Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake

 

9781911295945
ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
251 pp

paperback

While I'm very a much a mystery series purist, meaning I have to read them in order, over the rest of this year I'll be making a lot of exceptions, including this book which is number four in the series featuring Blake's private detective Nigel Strangeways.   There's a reason for this -- my crime/mystery shelves are overflowing with books I've picked up here and there over the decades that I've never read, so in trying to get through at least some of them, I needed some organizational help.  I found it by chance while reading through a book called Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More (eds. Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti; Palgrave MacMillan 2015) when I came across Miranda's chapter entitled "More Than the Sum of its Parts: Borges, Bioy Casares and the Phenomenon of the Séptimo Circulo Collection" (31-40).     Fascinated, I went online to discover exactly which titles were included, landing here.  As I read through the list, I realized that I owned more than quite a few of these books, and thus the decision was made to read as many as I can  this year and very likely on into the next.  Problem solved. 

Just a bit about the Séptimo Circulo Collection before moving on.  According to an article at the blog of the International Crime Fiction Research Group ,  this series of books was the creation of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares which began in 1945.  The name derives from  the seventh circle of Hell, à la Dante's Divine Comedy,  the outer ring of which is reserved for various types of violent criminals.  You can read more about how this collection came about in an excellent article by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads ,  but basically the idea is that prior to the publication of this series,  mystery/crime fiction in Argentina had been classified as "literatura de kiosco"  or newsstand literature, looked down on by as Carolina Miranda notes, " 'serious' Argentine writers,"  but that all changed in the hands of "a close circle of educated writers, translators and editors" including sisters Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, with Borges and Bioy Casares at "the core."   One main influence that would help turn what Scott Adlerberg  refers to as "amusing confections, at best" into a  "literary phenomenon worthy of the educated reader" as well as a "popular ... form of entertainment available to the less educated reader"  was Victoria Ocampo's influential literary magazine Sur, which served "as a platform promoting and validating the collection," publishing seven articles between 1940 and 1948  "specifically referring to Séptimo Circulo titles" (Miranda, 34).   There's much, much  more to this story, of course, but any of the links I've provided will fill in the gaps here, and there are a number of articles online in Spanish as well.  





Original 1938 UK edition.  Photo from John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books 



All right -- back to the book now, which is, if I may say so, a brilliant piece of writing, worthy of the mental round of applause I gave it upon finishing.   It is a solid whodunit -- I went through more than one round of  "it was him/her" and still did not get it right.   It's also a story about which I won't be saying very much, since any hint of what happens here would be a crime in itself.   The barebones outline is this: Frank Cairnes, a writer of crime novels under the name of Felix Lane, is out to get whoever it was that was responsible for the death of his young son in a hit-and-run accident.  As the novel opens, we are made privy to Felix Lane's diary entry of 20 June 1937, which begins as follows:  
"I'm going to kill a man. I don't know his name, I don't know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him ..."

Writing the first part of this book as Cairnes' diary is a move of sheer genius on the author's part, as there is no way anyone will put the book down at that point.  Aside from Cairnes' desire for revenge, and his plans to "kill a man," just some nine days later we discover that he has slowly pieced together the identity of the driver as well as the woman in the car at the time. It's no spoiler to reveal that Cairnes now has his sights set on George Rattery (it's right there on the back-cover blurb), who lives with his wife, his son and his mother in Gloucestershire.  Eventually he meets Rattery, and not too long afterwards has ingratiated his way into the Rattery home as Felix Lane, where he has devised (and detailed) the perfect method of exacting his revenge, with the added bonus of making George's death look like an accident.   One would think that knowing what's going to happen would not leave much room for surprise, but the author  is not quite finished with his reader yet.  After a shift in viewpoint that begins part two, it seems that not only is Cairnes' murder attempt thwarted, but later, someone back at the Rattery home has taken it upon himself or herself to finish the job, albeit in a different way.   A phone call brings in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to help Cairnes, as he has now become the prime suspect in the eyes of the police even though he swears he is innocent.     

Not one more word of plot shall pass my lips (okay, in this case my fingertips) but I will say that my first venture into the mind of Nicholas Blake has been a successful one.   Not only is it worthy of my picky inner armchair-detective self,  but it also offers an insightful character study as well as the ingenious use of literary references that clicked into place in my head only after finishing the book.  Definitely not your typical 1930s, golden-age mystery, and it's one I can most certainly recommend.  I loved Georgia Strangeways; I'll now have to backtrack and go back to book number one to find out more about Nigel. 

My advice: do NOT read reviews of this book that want to take you to the big reveal. You'll kick yourself if you do, trust me. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story, by Anne Meredith

 

9781464209048
Poisoned Pen Press, 2018
originally published 1933
243 pp

paperback


Warning: cute and cozy this book is definitely not.  While it begins at a family gathering at Christmas, nobody's going a-wassailing, nor is there even the slightest hint of sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting tingling too -- this is the story of an unpremeditated but cold-blooded murder, the person responsible, and the aftermath.  

The usual Christmas tradition at the Gray house is for the Gray children to come to the family home. Out of six, there are two already living at Kings Poplars; the remaining four had long ago left to make their way in the world.  Yuletide is not necessarily a happy time for this family, because, as we are told early on, patriarch Adrian Gray is, "on good terms with none of his children."  We learn why this is over the first forty-something pages, and we also learn why it is that, as the back-cover blurb notes,

"None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead."

Christmas morning rolls around, and Adrian has failed to join the family for breakfast or for the usual Christmas task of reading the lessons.  When he is found dead in his library, it was thought at first he'd suffered a stroke but when the police arrive, it doesn't take long to figure out that Adrian's demise was anything but natural.   The killer, however, is ready for them, having arranged things so that the accusing finger points elsewhere.     I won't reveal any details, but this setup makes for very tense reading right up to the end as an innocent person is arrested, tried, and sentenced.   Will justice be served or will a murderer remain free to walk the streets?  

Portrait of a Murderer is a product of the interwar period, a time of great social change, and the author uses the decline in class as well as the perceived decline in morality in examining her players. It's done very well -- as Martin Edwards quotes Dorothy Sayers in his introduction, this story focuses  "less emphasis on clues and more on character. "  It's not long after the first pages are turned before this point becomes crystal clear, as Meredith weaves her way through the lives of the Grays, laying a foundation for the rest of the story.  She obviously had a keen understanding of human nature that allowed her to grasp the inner selves of these people and to portray their psychologies at work both individually and vis-a-vis  other family members. Readers who must have likeable characters, or characters with whom they can identify likely won't find that in this novel, as the author reveals that with an exception or two, the Grays are a pretty despicable lot.

  I feel like my hands are tied here, since giving away any more about this book than I've already done would be doing a disservice to potential readers. I will say that although the forty-plus pages in part one are mettle-testing to even the most patient of readers, do not give up -- the information gleaned from there will serve you greatly in the long run.   This is the sort of crime novel I love reading, answering the question of why rather than focusing on the who.  As Carolyn Wells is quoted as saying in the introduction, it is indeed a most "Human Document." 

I couldn't put it down once I'd started.  


Friday, December 25, 2020

Where's the warning label? Rules for Perfect Murders, aka Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson

File under:  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?????   I don't know what was going through this author's head, but what he's done here is absolutely unforgivable.  Luckily I picked up the cheap paperback edition, because this book got tossed more than once across the room, something I do when I am so utterly frustrated with what I'm reading and don't want to scream. 



Since I don't read much in the way of modern crime fiction these days, trust me, the premise has to be out there enough to capture my attention, and that is what drew me to this book.  I reprint here the back-cover blurb:

"Years ago Malcolm Kershaw wrote a list of his 'Eight Favorite Murders' for his Old Devils mystery bookshop blog. Among others, it included those from Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Now, just before Christmas, Malcolm finds himself at the heart of an investigation -- as an FBI agent believes someone may be re-enacting each of the murders on his list."

Oh, I thought, this sounds really good, and with the mention of the older crime novels I was hooked.  Then I started reading and nearly choked.  Some seventeen pages in, Malcolm's old blog post was offered in its entirety, with each of the eight books not only summarized (which is okay), but the plot reveals given away (which is not okay).  To make matters worse, as we get more into this story, the author decides to go further,  giving away all of the show on each of the eight "perfect murders,"  and he's not quite done.  He goes on to spoil other classics, including (and this is truly an act of anathema),  Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  




Go ahead, feel free to argue, saying that the author in his own way is paying homage to these older books. Now  I'm no stranger to homage -- the last crime novel I read, Yukito Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders, was clearly a tribute to Christie's And Then There Were None (which, by the way, Swanson spoils in this book as well) -- but giving everything away is not the way to do it. 

Then there's the story itself, which to me was dull, lacking enough suspense to take me to the level of being fully engaged.  It's like this: since the back-cover blurb already reveals that "someone may be re-enacting the murders," we already know what's coming.  We're also reminded of the exact book each murder is based on, including those that happened in the past.   Not only that, but it was so easy to put my finger on who exactly is behind all the killing, since the author practically gives it away close to the start.   And just one more thing:  there could have been so much paring done here to make it sleeker, more taut, and to heighten the suspense; in short, some judicious editing would have certainly helped. 

Just so you know, the eight books that the author totally wrecks for potential readers are 

The Red House Mystery, by AA Milne
Malice Aforethought, by Anthony Berkeley Cox
The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner, by John D. MacDonald*
Deathtrap, by Ira Levin 
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I asterisked The Drowner because it's the only one of the books (like the narrator of this story reminds his readers, Deathtrap is a play) I haven't read, and now I guess I don't need to since I know exactly what's going to happen and how.  Too bad -- that one looked like fun. 

I'm looking at reader reviews and people are absolutely loving this novel, which, you know, to each his/her own.   I am afraid that I am once again swimming against the tide here.





I have to be honest and say that for some time now,  I've been much happier with crime novels from yesteryear -- for the most part they're well and often uniquely plotted, characters seem to be more well defined, and even in the worst ones there's usually a modicum of suspense to be had, none of which is the case here.  

Feel free to throw tomatoes. I don't care. 




Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Decagon House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji

 

9781782276340
Pushkin Vertigo, 2020
originally published as Jukkakukan no Satsujin  (十角館の殺人),  1987
translated by Ho-Ling Wong
284 pp

paperback


"We're just the poor insects that flew into the trap called the Decagon House"



Had I been eating something when the big reveal of this story came along, I probably would have choked because of the huge gasp that involuntarily came out of me.  As soon as that cleared, the first words out of my mouth were "holy sh*t."  I don't have that reaction very often;  even though there have been many times I've been truly surprised at the unmasking of the who, this one absolutely takes the cake.  

It began as a "little adventure" for seven members of their university's Mystery Club, who'd decided to make the island of Tsunojima the destination of their club trip.   They'd gone there looking forward to 
"Freedom on an uninhabited island. A cold case to pick over. A bit of a thrill."
They had arrived on the island on March 26th, having been taken there via fishing boat.  Tsunojima, located about five kilometers off the coast of Kyushu's Oita Prefecture, had been the site of a still-unsolved "mysterious quadruple murder" six months earlier, resulting in the deaths of Nakamura Seiji (last name first), his wife Kazue, and the "servant couple who worked for them.  Nakamura's gardener was thought to have been the killer, but it was never proven since he'd disappeared and never been seen again.  The murder culminated in a fire which had completely destroyed the main house, the Blue Mansion; the "annex building" known as the Decagon House was left intact.  Decagon House was to be their home away from home for the next few days; together, each of the seven members -- Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van (short for Van Dine),  Agatha and Orczy -- comprised "the core writing group" of the club.  For the upcomng April club magazine, they were each asked  while on the island to write one story based on the magazine's title, Dead Island the name of the "first Japanese translation of Dame Agatha's masterpiece" known to everyone today as And Then There Were None. 




from Goodreads


Oh no, I thought, I don't want to spend my reading time going through a Christie ripoff, and as luck would have it,  aside from a few nods in homage to And Then There Were None, it turned out to be anything but.  

The novel moves back and forth between what's happening on the island and what's going on back on the mainland, where a former member of the University Mystery Club, Kawaminami Taka'aka, receives a mysterious letter containing only one sentence:
"My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you."

Kawaminami is floored when he realizes the letter is from none other than Nakamura Seiji -- and that he's received an  "accusation made by a dead man."  What's more, he discovers right away that at least one other member of the club, now on the island,  has received the same correspondence.  Along with two other acquaintances,  he begins to delve into the matter of the strange letter, which leads them to also investigate the case of the quadruple murders of the previous September on Tsunojima.  In the meantime, the weirdness begins back at the island with the discovery of seven "milky white plates," on which red characters had been printed, 



quickly followed by the mysterious death of one of the seven and the first of the plates having been tacked to the dead person's door.  With no possibility of leaving the island, and as more deaths follow, as the back cover blurb notes, "the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other." 

As I've always said about this genre that really stands on its own within the genre of crime/mystery fiction,  these stories are less character oriented and more about how the deed was done.   It's no surprise to me on reading several reader reviews  of this book that noted the lack of character development, because that's pretty standard with this sort of thing, something I've come to expect after reading so many of them.  Taking that aspect away, focusing on the who and the how, The Decagon House Murders becomes an intense puzzle, the solution of which I would never have guessed.  I will say that I'm a bit frustrated at not being able to share my experience with the identity of the who, but to do so would be giving away the show.  I do think I would like to take a look at the original though, because I'm not sure I would have translated some things in this book the same way, for example, in having one character refer to the group as "y'all."  I mean, come on. Seriously? 

I had great fun with this novel, and I certainly would recommend it to regular fans of this sort of puzzler, or to fans of Japanese crime fiction in general.  The ending alone was well worth the price I paid for the book.  


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

two in one: Ruth Sawtell Wallis: Too Many Bones / Blood From a Stone

 

9781951473099
Stark House, 2020
268 pp

paperback -- my many, grateful thanks for my copy.  



This book is literally hot off the press (well, minus a couple of weeks),  and it's truly a good one.  First, it's by a writer whose work I've never read; second, both mysteries included in this volume are never dull, keeping me guessing right up until the end; third, both stories have a strong, professional female character taking the lead.  

Both of these lead characters take after their creator.  Curtis Evans has a short but remarkably thorough biography of author Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) in his introduction to this book, which discusses not only her short mystery-writing career but her years as an anthropologist.  Before transferring to Columbia University to work with Franz Boas,   Ruth Sawtell Wallis had spent time excavating Azilian graves in the French Pyrenees.  Susan Kent in Blood From a Stone (1945) shares  the author's zeal for anthropology and excavation, eventually coming to claim discoveries in a particular cave site as her own, while Kay Ellis in Too Many Bones (1943) took a job in a museum where she was excited to be a part of a "study of human heredity"  involving the skeletons of four families in a remote, isolate area of the Carpathian mountains, previously excavated in 1900.  

In Too Many Bones, Kay arrives in the very small midwestern town of Hinchdale to begin her work with the Holtzerman Collection and right away she is told that she probably "won't be stayin' here long."  First she's not sure that the Director of the Proutman Museum, Alpheus Harvey will let her do the job she came for; it seems that the museum staff were not expecting a woman to fill the job.  But that's the least of her problems.  As she begins her work, she meets the owner of the museum, Zaydee Proutman, who has designs on Kay's direct supervisor, Dr. John Gordon, and almost immediately the redhead starts to make trouble for her.   As Kay is informed later by librarian Alice Barton, Zaydee holds all the cards:
"...if we are judged incompetent at any time because of illness or other cause, we will be retired on pensions equal to our salaries. The Judge of our incompetence will be Zaydee ...All salaries are paid by her...She hires employees and dismisses them." 

Sensing a rival and hoping to entice her to leave, not too long after Kay starts her job, Zaydee knocks fifty dollars off of Kay's salary because "A young woman ... does not have expenses commensurate with a those of a man."  Kay needs the money to put forward to future PhD studies, so she stays.  But it looks like the prediction that Kay wouldn't be staying in Hinchdale too long just might come true after Zaydee finds out that John Gordon and Kay had gone out for an evening, and that later that Kay had been seen with one of Zaydee's former boyfriends Randy Bill.  The ill-tempered, jealous redhead decides that Kay must go due to being "lazy and insulting."  Even worse, while Kay is packing up her trunk to go home, she finds out that Randy Bill has died in a car accident, that Zaydee is missing presumed dead, and that she is the local sheriff's number one suspect.  While he orders her not to leave town, Kay takes it upon herself to quietly investigate the small circle of people surrounding Zaydee, any one of which may have had their own motives to want her dead.  As she tries to find out who may have been responsible for Zaydee's death, she stumbles upon a horrifying discovery that causes her to fear for her own life.  


from Pinterest 

Given that this book was published in 1943, it is somewhat refreshing to find concerns about male/female salary discrepancy here, as well as discrepancies in the treatment between male and females in the academic realm.  And while there is no denying that there are a few cringeworthy racial epithets in this novel, to her credit the author's portrayal of the two African-American characters in this book affords them strong, realistic personalities, giving them each something to contribute towards Kay's investigation.  I could have done without the budding romance, but that's just a me thing.  Otherwise, there's an ingenious as well as fun mystery here, with plenty of motives all around.  I had absolutely no clue as to the who up until the last minute, and the ending was beyond appropriate and ultimately quite satisfying.  



from Anthrosource



Blood From a Stone takes us to the French Pyrenees and to 1935.  More precisely, we find ourselves in  Volvestre, the valley of St. Fiacre,  outside of the provincial capital of Foix.  There, in a house named La Catine, Susan Kent, an "American girl with red hair," has taken up residence with another woman, Neva (and no man), thus making it "the house of bad habits."  The other permanent resident of the place is a dachsund named Seppel.  As the novel begins, two "farm boys" come across Susan "kneeling by stream, holding a jagged strip of jawbone filled with squat, gleaming teeth," and mistake her for the legendary "White Woman" who "appears in many guises,"  a figure of the local supernatural lore.  Given the strange events to come,   this beginning turns out to be more than appropriate. The daughter of a widowed, wealthy manufacturer, Susan had come to France with a desire to do some excavating in a cave called the Violet Hole, where in 1881 a priest had "picked up some pottery on the surface," but aside from the few "lines about it" that he published, not much more was known.  Just after she is warned by one of the locals that "this work you are about to do is full of danger," a visit to yet another cave with four other people nearly ends in disaster, and things only get worse from there.  Soon enough Susan, "a foreigner, a girl who crawled through caves and played with bones, who might be a witch" finds herself at the top of the list of suspects when she discovers a more recent corpse while exploring the Violet Hole. 

The author drenches this novel in atmosphere from the start, and cloaks her story in a dark air of distrust, betrayal and suspicion.  The characters connected to Susan are mysterious in their own right, each holding their cards close and letting out very little information about themselves, so that by the time the revelations came I was not only genuinely surprised but completely flabbergasted -- I never saw it coming.   But it's the getting there that counts in this book, which I couldn't put down once I'd started.  

This two in one I can most heartily recommend for those who are more than just a little fond of vintage crime.   As always, the powers that be at Stark House have chosen the perfect person, Curt Evans, for introducing the book, and there is also a lovely, poignant Foreword by Nancy Wallis Ingling, Ruth's granddaughter.  I love love love finding women writers whose works I'd never read, and Ruth Sawtell Wallis is just one of many I've found via Stark House.  Now I feel this need to find her other novels; while she only wrote at total of five mysteries, Too Many Bones earned her "a $1000 prize and additional royalties in the semi-annual Red Badge new mystery story contest."  Her work is very different from that of many of the women writers I've read of the same period, most likely because she put much of her professional self into these books, and quite proudly, I'd say.   

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

 


9781984880963
Viking, 2020
355 pp

hardcover

I genuinely hope there is another book after this one, since I really enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club.  Obviously I'm a reader who is much more into the dark/bleak side of crime, but sometimes I just feel this need to go light for a change, a sort of palate cleanser/brain relaxer if you will.  The trick is in finding just the right book without falling deep into cozyland or cutesyville, neither of which I like.   I bought this book because my spouse and I are huge Richard Osman fans after watching way too many British TV quiz shows, and I figured that this book had to be good because he is so witty and snarky funny.  I made a good decision here: the mystery is rather slow burning, without the usual pileup of clues that would normally titillate my inner armchair detective, but here it's much more about the cast of characters that make up the Thursday Murder Club, as well as the members of the police department they've sort of co-opted into the group.  Prepare to giggle, but keep a tissue by your side. 


The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who meet every Thursday in the Jigsaw Room at Coopers Chase Retirement Village ("You can't move here until you're over sixty-five").  It had originally been started by retired Kent Police inspector Penny Gray and the mysterious Elizabeth; sadly, Penny now lays dying in the Village's nursing home, Willows.  When she'd left the police force, she'd brought with her a number of files of unsolved murder cases, and she and Elizabeth would pore over them, looking for anything that may have been missed.  Two other members soon came along, Ibrahim and Ron, and with Penny out, Joyce has stepped in to become the fourth.  They continue to go over old cases from Penny's files, but they up their game with a real murder that hits close to home.  It seems that the builder of Coopers Chase has been bludgeoned to death, and that the killer has left behind only a photograph.   Elizabeth wants to investigate the murder, but the problem is that they "have no access to any case files, witness statements, any forensics."  What they do have, though, is PC Donna De Freitas, who gives lectures at Coopers Chase, and who would rather be out solving this murder instead of bringing teas to the officers working on it in the incident room.  Elizabeth finagles her way into visiting PC De Freitas at the local station, where she asks Donna point blank if she wouldn't rather be "part of it."   There's nothing Donna would like more, and the group members manipulate things so that Inspector Chris Hudson puts her on the team, making it easier for the Thursday Murder Club to know what's going on as the case progresses and to provide information they think worthy of turning over -- when they're ready.    When a second murder hits, the Thursday Murder Club moves into even higher gear.  

The book is related from two perpectives. First, there's Joyce's diary, where she not only talks about what's happening with the group, but also through her writing provides insight into the members' histories including her own.  She also offers glimpses here and there of what living in this community is like, and through her, the author has written compassionately about these older people and how they cope with aging or finding themselves alone without family or widowed.  Her diaries produce alternating bouts of giggles and sadness that wells up without warning, When we're not reading Joyce's diary entries, the story is related in a standard style, incorporating other characters and moving the mystery and its solution forward.  There's always more than a tinge of humor to be found here, and the ending allows the reader to consider the true nature of justice, which isn't always as black and white as one might believe. 
The dustjacket blurber has absolutely nailed it, saying that
"Richard Osman has employed all of his considerable wit and intelligence to give us just the curl-up-and-read novel we need right now."
This book was, as the blurber stated,  "pure enjoyment," and a "flat-out pleasure of a book," precisely what the doctor ordered during our strange present time.   I also agree with author Val McDermid's blurb when she says that The Thursday Murder Club is  a "warm, wise, and witty warning never to underestimate the elderly."  Sadly not only are senior citizens too often underestimated, but ignored as well. And even though this book isn't my usual sort of reading material, it was such a pleasure to have read this novel: it is truly the "curl-up-and-read novel we need right now" that the description promises. 

Absolutely delightful. To Richard Osman: Thank you so very much and let's have another!! 

 





 


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

and thus we come to the end: White Jazz, by James Ellroy

 


 " ... it's dues time." 




White Jazz closes out Ellroy's LA Quartet, and in doing so, takes us into the life of  Dave Klein, Ad Vice lieutenant in the LAPD.   Unlike The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential, Ellroy's writing style is dialed up full throttle, set at pure, raw energy here as he moves his reader into Klein's head 

"his voice clipped, sharp, often as brutal as the events he's describing -- taking us with him on a journey through a world shaped by monstrous ambition, avarice, and pervision."

Klein is telling this story years after the events of White Jazz, looking backward with his beginning in the fall of 1958:

"Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events -- so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down -- the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell." 

Afraid he'll forget: 

"I killed innocent men. I betrayed sacred oaths. I reaped profit from horror. Fever -- that time burning. I want to go with the music -- spin fall with it."

 Mind you, we haven't moved into the actual story yet and right away we have a preview of not only what's coming down the pike for Klein, who lived to tell the tale if one could actually call it living,    but of Ellroy's superb jazzed-up prose style as well.  

Aside from his police job, Klein has ties to local bad guy Mickey Cohen, Howard Hughes and mobster Sam Giancana. He is paid well to work as hit man, strike breaker, or to kneecap someone if necessary. He's also a slumlord and a law-school grad.  After the death of a federal witness in Klein's custody,  the case that takes center stage in White Jazz, one which will eventually take everyone involved to places they couldn't possibly have foreseen as ""the City of Angels begins to seem like the City of the Devils," starts with a burglary and the murder of two Dobermans at the home of JC Kafesjian, "LAPD's sanctioned pusher," and the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning establishments.  He is protected by Dan Wilhite of Narco;  Klein is called in "to square things," as Kafesjian insists on no investigation.  Ed Exley, now Chief of Detectives, decides otherwise, and Klein is partnered with Sgt. George "Junior" Stemmons to take care of it.   Away from the job, he is hired by Howard Hughes to keep tabs on a young actress by the name of Glenda Bledsoe, "with an eye toward securing contract-violating information."  In the meantime, as if this all wasn't enough, the  Justice Department investigators are beginning a " 'minutely detailed, complex and far reaching' probe into racketeering in South-Central Los Angeles," part of which would involve rumors of the LAPD allowing vice to flourish and rarely investigating "homicides involving both Negro victims and perpetrators."  Eventually Klein will come to realize that he's been tagged as scapegoat by the powers that be who want to keep their secrets to themselves.  He also knows that he's being used as a pawn in a much bigger rivalry.   He's not going to take either of these lying down -- as the back cover says, for Klein, "it's dues time."  

I really don't want to reveal  anything more about this book plotwise because at this juncture getting into the nitty-gritty of things would just kill it for anyone who hasn't read this book and may want to do so down the road.  There's also the fact that to try to enumerate the subplots found here would just be folly, and there's no way I can possibly describe the bleakness tied to the characters or the way in which things spiral out of control throughout the story.  I will say that while the books that came before this one were dark, this one is downright claustrophobic, a connected web of murder, revenge, sick and damaged souls, making the reader wonder if there is any possibility of justice at all in this hellish vision of LA.   

It also ends the LA Quartet, picking up the speed toward the finish in a way that only Ellroy could make happen as he moved across twelve years from 1947 to 1959.  More accurately it ends what is often labeled as the Dudley Smith Trio that had its roots in The Big Nowhere and comes to a head in White Jazz; although   The Black Dahlia  has little to do with the characters of the three novels that follow, it is most certainly the foundation of Ellroy's vision and as such necessary to understand many of the themes that make their way through all four books.  Word to the wise: do not under any circumstances make White Jazz your starting point -- you will be lost.  

 I think there have only been two other series I've read that have come close to this one in terms of sheer darkness of vision and which out-noir noir,  Derek Raymond's Factory series and David Peace's Red Riding Quartet.   While Ellroy's Quartet novels are, as I've been saying all along, not easy to get through on a number of different levels,  reading these four novels has been an experience in itself and I wouldn't have missed it.  I'm genuinely sad that it's over.  

happier reads now, I think!