Sometimes your head’s just not in it.
You’d think that with the bounty of thrillers being dropped on an unsuspecting public by the fine folks in the publishing world this fall, I’d be up to my elbows in books by now. But it looks like I’ll have to play catch up. Me, I’ve been at the movies. Well, and scribbling on napkins in this bar for a good long while, I must confess.
I’m sitting in a lovely little hole in the wall south of Boston called the Beachcomber, the preeminent live music venue of Quincy that your narrator happens to be sitting in at this particular moment, daydreaming through sound check. This particular spot is full of love for the Irish and their menacing little drinks, as this velvety dram of Jameson’s will testify. You can already feel the weather turning here, the lights of Boston just a little distant through chill over the bay, so being a little warm at heart doesn’t hurt.
There ain’t much to this joint -- four paneled walls, some hard-pouring bartenders, and some of the best music this side of Ireland -- but it’s got a hell of a lot of history. The Beachcomber has only been full-grown since the late 1950s but Count Basie and Louis Armstrong both stalked this stage once so there’s something to be said for the ghosts of Quincy. Hell, tonight alone, the best Irish-American band west of the Mississippi is playing; soon the strains of New York’s unrelenting Black 47 will be shaking the rafters.
Maybe I had to come see the charms of Boston after catching the best crime drama of the fall so recently. Oh -- not on paper, of course -- that’s Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, the umpteenth Harry Bosch book in which dear Harry has to track down a serial killer. (Yes, again).
No, I’m digging the visceral, straight up violence of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-worthy, bloodthirsty epic The Departed. It’s one of those flicks that is so immensely luminous that you wonder how the hell it didn’t start out life as a crime novel. Yet at the same time, it’s so truly cinematic that it couldn’t possibly translate in prose. Sure, all the Tarantino-esque cinema geeks are going to bitch that it’s a shot-for-shot translation of the admittedly terrific Hong Kong original Internal Affairs. The fact is that it’s been translated so thoroughly into the streets of South Boston that the original, surprisingly, pales by comparison. Between Jack chewing through scenery like a cheerleader on crank, the verisimilitude brought by the local boys Wahlberg and Damon, and the surprisingly method chops of the pint-sized Leo, you’d be hard pressed to find a better crime story this year.
But what do you do when the show’s over and you still need entertaining? In the case of The Departed, you can either take your chances in Dorchester or you’ll have to find something in the same vein in the paperback racks. Your best bet, as is usually the case with latter-day Boston, is the equally unfatiguable Robert B. Parker. Luckily, his errant knight Spenser returns this month with Hundred Dollar Baby. Like most of his contemporaries, Parker revisits certain favored characters from time to time, and he’s taking a third shot at the beleaguered April Kyle from Ceremony and Taming a Seahorse this time around. While there’s plenty of the crackling, sometimes overblown repartee between Spenser, Hawk, and Susan as usual, Parker’s been in a dark place over the last couple of books. He took a hell of a shot at Hawk in Cold Service and played it close to the chest with Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone in their last couple of turns. He’s in the same shadows here with a murky tale of madams, mobsters and other vices.
While Spenser’s as relaxing as a quick shot of Irish whiskey (and trust me, I know), it’s worth delving into Parker’s back catalogue as well if you’re looking for something a little closer to the scope of The Departed. While it’s a little over the top, his own multi-generational crime epic, All Our Yesterdays, is definitely worth its salt. Bolstered by Parker’s precise and poetic descriptions of his hometown, it portrays three generations of cops and robbers as the Sheridan family and the Winslow clan stalk each other from Dublin to Boston over the course of the 20th century.
As far as Boston, we’ll have to wait to see what Dennis Lehane has up his devious sleeve next, since he seems to have left Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro behind for now, although the upcoming film translation of Gone, Baby, Gone should prove whether Ben Affleck’s resurrection in the equally criminal Hollywoodland was a fluke or a pattern.
Beyond Boston, but still in the realm of epic crime novels, there’s always Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, due in January. There’s supposed to be a copy of this 900-page monstrosity on its way and it should be a fine acquisition, either for filling up the Christmas holidays in lieu of relatives or, barring its entertainment value, as an item for home defense. Detailing the ferocious struggle between a notorious Mumbai gangster and his nemesis in the police, it should be a beautiful, Byzantine book compared to the latest drugstore thriller. I’m hoping for The Godfather by way of Bollywood or better but we’ll see if the real thing lives up to my imaginary expectations. I’ll let you know.
Though not technically mysteries, I have to confess a certain fondness for the recent spate of magic-based duels in The Illusionist and The Prestige. They both carry one of the indelible aspects of the traditional crime novel, which is their omnipresent sense of menace. Whether it’s Edward Norton’s simmering revenge ploy as Eisenheim in the translation of Steven Millhauser’s crafty short story or the more overt aggression between er, Wolverine and Batman, respectively in Christopher Nolan’s version of Christopher Priest’s Victorian novel, they both have a lovely, O.-Henry-esque sense of vengeance about them.
On the literary front, I’m tired of genre labels being applied overly liberally to people like Neil Gaiman and one of his favorite authors, Susanna Clarke. Clarke’s delicate, subtle stores in Ladies of Grace Adieu carry as much underlying peril in their magical underpinnings as anything in true “crime.” By one of those fortunate flukes, I got the book in manuscript form long before it hit shelves this month and discussed it briefly with Neil Gaiman, whom Jessa interviewed so eloquently last month.
“From around 1994 until around two years ago, when I was asked to list my favorite writers, I tended to finish with ‘and Susanna Clarke,’” Gaiman recalled. “And then people would look blank, and I'd say ‘She's writing a novel, and sooner or later she'll finish it. In the meantime, it's just short stories. But you'll have to hunt for them.’ I was lucky, because I didn't actually have to go and hunt for them -- Susanna would send them to me. One would arrive every few years, these absolutely magical stories, like tiny, dangerous journeys to fairyland.”
Lastly this month, I managed to catch Flags of Our Fathers, directed by the immortal Clint Eastwood. While the marketing department seems to have gone a bit googly-eyed for the red states in selling the film, it’s a much more nuanced look at propaganda and its effects on both subject and salesman.
While I don’t have anything as refined to recommend in the wake of that WWII epic, I can always recommend the somewhat melodramatic yet undervalued war mystery Billy Boyle by James R. Benn. This cool, retro title put the titular Boston police officer in harm’s way in ye olde London. Billy’s gig on Eisenhower’s staff might have gotten him out of Southie but forces him to put both his questionable wits and adequate street smarts to use when a spy hunt starts turning up corpses instead of clues. It’s certainly not the best of Soho Press’ considerable back catalogue of foreign-based mysteries but it’s a serious mainstream effort by both Benn and the publisher that deserves much of the praise that’s been garnered upon it.
And on that note -- not to mention the first raucous chords of “Green Suede Shoes” by the aforementioned Black 47, I’ll wish you happy hunting.
“So I bought a cheap guitar, and learned to write me poetry
and me and rock n’ roll set off to see the country.”
-- Black 47