Mystery Strumpetís Peachy-Keen Guide To Beach Books
Ah, how I envy all you youngsters, uncoiling your vigorous little bones at the first whispering breezes of summer, so full of possibility. It’s not for me, really. The temperatures have simply reached high enough to make a leather jacket uncomfortable while the freeways are clogged with beleaguered parents whose SUVs are filled to the gills with their squalling, fighting brood of pestilent children, and the air is filled with the rank smell of deep-fried dough and other disagreeable heart-attacking treats. Hot fun in the summertime, good times to be had by all.
Sorry, that’s where I left all of you here on the East Coast, anyway, where I’d rather nuke the place from orbit than expose myself to one more stroll down an overdeveloped 1950s boardwalk. I’m scribbling my last coherent thoughts in an airport departure lounge before fleeing for the left coast, so full of promise, enlightened voters, state-protected beaches, imaginative cuisine and, forgive me my trespasses, California girls. Yes, I know it has its drawbacks, among them earthquakes, landslides and fistfuls of anti-intellectuals shopping concepts instead of clarity. So sue me. Lump me in with that underrated wit Ashleigh Brilliant, who scribbled, “There may be no Heaven anywhere, but somewhere there is a San Francisco.”
So I’ll be sitting on a deck somewhere out west with a cold bottle of Anchor Steam by the time you read this little communiqué. But if you insist on following the hordes out to Sand Crab Beach or whichever other tourist trap lures you in, you might as well carry a few suggestions for reading material. As they chuckle over at the mainstream venues, it’s too hot for Tolstoy. Oh, those clever, clever news writers. And they say print is dead.
Without further ado, here are a few simple rules for selecting this year’s beach books, composed with almost no forethought on cocktail napkins. Take from them what you will.
Don’t buy books at the airport. If you walk into any airport newsstand right this minute and grab something off the shelf, you’ll end up reading Mitch Albom (kind of a downer on vacation), David Baldacci (thrillers for readers who think they’re smart, but aren’t), or some fluff about a guy and his dog. Just don’t. Plan ahead. Truck stops have a better selection of reading material than airports, and your local library will put them both to shame for free. Put a stack of giveaway paperbacks next to door for a quick grab on your way out the door. You’ll be glad when you’re white-knuckling along with Lee Child while your comrades are suffering through the sunburn they got when they fell asleep reading that Ken Follett monstrosity about medieval cathedrals.
Think paperback. There’s nothing less attractive at the beach than seeing your dimply neon-white thighs peppered with black-purple bruises from carrying around that pointy illustrated copy of 1776 that you’re never going to finish. No, I take that back. I once saw an entire family of Germans change out of their swimming gear in front of 200 tourists waiting to catch their ride back to the mainland on the Italian Riviera. But you see the point. Soften up.
I’ll even give you one to chew on, despite the fact that I hate its author’s overconfident, over-talented ass to no end. Of course I’m talking about Duane Swierczynski, he of the unpronounceable last name and bottomless gifts for entertainment. It was bad enough when he was simply the city editor for some Philly rag and the bad brain behind The Secret Dead Blog, one of the best crime fiction blogs around, whose “Monday Moment of Noir” never fails to score a smile from me. But now he’s given himself over to the dark side, writing novels like The Blonde and recently joining the merry ranks of Marvel to scribe Cable and The Immortal Iron Fist, among other comic projects. He’s managed to score a great gig and has the chops to back it up. So screw him.
So it’s no surprise that my recommended paperback selection, the aforementioned bastard’s new novel Severance Package, jumps right out at you from bookstore shelves at the end of May. You’ll see it. It’s the one with a graphic noir illustration by Dennis Calero and stamped with question at hand: “Ever want to kill your boss? Well guess what, THE FEELING IS MUTUAL.”
We meet the hardworking staff of Murphy, Knox & Associates on a miserably hot Saturday in August. While most of the seven team members tromping into the office would prefer to be at the beach, they’ve been called back in for a managers’ meeting to discuss… something or another. Surely it must be important. Among their numbers is one newly hired Jamie DeBroux, the firm’s media relations director whose job it is to explain to the world at large what the company does, a task that would be much easier if actually knew what the company did.
Things become much clearer when their boss, David Murphy, clears his throat and announces that the business is actually a front company for CI-6, a government intelligence agency, and the firm is closing up shop, permanently. They can drink the poison champagne, take a bullet to the head, or take their chances with the office doors that have been loaded with explosive packets of Sarin gas. Let’s just take a little peek in on one of the firm’s active operatives, Ethan Goins, who’s taken a faceful of the lethal toxin but has his own development plan.
Granted, his imagination may have been limited by his time in Iraq. Maybe that experience prevented an easier solution from popping into his head. Some quick and simple way of opening up his throat, so that air could make its way into his lungs and bloodstream and muscle and brain.
If there was an easier way, it wasn’t coming to him. Blame his oxygen-starved brain.
Pen to the throat it was.
As quickly as Murphy’s useless corpse falls to the floor, courtesy of a bullet to the head from Jamie’s shell-shocked friend Molly Lewis, the race is on, not only for the remaining managers to escape the building alive but also to survive an insanely frenetic and increasingly lethal series of attacks by their co-workers, all punctuated by a morbid list of the dead and surviving staff that crops up after every graphic fatality and cartoonish depictions of the action by Calero. I guarantee Swierczynski’s bloodthirsty little book won’t put you to sleep. It might even make you glad you’re alive.
Read something cool. If you must grab a hardback or two, for God’s sake, take something interesting. You readers are at a disadvantage anyway, running the risk of sand kicked in your face and scaring off the wildlife with your farmers tans. No one ever got loved up because they were carting around a copy of Dean Koontz’s latest frightfest or some Dale Brown retro-thriller.
For June, I’d take Don Winslow’s language-loving surf/crime/noir/thriller The Dawn Patrol, which is bound to at least gain you some traction with the local boys in wetsuits. It is, as it professes to be, “epic macking crunchy.” Let’s face it, once you swallow Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source, Allan Weisbecker’s In Search of Captain Zero, and shotgun a six-pack while watching Point Break on cable, surf culture starts to get a little thin. The genre could use a few more entries, especially now that John From Cincinnati has bitten the dust.
The Dawn Patrol opens on Pacific Beach, California, as Boone Daniels and the other members of the titular group (four dudes and a chick who live to surf) wait for the next ride and carry on the eternal debate about Things That Are Good, which currently consists of free stuff, fish tacos, big Wednesday and girls who will sit on the beach and watch you ride double overheads, reef break, and the tube.
But Boone isn’t only a surfer dude, dude. He’s also a former member of the San Diego Police Department who has moved on, with the assistance of bros like homicide detective Johnny Banzai, young pup Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God and beach goddess Sunny Day, into the private investigation business. Haunted by the abduction of a girl named Rain, Boone is more sensitive to all the different waves of the world, as Winslow relates in one of his thoughtful, descriptive meanderings.
At its most benign, a big beautiful swell to ride; at its most malevolent, a mass-murdering tsunami.
This is a disturbance, a mass transportation of energy phenom, that will travel thousands of miles either to give you the ride of your life or fuck you up, and it doesn’t care which.
This is what’s rolling toward Pacific Beach as The Dawn Patrol gets out of the water this particular morning. An undersea earthquake up near the Aleutian Islands is hurtling literally thousands of miles to come crash down on Pacific Beach and go --
Bring an old friend. Okay, there are one or two exceptions to the rule about buying books in airports. You can usually find at least one solid crime writer at the back of any paperback rack and if you’re lucky, maybe even an Elmore Leonard or a Hard Case Crime gem. But the point is that it never hurts to bring along a writer that you know you’re going to enjoy. It’s bad enough spending five or six hours inside a clam shack seeking shelter from UV rays without reading page three of a single novel over and over.
If you play your cards right just before the holiday of American independence (that’s the one where we all got screwed on free health care but scored on firecrackers and roman candles), you can lay hands on a copy of Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais. Yes, after teasing us for years with a bank robbery novel and a Joe Pike solo adventure, Crais has brought back his series detective Elvis Cole for a straight-up whodunit.
Chasing Darkness is as close to the pre-L.A. Requiem Elvis Cole novels as you’re likely to get. After several books that obsessed about the wisecracking detective’s personal life, the new book puts Cole solidly back in his L.A. office, where he’s having a hell of a morning. The first call of the day tells him, “You’re a dead man.” That eye-opener is quickly followed up by a visit from two LAPD cops who are pissed as hell about a former client that Elvis saved from certain prosecution who has turned up dead in a fire, clutching evidence of at least seven murders. Cole protests that he works on at least thirty of these cases a year, so what makes this one any different?
“Material linking him to the murder was found in his home. He murdered a sixth woman the summer after his release. His most recent victim was murdered thirty-six days ago, and now he’s murdered himself.”
Crimmens licked his lips as if he wanted to eat me alive.
“How do you feel now, Mr. Thirty-a-Year?”
Read something unique. I’ll leave you this month with one of the weirder titles I’ve run across in a while but one that I enjoyed immensely. After doing the ambitious young writer thing with Goodbye Lemon and The Frog King, Adam Davies abandons all pretensions of normalcy and lets his freak flag fly with Mine All Mine, a bizarre but eloquent take on one of the most underutilized elements of crime fiction: the human security guard.
“I am a pulse,” confesses the book’s hero Otto Starks, although he admits soon enough that he’s been telling his girlfriend Charlie Izzo that he’s a talent scout for the New York Mets. It turns out that “pulse” is industry jargon for a very special breed of security personnel.
Pulse, body, mack, Johnny, pinker, voice, vox, squealer, Jagger, spoiler, eyeball, sitter, squatter, asstimer, watcher, fido, spook, caspar. If you are a national government who wants to hang on to your military secrets, if you are a plutocrat with an extensive personal collection of bronze Shang-dynasty water buffalo-themed kuangs, if you are a multinational corporation who wants to keep what is yours yours, then you need to put a pulse in the room -- a human guard with a finger on the button when the high-tech talent disables all your safeguards and penetrates your compound. To say that we are elite security guards doesn’t quite cover it. We are the reason why the Crown Jewels still belong to Great Britain and why warheads haven’t shown up in Iran. We are also the reason why ever crime story you’ve ever seen or read is either hilarious or just plain stupid.
Besides making a salient point that every last one of you has thought at one time or another -- that an eleven-dollar-an-hour security guard would have shot Tom Cruise’s ass off in that first Mission: Impossible movie or that the same guy in a chair would have put Catherine Zeta-Jones in Rikers for her part in Entrapment -- Starks also riffs on a few tricks of his trade. In addition to contemplating the virtues and vices of stab-proof vests and impenetrable laser security, he reveals that he’s been dosing himself regularly with a plethora of psychotropic agents in order to build up a tolerance against them.
What transpires is a hilarious cat-and-mouse game between the hypersensitive security guard and a master thief armed with balletic grace and better drugs than Otto can get his hands on. Dubbed “The Rat Burglar” by the press and championed by Charlie, the media darling snatches what’s dear from Otto again and again, making him a laughingstock among his comrades and endangering his ambitious scheme to make sail with Charlie on board a hard-earned sloop he’s already named The Clean Getaway.
Half James Bond technojoy with a good strong dose of romantic comedy, what gives Mine all Mine its great momentum is a firm sense of, well, whatever you deem the opposite of subtlety. As the plot careens forward and Otto becomes more and more unhinged, the book becomes equal parts a battle of wits, crime caper, and Peter Sellers movie, complete with roaring battles between opponents armed with dart guns full of paralytic agents, a floating treasure trove of stolen artifacts, and a dizzying series of double crosses that would make Ethan Hunt’s eyes cross. It’s even a paperback, to boot.
With those guidelines safely in hand, I’ll trust you to make your own judgments about what best suits your summer reading program. Myself, I’m off to spend some quality time in a place one of my favorite writers loved deeply, one he wrote, “whose inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.” Sounds as good as anyplace I can think of right now.