God damn. I’m cold.
Not to bitch too much about the dismal weather plaguing my particular fragment of this polluted nation, but I’ve had about enough of this “In like a lion” weather marching us irrevocably towards the Ides of March.
Not just a little chilly, mind you. I feel like Chuck Logan’s retired undercover cop Phil Broker in Absolute Zero as he takes his accidental plunge into a frozen Minnesota river, frozen down to his core. All I could think when I slipped on a breakwater yesterday and lacerated my hand on a barnacle-encrusted rock was that it was the damndest thing not to be able to feel my fingers. Even with the blood flowing freely down my arm, my digits were frozen down to their core like Arkady Renko’s in Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, the exiled Moscow homicide detective gutting fish on the slime line of a Russian factory ship in the Bering Sea. Lying there in the icy water of the Atlantic Ocean, you remember Carrie Stetko in Greg Rucka’s Whiteout as the only U.S. Marshal in Antarctica mourns her frostbitten fingers, musing, “Hypothermia is insidious. It makes you see things. It makes you not care.”
But we soldier on. I got up, cradled my busted wing, and came back to appraise the month’s grab bag of crime novels and whodunits while simultaneously praying for the sun to return. Luckily, it’s the murderer’s season -- this is, after all, the right time of year to plot the demise of tyrants and other villains. For the criminally intrigued, it’s also the time of year when the big publishing houses roll out some of the year’s best novels in a strategy that coincides with paperback versions being stuffed into summer beach bags.
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated title in the bunch is Robert Crais’s new thriller The Watchman, which changes perspective dramatically from that of his usual protagonist, L.A. private eye Elvis Cole. Cole is in the midst of an interesting evolution, having developed a more intense emotional depth from the losses he suffered in The Last Detective and The Forgotten Man. While the P.I.’s admirable maturity counterpoints his wisecracking nicely, there’s always been a subdued violence to all of Crais’ work that elevates it way beyond the standard mystery.
Now Crais focuses on his bluntest instrument with his new book, promoting Cole’s sidekick and back-watcher Joe Pike to the forefront. Pike, like Robert B. Parker’s Hawk in the Spenser series, has always been a bit of a deus ex machina, but as a protagonist, he also suits the grimmer aspects of Crais’s pokerfaced approach. There’s also no clear indication that Pike, a cold fish under the best of circumstances, is really a good guy, but luckily Crais is smart enough not to go too far in overanalyzing him. The danger is that readers will end up finding too much about Pike to make him effective -- see Thomas Harris’s extraordinary recent demolition of his finest character for a more exaggerated example. Even Crais himself is guilty of a character’s subversion: the corruption of haunted bomb technician Carol Starkey, who emerged as a brilliant literary creation in the stand-alone Demolition Angel but was co-opted to serve as a second banana and frustrated paramour to Cole in the series.
Crais walks the line more carefully here, making Pike a fantastic action hero without selling off his more troubling aspects. Joe gives his all in this outing to protect Larkin Barkley, a self-indulgent heiress who has a date with a federal jury to testify against the mob. It starts with a bang as Pike wields his ever-present Python handgun against unknown assailants determined to whack the girl before the trial and gunning his Jeep out of L.A.’s killing zone. To fans’ satisfaction, Elvis turns up in a supporting role later in this tautly written book. But this is Pike’s show. Where Elvis, even in his latter years, would try to prop up his charge with a snappy quip, Pike is as cold hearted as ever in his counsel: “Stay with me, okay?” he tells Barkley when she starts to crash. “Harden up, because it’s about to get worse.” Good advice for any situation.
On a more nihilistic end of the world, Ken Bruen brings back his Irish ex-cop Jack Taylor in Priest, a tale that makes you wonder just how far the author is willing to push one of his most popular, if deeply damaged, characters. I’ve only recently begun to really appreciate Bruen. Although my admiration for The Guards was quite vehement and I thought Bust, his collaboration with Brooklyn novelist Jason Starr, was intensely enjoyable in a Black Mask kind of way, I didn’t really start to appreciate his nuances until I picked up the London-based Calibre last year. At first, I thought Bruen was kind of a continental Richard Stark but the black humor inherent in his work is much more subtle than Stark’s bone-crunching Parker novels. Where Parker is a blunt instrument, Bruen’s characters are infused at such a core level with their flaws and emotional fractures that they’re almost frightening in their lonesome universality.
But I digress. Priest is as harrowing and wonderful as anything Bruen has written and it’s well worth the investment to buy it in hardback. Jack Taylor is a lost man as the book opens, locked in the depths of an insane asylum but emerging with cautious fragility back from the abyss. The loss he has suffered is intense and his explanation of its effect is as abrupt as an amputation: “That child, the only real value in my life. We’d become close; the little girl loved me to read to her. It was a sweltering hot day, I’d opened the window of the second-floor room we were in. I’d been brutalized by a recent case and my focus was all over the place. The child went out the window. Just a tiny cry and she was gone. My mind just shut down after that.”
It’s a terrible confessional, only slightly mitigated by Taylor’s tart explanation of his re-awakening to a psychiatrist: “They told me David Beckham was sold.”
Shambling forward, Taylor returns to Galway and takes a security job, a long fall from his former employment as a member of Ireland’s nationalized police, the An Garda Síochána. But it turns out the “New Ireland” still has need of its hard men, drawing Taylor into an unofficial investigation of the murder of pedophiliac priest Father Joyce. Still suffering under the weight of his addictions, the natural detective follows the trail of the killer with unsteady steps, punctuated by the staccato rhythms of Bruen’s keen writing.
The other Irishman wrapping up loose ends in March is Adrian McKinty, an expatriate writer transplanted from the Emerald Isle to Denver and whose writing style is a distinct fusion of Irish passion and Americanized menace. McKinty’s day job was teaching children, but there’s nothing childlike in The Bloomsday Dead, his ferocious follow-up to The Dead Yard and Dead I May Well Be.
Like most of us, McKinty’s stone killer Michael Forsythe has a desperate weak spot. For him, it’s his fiery ex-lover Bridget Callahan, who persuades the fugitive at gunpoint to return home to Ireland to find her daughter Siobhan. It’s a bit of malarkey that Forsythe arrives back in Dublin on June 16, as the city breaks into its annual celebration of its elusive literary hero James Joyce and his most famous creation, Leopold Bloom. But it’s a small quibble to see McKinty’s desperate fugitive return home to wreak havoc on gangsters from O’Connell Street all the way back to Belfast.
To stave off the chill for the rest of this month, I’ll leave you with a new kid and an old hack.
The better of the two is, surprisingly, the novice writer. Con Ed, by debut novelist Matthew Klein, turns out to be a very sharply written, if somewhat superfluous, satire of the early dot-com bubble. While the plot is somewhat convoluted, its attraction is in the bone-dry, low-rent humor of its felonious narrator, Kip Largo. Once a world-class con artist, a long stint in the minimum-security wing at Lompoc has taken the wind out of the swindler’s sails, leaving him only a couple of dead-end gigs working at a dry cleaner and running MrVitamin.com, a pathetic crack at generating legal dollars and staying on the right side of the law.
The world soon conspires to put Kip back on the job. When his son turns up owing a lot of legal tender to the Russian mob, Largo is forced to reconsider an offer to fleece the billionaire husband of a trophy wife. The book’s beauty is not necessarily in Klein’s writing; while he’s certainly proficient, he’s still cribbing stylistically from more experienced writers. It’s that Klein’s extensive research into the mechanics of con artistry, combined with the author’s own experience with the arcane art of venture capital investment, gives the book a certain verisimilitude that buoys it considerably. By making the reader believe that Kip knows what the hell he’s talking about, Klein elevates Con Ed above the average potboiler and delivers a very promising debut. It’ll be interesting to see what this entrepreneurial spirit comes up with next.
Finally, to warm my brittle bones, I’ll leave you with a crack at a showy airplane novel set in the warmer climes of the Sunshine State. That irrepressible swamp rat Randy Wayne White just can’t seem to resist whoring out his series character Doc Ford for yet another go-round in Hunter’s Moon, the latest in his Sanibel Island thrillers. There’s a part of me that knows the old reprobate isn’t good for me, although I keep delving into the series from time to time. Even though White aspires to the gravity of James Lee Burke or the scathing cynicism of Travis McGee, the somber tone of spook-turned-biologist Ford’s narration never seems to match up to White’s over-the-top, bombastic plots.
Unfortunately, not much has changed in this latest outing as Doc, reluctant as ever to return to his day job, is talked into helping a former President slip his secret service detail to lure out the assassin that killed his wife. When the bait conveniently brings out Ford’s old foil Praxcedes Lourdes, it’s enough of a far-fetched twist to make you spit up your coffee in disbelief. There are enough political machinations here to clog up the White House shredding room, but White’s superficial themes are really only as profound as the action sequences that punctuate them -- which is to say, not deep enough.
But now the coffee’s gone tepid and the windows have frozen shut again. The snow will start again soon so I had best break out of this frigid bunker and see if I can find something more potent to thaw out my icy heart. Come around next month and we’ll go sightseeing in more exotic locales.