A Bad Night’s Sleep — Michael Wiley

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.

The Best Books We Read in 2010 That Were Published Before 2010

The best books that we read in 2010 that were published before 2010:

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño (2008, English translation) — Bolaño’s fake encyclopedia of right-wing writers is a tragicomic crash course in misanthropy, failure, and fated violence. Francisco Goldman’s blurb on the back of the book is spot on–the book is a “key cosmology to Bolaño’s literary universe.” Nazi Literature is like an index for the Bolañoverse–creepy, steeped in dread, deeply, caustically funny, and bitterly poignant.

Butterfly Stories by William T. Vollmann (1993) Adventures in the Southeast Asian sex trade. Bleakly funny, often depressing, and filled with erudite asides on Nobel prizewinners, transvestites, and the benefits of whiskey and benadryl. Plenty of grotesque sex. Not for everyone. In fact, not for most people.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970) — Higgins throws his audience into the deep end of gritty urban Boston on the wrong side of the sixties in this crime noir classic. There’s little exposition to spell out Coyle’s intricate and fast-paced plot, but there is plenty of machine-gun dialogue, rendered very true and very raw. Higgins trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way.

Home Land (2004) and Venus Drive (2000) by Sam Lipsyte — Is there a better stylist working today than Lipsyte? Does anyone write better sentences? Of course, sentences alone don’t matter much if you don’t have a story worth telling, and both Homeland and Venus Drive deliver. They are seething, funny, poignant books, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, despite their myriad sins.

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (1968) — One of the many small vignettes that comprise Steps begins with the narrator going to a zoo to see an octopus that is slowly killing itself by consuming its own tentacles. The piece ends with the same narrator discovering that a woman he’s picked up off the street is actually a man. In between, he experiences sexual frustration with a rich married woman. The piece is less than three pages long. You will either hate or love this book.

Cloud Atlas (2004) and Black Swan Green (2006) by David MitchellCloud Atlas is a postmodern puzzle piece of six nested narratives (each a smart take on some kind of genre fiction), informed by Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence; Black Swan Green (which for some reason we forgot to review here) is a funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story of a boy who copes with his terrible stutter and his parents’ crumbling marriage in early 1980’s England. The books have little in common save their brilliance–which seems kinda sorta unfair. It also seems unfair that Mitchell put them out so quickly. Damn him.

Angels by Denis Johnson (1983) — Angels begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (1979) — A beautiful, rambling riff on American literature — Suttree picks up on Emerson and Twain, Faulkner and Whitman, and flows into a new, wild territory that is pure McCarthy. Is it his best novel? Could be. Read it.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle — George V. Higgins

There are two distinct ironies in the title of George V. Higgins’s landmark 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The first is the word “friends” to describe the collection of folks on both sides of the law who Coyle tries to get over on in order to get out of an upcoming prison sentence (of course, most of these folks are looking to use or set up Coyle in turn). The second irony is that Eddie Coyle (aka Eddie Fingers aka “the stocky man”) is not so much the headliner here as he is the catalyst in a sharp and gritty tale of Boston gangsters, gunrunners, student radicals,  cops, state police, and federal agents.

Like David Simon did three decades later in his Baltimore opus The Wire, Higgins throws his audience into the deep end. Coyle features almost no exposition. Instead Higgins, a former U.S. Attorney, forwards his intricate and fast-paced plot using machine-gun dialogue. While many crime writers fall for the lure of hyperbolic argot, Higgins’s dialogue rings very true and very raw. He trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone; the rest of the prose is reserved for tight, cinematic descriptions of gritty urban Boston at the end of the 1960s. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way. Coyle features a description of a bank robbery that is so clean, precise, and sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone somewhere had used it as a how-to manual.

Higgins also spares authorial intrusion when it comes to a moral voice in his novel. There are certainly bad guys here, to be sure, but they are complex and human, just like the cops and feds who hunt them. In this sense, Coyle is the prototype of a type of crime fiction that came to rise in the cinema of the ’70s–gritty actioners that viewed crime and punishment through a lens of absolute ambiguity. At the same time, Coyle doesn’t unravel into a mere shaggy dog story–there’s a definite conclusion to the story here, even if it doesn’t satisfy the district attorney who tries to make sense of it all (like, in a metaphysical sense) at the end.

I’ve read more crime fiction in the past year than I ever have before, inspired perhaps by “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 or Jonathan Lethem’s forays into noir. I wrote a little bit about this the other week when I praised Denis Johnson’s noveau-noir exercise Nobody Move for its purity and its “willingness to be what it is” (whatever that means). (The tone of Nobody Move is downright lighthearted next to Coyle. Not that they need to be compared–I enjoyed both very much). What I did not directly address in that post is my own prejudice against genre fiction, a prejudice that inflamed me in my early teens to such a degree that I probably outright disregarded a lot of great writing. But there’s always more great writing out there than one can read in a lifetime, so why dwell on the past? Suffice to say that The Friends of Eddie Coyle should correct any prejudicial notions of the limits of crime fiction. Highly recommended.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle 40th Anniversary Edition with a new introduction by Dennis Lehane is new this month from Picador.

In Brief — New (and Not So New) Noir Novels

Got a great little gang of new noir (or at least noirish) novels from Picador last week. These handsome trade paperbacks are all available April 27, 2010. Full reviews all around forthcoming, but until then–

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a tight snare drum of a comedy crime novel. Jimmy Luntz, still decked out in his white barbershop chorus tux (don’t ask) gets into trouble with a big gorilla he owns money too. On the run, he meets smoldering bombshell Anita. More trouble ensues. Nobody Move, originally serialized in Playboy, is a dark, funny genre exercise propelled by Johnson’s sharp dialogue and keen eye for detail. Johnson’s restraint and economy demonstrate writerly chops, but its his story and his characters that made me stay up too late reading last night.

I’m kind of embarrassed that I’d never heard of George V. Higgins’s seminal crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the story of a down-on-his luck gunrunner trying to get a break on a three-year sentence. Picador’s new edition celebrates the book’s 40th anniversary. Higgins’s electric dialogue thrusts the reader right into the action, trading narrative clarity for a smoky milieu of backroom deals and gritty alleys. But my phrasing here sounds way too corny and trite. Forgive me, I don’t really know how to write about good crime fiction because I’m so unused to it. I’ll lazily favorably compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to David Simon’s Baltimore crime epic The Wire.

I’ve been too engrossed with Coyle and Nobody Move the past few days to do more than skim over Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel about grifters and scam artists in the jewelery world, but I did read and very much enjoy its first chapter, where the protagonist pawns his mother’s wedding ring (“the only precious thing she had left”) and yet still manages to keep reader sympathy (mine, at least). Martin worked for years in the fine jewelery business. He also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Zadie Smith says of How to Sell: “It’s a little like Dennis Cooper with a philosophical intelligence, or Raymond Carver without hope. But mostly it’s like itself.” I like that.

If you’re still not in a  noirish mood, I’ll make one more attempt to piqué your interest. In what has to be one of the greatest opening shots in the history of cinema, Orson Welles begins his dark crime thriller Touch of Evil with a continuous tracking shot of a car that . . . hang on, I shouldn’t tell you what happens if you don’t know yet. Just watch the scene. It mines the same border-horror that those other noir-masters Roberto Bolaño and David Lynch also evoke so well.