Posts tagged ‘Detective fiction’

July 30, 2012

I Review City of Glass, A Comic Book Doppelgänger of Paul Auster’s Postmodern Detective Novel

by Edwin Turner

Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass explores doubling, shadowing, and what it means to wear another person’s skin, so it’s fitting that the book has its own doppelgänger in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (maestro Art Spiegelman served as catalyst and counselor). I should admit upfront that although I’ve read a few of Auster’s books, I haven’t read City of Glass, considered by many to be his masterpiece. I have read Mazzucchelli’s excellent novel Asterios Polyp (and plenty of stuff by overseer Spiegelman), so the adaptation intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass in one brisk sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s it about?

Okay, so there’s this novelist, Quinn (“rhymes with twin”), who, after the death of his wife and son, takes up writing boilerplate detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. Late in the book, Quinn (if he’s still Quinn at that point, which I’ll get to) identifies the pseudonym with the “real” name of NY Mets center fielder (and future coach) Mookie Wilson—but savvy readers will also recognize “William Wilson” as the name of an Edgar Allan Poe story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger of himself to the point that he goes insane. In the Poe story, Wilson and his doppelgänger (whose name is, of course, William Wilson as well) share the same birthday, January 19th, which also happens to be E.A. Poe’s birthday (and my brother’s too, although that is not germane to this review). Auster is clearly working from Poe’s story, although he never announces this explicitly (at least not in the comic-bookization). Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, wrote an exhaustive biography of Poe (published in 1941). Crossing from the real to the fictional, from authorial to character, Auster inserts himself into the story from its outset. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Quinn gets a mysterious call, like something out of the noir novels he writes:

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Bored, or perhaps ventriloquized by a force he doesn’t understand, Quinn takes up the identity of detective Paul Auster and agrees to take on a case for Peter Stillman, a man who, as a boy, suffered feralization at the hands of his insane father, who hoped to discover the Ur-language of god through the boy. Stillman’s monologue is one of the highlights of the book, showcasing the malleability of language—and also, significantly, the malleability of speakers:

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Stillman hires Quinn/Auster to track his father, also named Peter Stillman (Peter is also the name of Quinn’s dead son). Actually, it’s Stillman the Younger”s wife/speech pathologist who hires Quinn/Auster; she’s certain that Stillman the Elder, freshly released from a mental asylum, will return to harm his son.

Quinn/Auster slides into the role of Max Work, his noir novel protagonist—or, perhaps more accurately, William Wilson’s noir protagonist—and begins tracking Stillman the Elder (or a version of Stillman the Elder—I won’t spoil the novel’s strangest, most maddening metaphysical gambit here). And, predictably, as Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work  shadows Stillman Sr., he morphs into yet another doppelgänger:

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Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work eventually confronts Stillman, and the pair have a series of fascinating conversations about language, Milton, Humpty Dumpty, and the Tower of Babel. The motifs and themes are telegraphed fairly straightforward here, but also communicated through a lens of madness that comes to dominate the book’s third act—an act that initiates in a meeting between Q/A/W/W and the “real” Paul Auster, a writer who’s working on an essay about the authorship of Don Quixote. The Don Quixote conversation is perhaps too overt, the sort of postmodern cleverness that I increasingly find a big turnoff, but it’s not clumsy or awkward. Still, there’s something mildly irritating about an author tipping his hand and then showing you how he’s tipping his hand.

The third act of City of Glass feels compressed, rushed even, and will definitely disappoint readers who wandered in for a detective stories, hoping for concrete answers and a neat and tidy plot. However, the book’s themes of fantasy and reality, play and work, sanity and madness, and character and author are rich if frustrating in their circuitousness. Mazzucchelli’s art is evocative and fitting, recalling at times the rough-hewn pop art of Raymond Pettibon and the traditional prowess of masters like Kirby and Eisner. (I’ll bring up Spiegelman again too, who introduces the volume. A friend of Auster’s, he brokered the project and oversaw its development, and his work as a creative director here is evident in the book’s cohesion). I imagine fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first book, will be interested in checking this one out. Having come first to the graphic novel, I now look forward to reading its doppelgänger, Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Good stuff.

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November 8, 2011

A Bad Night’s Sleep — Michael Wiley

by Biblioklept

A Bad Night’s SleepMichael Wiley’s third detective novel, opens with protagonist PI Joe Kozmarski working what appears to be a boring job. He’s hired to investigate the repeated robberies of a Chicago construction site. Sure, it’s a glorified nightwatchman gig, but this job might get him closer to retiring in a certain north Florida fishing town he dreams about. The job gets too interesting too quickly, however, when the burglars arrive and begin stealing equipment and material. Then the police show up—and help rob the site. Kozmarski calls 911, more police arrive, and, in the firefight that ensues he shoots—and kills—one of the robber cops.

While waiting in jail to be charged—an event that never quite comes to light—Kozmarski reflects—

Every time I’d seen someone die I’d felt the world go a little quieter like I’d lost part of my hearing, and sooner or later the singing, laughing, and screaming would fade into a hushing wind of white noise. That had happened when my dad died. It had happened when Kevin, a boy I was supposed to be protecting, ended up twisted and broken on his mother’s kitchen floor. It happened. Shooting the cop felt worse. I’d ripped a little hole in the universe and I wondered what sound would fly through it.

Kozmarski’s little hole lets in more than strange sounds. The cop-shooting imperils his PI license, damages his (not exactly heretofore spotless) reputation, and leads undercover cops to threaten him (to the point of firing shots) as he leaves jail. The stress doesn’t exactly help protect his tenuous sobriety either, and Kozmarski’s soon on the sauce again (let’s not even mention that little bag of coke his “friend” sends him to help through these troubled times). Luckily (although that’s hardly an appropriate adverb here), Kozmarski’s friend on the force sets up another job for our distressed hero, one that could clear his name and clean out some of the dirty cops of the Chicago PD. Kozmarski infiltrates the corrupt gang of crooked cops, but as he plumbs deeper into the mystery, the line between good guys and bad guys becomes increasingly nebulous.

A Bad Night’s Sleep is a page turner telegraphed in terse, tense, vivid prose. Wiley’s plot and dialogue alike are hardboiled in the noir tradition of Hammett or Chandler, and his characters and pacing bristle with the gritty immediacy one might find in George V. Higgins. There’s a smart brush of black humor to A Bad Night’s Sleep that comes from Wiley’s characterization and his protagonist’s wry observations. And for all of his hard edges, we find in Kozmarski an engaged protagonist, a man of genuine pathos. Wiley delivers what readers want from an intelligent mystery—keen, suspenseful plotting, sharp action sequences, and a hero we can care about.

A Bad Night’s Sleep is available now in hardback from St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint. Read our interview with Michael Wiley.

September 8, 2011

Books Acquired, 9.08.11

by Biblioklept

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Big stack of reader copies on the homestead’s porch this afternoon, including two works of nonfiction from Picador, new in trade paperback. I’ve been itching to read Ed Vulliamy’s Amexica for a while, perhaps one of the weird aftereffects of 2666 . . . anyway, it should be a nice, visceral antidote to all the middling novels that pile up in the fall. Ian Frazier’s no slouch either, and Travels in Siberia looks pretty cool as well. A few weeks ago, Picador sent me a copy of Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, which also got great reviews in hardback last summer—I think I’ll make it my fall reading mission to read more nonfiction (particularly travel writing, which I’ve always loved), and these three books seem like a great way to go.

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A Bad Night’s Sleep is the latest from crime writer Michael Wiley (I interviewed Wiley about his last book, The Bad Kitty Lounge, back in May of 2010, and he mentioned this book was underway, although he also talked about something called Wordsworth with a Glock, which, hey, I’d still love to see).

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Wiley’s novel is new from Minotaur, who are also putting out a crime novel called The Devil’s Ribbon by D.E. Meredith.

June 17, 2011

Biblioklept Interviews Novelist Ed Lynskey About Appalachian Crime Noir and His New Novel Lake Charles

by Edwin Turner

Ed Lynskey’s new novel Lake Charles (new this month from Wildside Press) explores the seamy underbelly of a rural Tennessee community. The book balances traditional crime fiction tropes (fast plotting, hairpin turns, terse dialog, and good old-fashioned violence) with a strong evocation of setting. Lynskey’s novel should make a nice addition to anyone’s summer beach reading schedule. He was kind enough to talk to us over a series of emails about Lake Charles, archetypes vs. stereotypes, violence, and more.

Biblioklept: Your new novel Lake Charles is a crime thriller set in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1979, which you paint as a criminal hotbed riddled with police corruption, a huge marijuana operation, a young lady mysteriously disappeared, and all other sorts of dark intrigue. The setting seems intrinsic to the plot—did the novel originate as an evocation of place, or did the story come first? Or perhaps a mixture of both?

Ed Lynskey: The setting came first. I’ve carried the place inside me since I was a teenager visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The real Lake Charles is a manmade body of water, not a natural one and that genesis alone corrupts it. The lake had enjoyed a glorious past when it was used for recreation and pleasure, but now the earthen dam is leaky, and the water is scummy, stagnant, and brackish. That’s how I pictured the unsavory setting, and then I molded the criminal elements around Lake Charles. The manmade lake used in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was in the back of my mind though I’d only seen the film and didn’t read his novel until after Lake Charles got published. Reviewers have cited the native characters as “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” I view those handy labels as a shallow stereotypes. It’s true wild things go on in the boonies. On the other hand, I live in Washington, D.C., and every night on the local news I can see a galore of murders, mayhem, corruption, drug rings, and kidnappings. So the major crimes thrive and seethe everywhere.

Ed Lynskey

B: I’m from the South, and I often find myself feeling offended at certain portrayals of Southerners, which, if done incorrectly, tend to skew to the grotesque. I imagine that a writer never wants to produce a stereotype, but at the same time, certain genres necessitate particular archetypal figures to fulfill reader expectations (not to mention basic plot functions). When crafting a crime noir piece like Lake Charles, do you feel any tension between what is stereotypical and what is archetypal?

EL: The characters in Lake Charles hail from a small mountain town in Tennessee. Though they’re a little rough around the edges and turn violent if pushed enough, I don’t choose to view them as a stereotype. The challenge for the writer, as I see it, is to make the characters familiar enough to the readers but to also keep the characters’ personalities distinct and original. Stereotypes are here to stay. Rick Bragg tells the funny anecdote how his New York City editor wrote in the comment “doublewide what?” on his manuscript. Try hard as they might, they just don’t get it. But getting back to Lake Charles, I wanted a young protagonist, and an older guy who’s a war vet to serve as his mentor because the plot needed that dynamic to be set up. I believe the war vet is probably a flatter character, but the protagonist is coming of age, so I hope he’s a more complex character.

B: I like the relationship between Mr. Kuzawa, the archetypal wise (but gruff) older man, and Brendan Fishback, the protagonist who narrates Lake Charles. Brendan is definitely in over his head, but there’s a certain relief in his having Kuzawa as a mentor. Still, you put Brendan in a lot of trouble. When you were drafting the novel, did you have a clear trajectory for Brendan’s finding a way out of the mess he’s in? Or was it part of your writing process to ensnare your protagonist and see how he might extricate himself?

EL: Lake Charles has gone through numerous revisions, and I don’t recall what my original strategy was for creating Brendan as the protagonist. I knew he was in a heap of trouble, as they like to say down South, but I didn’t think he had the right savvy to find a way out of his sticky jam. If he figured it all out on his own, he’d come off as seeming unbelievable and less credible as the narrator. I’m not sure if Kuzawa is too much of a James Bondian know-it-all who steers Brendan through the wickets. He’s a bit larger-than-life. Sometimes you meet people who seem to suck all the air out of a room with their forceful personality.

B: Switching gears for a moment, Lake Charles isn’t your only novel being published this year, right? Can you tell us a little about your other new books?

EL: You bet. Thank you for asking, too. Quiet Anchorage coming out this spring is a small town cozy mystery featuring two senior amateur sleuths who’re sisters. Their favorite niece is falsely arrested for the murder of her boyfriend, and of course her aunts flew to her defense. I wrote QA to take a break from the noir and hardboiled arena and to have a little fun. The reviews have been generally upbeat and favorable. So, I hope I can publish the second title as a new series next year. The third book, The Zinc Zoo, is the next title in my PI Frank Johnson mystery series. Frank has moved to the suburbs but still manages to get into difficult cases with prickly clients. I’m not sure when TZZ will be out. The publisher has been dealing with a serious family illness since the start of the year. The snazzy front cover art has been finished, so hopefully things will pick up again soon.

B: Three books in a year (plus several novels in the past five or six years)—-that’s fairly prolific. Are you composing these novels simultaneously?

EL: Is it prolific? I never really thought of it that way, but I can see your point, sure. I can’t work on two books at the same time. The plots and characters cross-talk in my brain, and I get things mixed up. I just work steady on one project at a time. I usually woodshed a project for several months before I go back to revise it for presentation. For instance, Lake Charles took me ten years to write from a short story into a published novel. Plus when the economy first went (and still lags) south, I didn’t publish any books for over 18 months. Stuff was just in the pipeline waiting to come out. The erratic schedule makes it more difficult to promote the project because it means I drop whatever I’m working on and shift to do the marketing bit.

B: Clearly you’re having to do some marketing now—but what future projects do you have cooking?

EL: The two large projects looming immediately ahead for me are the second title in the small town cozy mystery series and the large mob novel set in Washington, D.C. But that’s how I envision things today. It’s a fluid situation not because so much is happening as I’m hustling the new projects here and there.

B:  Have you ever stolen a book?
EL: I don’t believe I’ve ever filched a new book from a store. I know there was a book swap in the Bermuda bed & breakfast where you left a book if you took one. I think I traded a baseball book for a mystery. That’s about as close as I can get to that situation.
October 21, 2010

Red Harvest — Dashiell Hammett

by noquar

Dashiell Hammett’s first published novel, Red Harvest, stars an unnamed dick, but the book isn’t so much a detective novel as it is an exploration of the destruction and renewal of a vice-ridden mining town named Personville.  The city boss, who serves “Poisonville” as both mayor and company president, can no longer control the strikebreakers he imported to bust up a prolonged work stoppage.  Initially retained by the editor of the daily paper to conduct background research for a developing story, the Continental Op is reluctantly hired by the mayor  to return the town to respectability.

Red Harvest is no murder mystery in the Scooby Doo sense because, unlike the Spillane novels reviewed last week, there is no particular villain to unmask.  Here, the action unfolds as the Continental Agency operative learns the personal histories of the town’s power players, assesses their motivations, and determines how best to play one set of guns against another.  The simple brilliance of this novel is Hammett’s ability to create believable characters in a handful of sentences, and then send them out to wreak mayhem against others.  Poisonville is as much a living character as Conan Doyle’s London or Bolaño’s Santa Teresa because it is so central to its citizens’ hopes, frustrations, and fears.  The detective apprehends, as bodies multiply, that the town is somehow getting the better of him.

The Continental Op might just be a stand-in for Hammet’s ideal reader.  Even though he’s privy to the same information we are, the detective is uniquely able to separate the relevant from the misleading and move the narrative forward.  He ingratiates himself with each of the opposing camps in town, analyzes their situations, and dispenses advice to their leaders based upon their own best interests.  Although the shakedowns, shootings, and betrayals were probably inevitable, the Op is the catalyst, the omnipotent narrator annihilating and rebuilding alliances.  Our detective’s actions lead to more than a dozen deaths, a prison break, riots in the street, blackmail, and his own frame-up for murder.

Rarely do writers trust their lead characters to create, and not merely experience, their own story.  I imagine that most characters, and most living human beings, aren’t capable or don’t want to always be in charge, preferring often just to passively accept whatever is foisted upon them.  Hammett’s writing in Red Harvest is so precise and inviting that those who pick it up might convince themselves, as they flip backwards twenty pages or so, that they could have played puppet-master just as easily.

October 13, 2010

The Mike Hammer Novels — Mickey Spillane

by noquar

Online auctions allow book-lovers to engage in what could be labeled “biblio-sharking.”  Some poor sap needs to clear out his basement to make room for a foosball table or a Jacuzzi, and readers take his books for an extraordinary profit. While the seller may hesitate to dispose of their treasures, I’ll readily pay negligible sums to compensate him for his losses.  So, if your rumpus room means more to you than fiction, please please please place your ads on Ebay.

Some poor mug did just that last week, allowing me to take home 18 detective novels for five clams and nominal shipping and handling charges.  Because anthologies were included in the package, I scored twenty-four books for about thirty cents apiece.  Ed Biblioklept, kept busy for weeks at a time supervising hooligans and future delinquents of America, has granted me permission to review one of my purchases, the New American Library’s collection of Mickey Spillane’s first three Mike Hammer novelsI, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine.

Spillane sold hundreds of millions of detective and spy stories during a long career, and the Hammer stories guaranteed him an interested and rabid following.  Although private dick Mike Hammer finds himself in any number of slippery situations, Spillane’s central character, rather than any individual plot twist, is what makes these stories both convincing and compelling.

Hammer is the archetypal square-jawed detective, but he demands that you listen to his recollections of a case because he’s clever, resourceful, and vulgar. Although indelicate by today’s standards, Hammer is a tough guy for his times, beguiling dames who are used to getting just what they want, burning through decks of unfiltered Luckies, and drinking brandy for breakfast.  What’s timeless, though, is his belief that bad guys are afforded too many protections by an impotent system of justice and that once all the pieces are put together, one extraordinary man performs a public service by putting a few slugs in the guts of murderers.  In each of these stories Hammer begins unraveling the mysteries only after someone close to him has been killed.

This was the first collection of detective stories I’ve ever finished, and each page dragged me further into a black and white world filled with villains, vixens, and corrupt politicians.  The reader becomes an unpaid extra in a B-level film noir.

Hammer explained to me, a snob, the enduring popularity of the literary detective: “You’ve forgotten that I’ve been in business because I stayed alive longer than some guys who didn’t want me that way.  You’ve forgotten that I’ve had some punks tougher than you’ll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change.”  Mind what you think.

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