Saturday, January 06, 2007

Smack in the biscuit, or, We don't need no hanky-panky

Between the holidays and my computer problems, I've fallen behind in telling you about the crime novels I've been reading lately. So here's a quick roundup.

1) Wade Miller's Branded Woman (1952) and John Lange's Grave Descend (1971), a couple of Hard Case Crime novels that I read back-to-back, made a good pair. Branded Woman, set in Mazatlan, stars a tough woman, a jewelry smuggler who is searching for the mysterious man known as The Trader, who years ago branded her on the forehead as a warning to stay out of his way. Of course, the scar has the opposite effect, making Branded Woman a fine revenge tale as the woman wends her way through a fairly large cast of shady characters, double agents, and red herrings on the trail of The Trader. The rarity (for noir) of a tough female protagonist is enough to make Branded Woman worthwhile; that the mystery is sufficiently convoluted to keep me guessing was a bonus.

Grave Descend is also set on the water, this time Jamaica, and it stars McGregor, a diver and salvage man who gets hired—at a surprisingly high price—to investigate a sunken yacht. It won't surprise you that nearly everything about the set-up, from the guy hiring him to the story of the yacht's sinking, strikes McGregor as suspicious. But, like so many noir heroes . . .
"Hanky-panky," said [his co-diver] Yeoman solemnly. It was his word to indicate a wide variety of derangements and interesting activity.

"Looks that way," McGregor said.

"They setting you up for something?"

McGregor nodded.

"Better get out now," Yeoman said. "We don't need no hanky-panky."

"well, no," McGregor said, and ordered a beer. "But . . . "

"You're curious," Yeoman said.

"Something like that."

"The curious fish," Yeoman said, "gets the hook."
The set-up of Grave Descend is fantastic, an extremely complicated scenario involving insurance fraud and murder and art theft, but the payoff is a bit disappointing. The story devolves a bit into chases and fistfights—all very good in their place, but not quite as exciting as I'd hoped, considering how many balls Lange had tossed into the air earlier. But it was still a fun read, worth the time if for no other reason than McGregor's escape from the depths of a swamp, during which he has to fight a crocodile. He should have listened to Yeoman, but you already knew that.

[Bonus for those of you who don't click the links: Miller is a pseudonym for a pair of writers who, among other things, wrote the book on which Touch of Evil was based, and John Lange is the pseudonym of—wait for it—Michael Crichton, under which he wrote in medical school. The Wikipedia rules.]

2) I also checked in with Spenser and his entourage, reading Robert Parker's most recent account of his adventures, Cold Service (2006). It's been several years since a Spenser novel has done much for me, but they're worth the occasional Saturday afternoon. I think of them kind of like the soaps: you check in once in a while to see what the people you've been watching for years have been up to lately. Not much ever changes, but even that very continuity is somewhat soothing. Cold Service opens just after Spenser's best friend, Hawk the hit man, has been shot, near fatally. During his recovery, Spenser explains to Hawk's soon-to-be-ex girlfriend that the reason Hawk is almost never wrong is that he tries never to speak about anything he doesn't know. It was as succinct an explanation of Hawk as Parker has ever come up with, well worth the trouble of checking in.

3) It took my local bookstore a month or so to get it, but I finally got to read Allan Guthrie's first novel, Two-Way Split (2004). It's set in the same seedy Edinburgh milieu as his second novel, Kiss Her Goodbye (2005), and it even peripherally features Kiss Her Goodbye's two most important characters, leg-breaker Joe Hope and his boss, Cooper. This novel, however, is about a set of novice criminals who disastrously botch a bank job. Along the way, a couple of outsiders, find out about the job, and, for very different reasons, close in on the thieves. Disaster and violence—painfully well-described—ensue.

Guthrie loads Two-Way Split with effective details, carefully drawing the grubbiness that pervades his characters' lives. Take this passage, for example, wherein Pearce, a recent ex-con who has reluctantly taken some enforcement work to pay off a debt, enters a block of council flats looking for a man named Cant:
Cant's handwritten name was taped on top of the garish pink paintwork of his front door. The letter a had been scored out and replaced with a u. Pearce felt the corners of his mouth twitch. He slipped a fingernail under a burst paint blister, which peeled off like boiled skin.

Pearce's greatest asset is his formidable strength, and from the moment he's introduced he carries the threat of violence:
Winter in Scotland was far too cold to walk around bare-chested. That's why Pearce wore a t-shirt. His fists clenched, relaxed, and clenched again. His forearm muscles writhed under his goose-pimpled skin. He smacked his hands together.
His challenge throughout the book is to overcome violence, get past those urges despite extreme provocation—and to accept an unexpected offer of what, against all odds, appears to be some sort of real future.

All the characters in Two-Way Split are damaged, one of them far, far more than is immediately clear (though as I look back through the book, I find that Guthrie drops hints from the very start); his fragility leads the novel into completely unexpected territory. But Guthrie pulls it off; right to the end he kept me guessing as to what decisions his characters would make—and, more importantly, caring about those choices.

When I read
Kiss Her Goodbye this summer, I thought it wasn't entirely successful, the violence seeming disproportionate to the story and the characters. I think that if I'd read Two-Way Split first, I would have been more receptive to Kiss Her GoodbyeTwo-Way Split seems a clearer exposition of Guthrie's themes. Or it's possible that it's just a matter of settling into his world, and either novel, read first, would have been tougher. Regardless, I'm now definitely ready for his next novel, Hard Man, which comes out next spring.

4) And, finally, over the holiday I read another Hard Case Crime novel, Richard S. Prather's The Peddler (1952), which tells the story of the meteoric rise of a small-time San Francisco hood named Tony to the high reaches of the syndicate that runs the city's brothels. It's a dark book, almost an inverse morality tale, where the protagonist becomes more and more successful while getting less and less human. Because Tony is the focus of the book, I kept ignoring the warnings his friends and associates—and his behavior—gave as to his utter amorality and self-centeredness, thinking that he'd eventually redeem himself. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that Prather isn't pushing Tony to an epiphany. Tony is nowhere near trusting enough to learn any lessons; the only one on offer, therefore, is for us, and it's the old lesson that working in a dirty business will make you dirty.

I don't mean to make The Peddler sound like a drag—it's a completely gripping read. Early on, I found myself rooting for Tony despite myself; later I kept wondering, tensely, how his come-uppance would be delivered. And, oh, Prather has a way with slang:
Then Frame was saying, "He just went off his nut, see? We were plain' poker and the guy was drinkin' heavy. All of a sudden he goes off his rocker and yells at Sharkey, 'Get away from me—don't let him get me.' Then he yanks out the barker and bangs him. Smack in the biscuit. Then Romero flopped down on the floor, cold. I guess the sight of poor Sharkey's think-pot flying through the air like that put him under a strain." Frame grinned wolfishly, his stained, pitted teeth jutting under his pulled back lip.

I like a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. I can get along with just about anybody. But if you don't appreciate that crazy run of slang, I don't know if I can be your friend.

1 comment:

  1. The violence in Hard Man makes Kiss Her Goodbye seem like a picnic. Be warned! Glad you enjoyed Two-Way Split and thanks for taking the time to review it.