Odds n Ends
Damn. I’ve lost my way. Again.
My life reduced to a backpack. My alleged home is in disarray. Canyons of boxes choking the hallways of my iterant little life. I’m moving again, for the ninth or tenth time in three years, and I’m disquieted by the sheer amount of stuff I’ve accumulated. I lived in England for a couple of years before taking on the Mystery Strumpet mantle and you wouldn’t believe what a relief it was to leave it all behind me then.
On the other hand, when things get odd, it also gives you a troubling inclination to set the place on fire, drive off into the sunset sipping a Mickey’s Big Mouth, Tom Waits growling on the stereo, laughing hysterically.
What stops me from my little firebug fantasy? The books, of course. I may be a bit fiendish around the edges but these fat volumes that line my walls don’t deserve my scorn. There are some great things here—the signed copy of Elmore Leonard’s undeservedly forgotten Africa/Detroit noir Pagan Babies; an advance reader’s copy of Thomas Harris’s malevolent, inspired Red Dragon signed by the famously reticent author; a copy of Lost Moon autographed by a very cranky Jim Lovell; and notes of encouragement from my creative heroes, with scrawls from people like Tom Waits, Chuck Palahniuk, Patti Smith, and Moe Tucker.
When you’re down and out, it’s good to keep your friends close by. I’ve been fortunate this month that in the vast, pitiless ocean of summer publishing, some fantastic books have been or are going to be published by some of my favorite companions.
In fact, I envy you because you, my damaged little readers, still have the absolute pleasure of Dennis Lehane’s Coronado ahead of you. This terrific, blisteringly well-written collection of short stories will be out in September and is worth every one of your hard-earned nickels. I came upon Lehane late in the game, picking up a beaten copy of Mystic River in a bookstore on Charing Cross Road one rainy evening and that was it. I had to scour London’s bookstores to find all his other books once I got hooked on Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, who populate a clever, offbeat series of five books that play out like a broken marriage.
Coronado, like Mystic River and his latest novel, Shutter Island, is something special. It’s perhaps even better than the stand-alone novels because it gives you a real sense of the author’s diversity, even at the height of his considerable powers. It’s not entirely fair that Lehane has such a great sense of the bloody, tattered South in stories like “Running Out of Dog” and “Gone Down to Corpus,” when he already has such a gifted lock on the gangs and simmering violence of South Boston. Even better is the nasty bit of family transgressions in “Until Gwen:” “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an 8 ball in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the backseat.” Bukowski, god rest his soul, couldn’t have set it up better. As an added bonus, Lehane also includes “Coronado,” a play translated from this short story, written to give his actor brother a role.
As they say on my vapid local news, on a much lighter note, we’ve had our bi-annual visit from another Boston boy done good, Robert B. Parker, who brings back two of my favorite characters in Blue Screen. The Grand Master is, of course, best known for Spenser, but I think Parker gets to stretch himself a little more these days with Jesse Stone, the alcoholic ex-baseball player who’s exiled himself to Paradise, Massachusetts, and Sunny Randall, a stock female detective written specifically for Helen Hunt who has become a beautifully written foil for his male, testosterone-laden heroes and villains. Artfully, with less melodrama than you might expect, he brings together Randall and Stone romantically over a sleazy little case involving baseball, incest, and murder. Admittedly, Parker, who has a real gift for witty, readable dialogue, has been treading the same waters for years, but he’s one of those American institutions that you’re never sorry to see come around again. Besides, he’s one of us—the man earned his PhD from Boston University with a dissertation on Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. The man knows that of which he speaks.
Back in the old South, James Lee Burke revived his most popular creation, Dave Robicheaux, in Pegasus Descending earlier this summer. Regardless of their arcane plots, Burke’s novels are always gripping, due in large part to the battered detective’s wellspring of sorrow matched with an almost pathological need to keep going. Here, Burke is tapping way back into Robicheaux’s history when Trish Klein, the daughter of a friend he saw gunned down in a bank robbery, turns up looking for private eye Clete Purcell, a more august, proactive detective than the gentle, damaged Robicheaux. But it’s Dave who has to come to the rescue, matching wits with the local gangsters when New Iberia threatens to ignite a full-fledged war.
When things go to hell, they go in a hurry. That’s what I keep waiting to happen to John Keller, the cold fish and sometimes hit man who returns in Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade. But like a cartoon rabbit or certain U.S. presidents, Keller just seems to blunder his way out of trouble every time, even here in “Keller the Dogkiller,” when the frosty assassin agrees to take out a killer pit bull named Fluffy and ends up having to whack four people to get out of the gig. There’s not much new here but Keller’s internal dialogue about his retirement fantasies, qualms about work, and his pedestrian hobbies like stamp collecting all still stand in vivid, entertaining dichotomy to the hit man’s brutally violent work.
It’s a good thing I’ve had some lighter works to divert me, because I was also given a copy of Scott Smith’s don’t-read-it-in-the-dark The Ruins, a freakish follow-up to the author’s masterful A Simple Plan. It doesn’t quite live up to the terrifying, everyday horror of his first novel, but with a fantastic flair that heavily borrows from Stephen King and his ilk, it’s certainly worth taking with you to curl into a well-lit corner. Combining a made-for-Hollywood plot—four friends take off into the jungle of Mexico, completely unprepared for the weirdness that awaits them—with Smith’s knack for page-turning suspense, it turns out much better than the traditional summer debris.
I’ll be plowing through more books during my insomniac hours, I’m sure. Waiting for me in the meager stack is George Pelacanos’s vicious procedural The Night Gardener, Ken Bruen’s London police drama Calibre, and Denise Mina’s tartan noir, The Dead Hour.
In the meantime, I have to go find myself a gig. Anyone in the market for a slightly used writer? Shakespeare got to get paid, son.
“Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing,”