more than a whiff of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment here. I might give one more a try since they’re so canonical in the world of crime novels, but all in all, I was underwhelmed and put off.

Not recommended.

Sjowall and Wahloo’s Laughing Policeman


The Laughing Policeman, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

The fourth novel in Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series of Marxian police procedurals.  Set in Sweden in the 1960s and 70s, the Beck series are both page turning detective stories, and indictments of what the writers viewed as a society full of liberal promise on the surface, but rotten on the inside.

 

The Laughing Policeman is the fourth novel in the series (and the only one to win an Edgar). It focuses on the investigation surrounding a mass shooting on a bus which killed seven people, including one of Beck’s colleagues in the police force. The mystery here is of the Easter egg type — where the solving of one opens up others, and as with all the Beck novels, it’s compelling enough. But what makes this and the rest of the series so special isn’t the plot, it’s the characters. The obsessive Beck, the socialist policeman Kollberg, and others. They’re wonderfully drawn and tell us about what it means to live in a Sweden of both social democracy and profound social ills. A place where ostensibly the state cares for all, but in reality, child prostitution flourishes.

 

In the Beck series focus on character, and social ills, against the backdrop of hardboiled crime, we have the beginnings of so-called ” Scandinavian noir” and the obvious inspiration for writers like Henning Mankell and Steig Larson. Both of whom I love, by the way, but neither of whom have prose as clipped and clean, or books as perfectly plotted, as Sjowall and Wahloo. If you liked the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and I did) then go back to this series, the source of the style, its worth it.
Recommended.

Review: Hamilton’s The Second Life of Nick Mason

The Second Life of Nick Mason

Steve Hamilton

Another Hamilton book, this one debuting a new series and a new brooding protagonist – Nick Mason: noble petty criminal forced to work for evil organized crime boss while valiantly attempting to hold onto his humanity and save from ruin a whole bunch of innocent people.

This is better than A Cold Day In Paradise. Mason is more complex than McKnight, and more interesting (if perhaps less believable). The plotting is better, less predictable, more engaging, and the supporting characters are (besides the criminal mastermind dude) less clichéd. The structure is more complex (whenever a book starts off with your protagonist getting out of prison, there will be flashbacks) but not overly showy. Setting the story in Chicago also helps, at least for me. I’ll take big city over small town every time.

This still isn’t top notch Richard Price level crime writing, but if crime thrillers are your bag, you could do much worse.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Hamilton’s A Cold Day In Paradise

A Cold Day In Paradise

Steve Hamilton

An above average crime thriller, the first in Steve Hamilton’s series featuring down on his luck, broken detective Alex McKnight. I picked this up because I read somewhere that Hamilton’s an underrated crime writer – I guess that’s true. Certainly better than the Baldacci’s of the world, but the prose isn’t a clean as Child, and the plot and characters are a bit too formulaic, even for my formulaic taste. I knew who the killer was pretty early, and McKnight is very much of a type — former cop, injured on the job, now looking for quiet solitude, until the world of murder drags him back in.

Clichés or no, the plot moves and the writing was good enough that I stayed up till one in the morning finishing it, so maybe I should talk too much smack.

Suffice it to say Hamilton is now on my stuck in an airport without a book list (where he joins Child), but not on my read it as soon as it comes out list (ala Price).

If crime novels are your thing, you could do worse, but I’m not sure this is worth seeking out otherwise.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Price’s The Whites

The Whites: A Novel

Richard Price

Richard Price is the best crime writer working today. Perhaps that is because he isn’t really a crime writer. Price is a writer of the lives of ordinary, damaged people trying to make sense of a confused, violent, world. In his books, those people tend to be cops and robbers, and murders tend to feature prominently, but the murders, are just a way to move the characters through time and keep us reading.

The Whites was originally going to be a simple detective story about a group of cops obsessed with the crimes they couldn’t solve. Price was going to release it under a pen name. But that plan was squashed when it became clear that Price is only really capable of writing one kind of book – a brilliantly drawn story the lives of those whose work touches crime. Here, the work focuses more on the cops than the criminals. It’s an interesting time to read a book by a progressive writer which humanizes the police force. Price doesn’t cover up the some of the awful things some cops do, but he also gives you a sense of the emotional cost of the job to those who do it.

The Whites isn’t Clockers (Price’s masterpiece), the characters aren’t as perfectly drawn, nor is the plot as clean, but it’s still better than ninety percent of the crime fiction out there.

Recommended.

Review: French’s In the Woods

In the Woods
Tana French

The first of French’s Dublin Murder squad novels, this is the type of literary novel masquerading as a crime novel that I absolutely adore. On the surface, this is the story of an unsolved disappearance and an unsolved murder, decades apart. And on that level, it’s a very successful crime novel. But it’s also, as all crime novels are, the story of a place (Dublin) and the story of people’s (the cops/victims) attempts to deal with the aftermath of childhood trauma and find human connection in a fucked up world.

All in all, a worthy effort and right up my alley. I’ll be reading the rest of French’s books eventually.

Recommended.

Review: Lippman’s Baltimore Blues

Baltimore Blues: The First Tess Monaghan Novel
Laura Lippman

The first book in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan Series of crime novels set in Baltimore. This was a bit of more breezy than I expected, but does what I want a crime novel to do – give me a sense of place, give me characters I believe, and keep me turning the pages. I like this well enough to finish it in a matter of days, but not enough to track down the other books in the series. If you like your crime novels hardboiled, this might not be your thing, but if you like you crime novels to tell you not only a story, but also about a place a time (here Baltimore, early 90s) then you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Gregorio’s Critique of Criminal Reason

Critique of Criminal Reason: A Mystery (Hanno Stiffeniis Mysteries)

Michael Gregorio

A perfectly serviceable murder mystery where one of the detective is Immanuel Kant. The author, Michael Gregorio is a pseudonym for two Italian academics with deep knowledge of Prussia during the Napoleonic wars. Their knowledge of the history of the Konigsberg give the book a real sense of time and place but the portrayal of Kant as someone working on a book on the nature of the criminal mind is just, well, silly.

Still, the book is decently written and well plotted. If you like a historical murder mystery with overtones of Sherlock and Holmes, you could do worse. I wouldn’t go out of my way to read this one, but I wouldn’t be disappointed by having spent the time to read it either.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Ellroy’s Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand
James Ellroy

The Cold Six Thousand is the second volume of Ellroy’s “Underworld Trilogy” tracing the history of 1960s America through the lives of real and imagined gangsters. Written in an intense staccato style, the books are filled with conspiracies, bad men behaving horribly, and real and imagined dirt on most of the pivotal figures of the 1960s.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, American Tabloid. By turns exhausting and exhilarating, it felt like something new in crime fiction. The dirty machismo of much the genre boiled down to a thick tar of nasty violence. Ellroy’s books relish in violence and hatred. They’re not nice and can at times be difficult to read, but despite my conflicted feelings about Ellroy as a person and a writer, I enjoyed the hell out of American Tabloid.

The Cold Six Thousand is another story. American Tabloid ends with the assassination of JFK. The Cold Six Thousand takes us from the “cover up” of that assassination through to the deaths of MLK and RFK with extended stops in mobbed up Las Vegas and drug-fueled Vietnam. If anything, The Cold Six Thousand is uglier than American Tabloid, racism plays a key role, and it is hard not to think that Ellroy enjoys putting despicable dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It is all a bit much. The ultra short declarative sentence style that seemed new and exciting in American Tabloid is just tiring in the Cold Six Thousand.

But Ellroy can write, and the characters remain compelling. I wanted to put it down, but I didn’t. If you’re a fan of Ellroy’s you’ve probably already read this. If not, start with American Tabloid. If after that you haven’t gotten enough, you could give this a try.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Mosley’s Long Fall

The Long Fall

Walter Mosley

Crime novels are very grounded in place. George Pelacanos’s novels sing of DC; Laura Lippman’s of Baltimore of Los Angeles, and until recently, Walter Mosley’s most famous crime novels were set in Watts. For the last decade of so the heavy hitters of crime fiction have mostly been avoiding New York. There is, of course, Lawrence Block, but I have not read him.  In recent years the crime writers I read came to New York were Richard Price’s “Dempsy” novels: Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, which were set in a fictionalized version of Newark with the occasional glimpses of life in New York. Price has said that he set the novels in a fictionalized city because the real thing was too overpowering. I can see that.

Lately, there has been a bit of a return to New York. Price set Lush Life on the Lower East Side, up and comers Reed Farrel Coleman and Colin Harrison have both set their novels in Brooklyn, and now Mosley has started a new crime series in the City staring a new protagonists, Leonid McGill.

The Long Fall’s plot is a classic of the genre – private detective investigates a case that leads him into a conspiracy bigger than he imagined. Innocents are injured; the detective must get his hands dirty; justice must be done. If you read these novels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Mosley knows what he is doing; the plotting is catnip to crime novel fans.

More interesting, perhaps, is the creation of the character of McGill. He is a private investigator, and in crime novels, PIs generally come in two types – those on their way down, and those on their way up. McGill is a little of both, morally he is on his way up. He isn’t taking enforcer gigs anymore; he isn’t setting people up for crimes they didn’t commit. But he is behind in the rent, drinking too much and cheating on his wife (who is cheating on him). It’s a nice juxtaposition. By being good he is doing bad. I am curious to see how it plays out in the other novels. Will McGill’s better angels lead him into financial ruin, or will he turn his back on the moral life and return to a life of crime. Mosley seems to be setting us up to watch McGill rise up again, but I could be wrong. Either way, it is a treat to see such a great crime writer set his stories in my city.

Worth reading for fans of the genre, especially those who wish more crime novels were set in New York.

Recommended for the enthusiast.