Saturday, October 27, 2012

*His Name was Death, by Fredric Brown

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1954
141 pp

"You'd never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer and a criminal. You'd have thought him dull, plodding, honest. And up to the time when, a year ago almost to the day, he had killed his wife you'd have been completely correct."

This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I kill here. I carry a gun.

With apologies to Jack Webb, aka Sgt. Joe Friday, for some reason after I finished this book, this redo of the old Dragnet opening monologue  was the first thing that popped into my head and I had to use it.

If you haven't read Fredric Brown's work, you are missing something truly exquisite. Considering that the guy absolutely hated to write, what's come out of his brain is genius. His Name was Death makes two by Brown that I've read; between this one and Here Comes a Candle, the second one was far more intense and had me heebie-jeebied all the way through, but both are super books. Now waiting in the bullpen is Homicide Sanitarium -- oh god, what a great name! -- which I'm dying to crack open soon. That should give you an inkling of how much I like this author. Better known for his SF stories, Fredric Brown is a top-notch crime writer as well.

1940s Los Angeles is the setting for this very small book, with an opening line that whets your appetite right from the start:
"Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that would instigate a chain of murders."
It isn't long until we find out who Joyce Dugan is and what she's done to "instigate a chain of murders," albeit unwittingly. Acting out of friendship, she starts a series of events that ends up in a gut-punching shocker of a finish. At the printing shop where she works one day, in walks Claude Atkins, one of Joyce's old boyfriends from high school. He's not there to see Joyce, but to pick up a check from Joyce's boss, Darius Conn, with whom he'd recently swapped cars with a little extra coming from Darius to make up for the difference. Joyce decides to give him money out of the petty cash box but there's not enough, so after a call to her boss, she writes out a check. But Atkins needs cash for the weekend. Just then Joyce remembers the envelope full of money in the office safe; she has Atkins endorse the check and pulls out $90 in brand new ten dollar bills, leaving the signed-over check in the envelope. Now everyone's happy. But wait.

When Darius gets back to the office he discovers what Joyce has done and it's a big problem. The money Joyce gave Claude just happened to be counterfeit, part of a batch Darius was planning to parlay into a net profit of about $2500. The printing office is a front for his operation, and Joyce has just given nine of his newly-printed test bills to someone who, if he was caught with the fake money, would know just where it came from. Darius can't take that chance:
"He had to get that money back from Claude Atkins. Somehow. No matter what the risk of doing that, it couldn't be any greater than the risk of doing nothing or the risk of running.
Get it without killing if possible, but kill if that turned out to be the only way.
He'd got away with murder once, hadn't he?"
His plan: to improvise, to take the opportunity when it knocks -- even if it means he has to kill. Darius is still proud of himself -- the reader discovers early on that he's gotten away with murdering his wife just a year earlier -- so he figures if saving himself prison time for the counterfeit money means he has to kill again, well, it's what he has to do. He still gloats inwardly about having fooled the cops and acting the grieving husband; he even become friends with the detective handling his wife's murder case. The rest of the novel follows Darius as he tries to retrieve his fake funds -- but well, even quick-thinking Darius can't predict the hitches along the way.

Los Angeles, 1940s

Considering the edge of darkness that you ride as you read through the novel, Brown is very economic in terms of story telling -- the novel is sleek, with absolutely nothing unnecessary weighing down the plot, a lesson many modern crime novelists really need to learn. The dimly-lit, seedy bars along with the city streets and back alleys of Los Angeles give an honest feel for place and time which enhances the story. He manages to hold you in suspense all along the way without resorting to the burdensome backstory to make his characterizations work, there is no unnecessary exposition, and there's even a good measure of black, sardonic humor thrown into this book. And then the classic Fredric Brown ending -- well, it's truly what you would least expect.  Highly, highly recommended.

*another installment of my overall focus on American authors for October and November

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

and now, for something completely different: Lady of the Shades, by Darren Shan

Orion Books, 2012 (UK)
312 pp
(read in September)

If you go to the author's website you might notice that UK writer Darren Shan is a guy who really isn't a crime novelist at all, but instead specializes in Urban Fantasy and horror, mostly for teens and young adults.  Lady of the Shades is not in either category; actually, it's something very different.  I don't have the foggiest idea how I heard about this book (maybe a blurb somewhere connected to something else I was exploring online), but I bought it, read it and had a lot of fun with it.

the author of Lady of the Shades, Darren Shan
Although this book may not be standard crime fiction fare,  I've come to realize that sometimes pulling away from the formulaic and reading outside the box can produce some eye-opening moments.  Lady of the Shades turned out to be as twisty as a sack full of  Philly pretzels;  I actually thought I'd had it figured out a couple of times but alas it was not to be.  Sadly I can't really get into why this book is so twisty without giving away the show, but I will say that just when you think things are one way, the rug is twitched out from underneath your feet leaving you flat on your can in surprise.

I'll offer just a brief synopsis because I don't want to kill it for anyone else.  Lady of the Shades is ultimately a novel about how a person's past continues to have a strong bearing on his/her present, and it's also a rather odd story about the power and hold of love.   Ed Sieveking is an American author who, much like the hero of Stuart Neville's series that begins with Ghosts of Belfast, carries ghosts around with him where ever he goes. He understands that his ghosts are "probably the workings of a deluded mind," and likely "the projections of a deeply troubled psyche."  He doesn't want to accept that he's "a loon," and is looking to find a way back to normality. In London, where his newest horror novel (involving Human Spontaneous Combustion) is set, he finds himself at a party where he bumps into a beautiful woman named Deleena Emerson.  Ed's previous books are not ones you'd find on the bestseller lists at any time, so he's very flattered when he realizes Deleena knows who he is and that she's read his books.  From that meeting on, Ed is severely smitten, boinged straight through the heart by Cupid's arrow, but any hopes of the two of them becoming a permanent item are quickly put on hold  when Ed discovers a well-guarded secret about her.  Like Ed, Deleena's present is very much affected by her past, and Ed soon finds himself caught up in a very strange predicament or two or three, where anything can happen and where nothing is at all like it seems.  All he wants is the truth -- but that's not going to be so easy, as the line between what is real and what is not begins to blur and get hazier as the novel proceeds, continually testing Ed's ability to "make sense of the world."

Actually, Lady of the Shades tests the reader's ability to understand things as well.  The first half of this novel introduces all of the players, especially the intriguingly-flawed Ed, who comes from a very troubled past that he is trying to forget.  Ed is basically a good person, hopeful for his future, but when love hits, it hits him hard and it tends to screw up his decision-making processes.  It's very easy sometimes to groan out loud over some of Ed's choices, which aren't always that smart.  The pace of the book is a bit slow at first, but quickly picks up, and in the second half, the author takes his readers into hyperdrive as one revelation after another comes flying off the pages.  Much of what you find out frankly stops the show; other times you just find yourself laughing at the craziness.  Then you reach the bizarre ending, which, considering the context of this novel, does actually work.  It's strange, but it does fit.  And if you've ever wanted to read a  novel where you don't mind being manipulated, this one is perfect.  Seriously. 

I truly wish I could say more about this book, but then these paragraphs would be filled with unforgivable spoilers and someone somewhere might be upset.  I will say that this is one of the screwiest (in a good way) novels I've ever read, especially in terms of crime fiction, where twists and turns are the general rule of thumb; here, Shan's imagination elevates them well beyond the norm.   This book is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially crime readers who like to go from point A to point B in a well-ordered fashion.  It also strains the credulity that most crime fiction readers, including me,  look for in their reading.   But frankly, this book is just plain fun and even better, it gets the better of you.  Lady of the Shades is a treat, and is perfect for times when you want a break from the serious and just feel like going with the flow.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

*Beast in View, by Margaret Millar

Orion, Crime Masterworks Series, 2002
160 pp

" was  not an evening stroll, it was a chase, and she was the beast in view." 

 Trying to break a little from the same old same old, I rummaged through my American crime bookshelf and pulled out this golden oldie.  The publication date of this particular edition is 2002, but Beast in View originally came out in 1955.  A year later it won the Edgar Award for best novel,  up against Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (which, had I been a judge would have been my choice) and another book called The Case of the Talking Bug (also on my shelf, an old Doubleday Crime edition) by a husband and wife duo known as the Gordons.   Millar's husband Kenneth  was also no stranger to the crime-fiction scene --  his books continue to enjoy great popularity today under his pen name Ross Macdonald.  Margaret Millar produced some 21 crime novels herself; her first one, Invisible Worm, was published in 1941.  Beast in View is really more of a story of psychological suspense rather than a full-blown crime novel, set in Southern California of the1950s.

Helen Clarvoe, a young woman now 30, lives alone in a small hotel in Hollywood. Her mother, with whom she only rarely communicates by mail, lives six miles away with her brother Douglas.  The hotel  was the kind of place usually frequented by
"transients who stayed a night or two and moved on, minor executives and their wives conducting business with pleasure, salesmen with their sample cases, advertising men seeking new accounts, discreet ladies whose name were on file with the bellhops, and tourists in town to do the studios and see the television shows..."

all very much the opposite of Miss Clarvoe and "yet she chose to live in their midst, like a visitor from another planet."  Helen lived there in a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world,  "behind her wall of money and the iron bars of her egotism," never going out to see much of the world, although because of prudent investments, she certainly could have.  She receives a phone call one day and the woman at the other end of the line claimed to one of her friends, calling herself  Evelyn Merrick.  As Helen listens, she is convinced the caller is mad, although the caller disagrees -- telling Helen that in fact, she is the one who is mad, calling her a "little coward," accusing her of being jealous, and saying that she can see everything about Helen in her crystal ball. After questioning the switchboard operator about the incoming call, Helen gets in contact with her family's former investment counselor,  Mr. Blackshear, who comes to the hotel to meet with her.  She talks to him about the call, then shows him a money clip which was missing quite a huge sum of cash, and explains that she feared that her caller, Evelyn Merrick, may have been the one who stole it. She wants Blackshear to find Merrick. The only clue that the caller left in her conversation with Helen was that someday she planned to be "immortal," that "her body would be in every art museum in the country."  Helen offers that hint to Blackshear as a place to start.  As Blackshear sets off on his quest in private-investigator mode, he begins to hear much more about Evelyn Merrick -- whose forté, it seems, lies in discovering other people's deep-seated insecurities and using her knowledge to provoke her victims into a state of gut-wrenching despair, leaving a trail of desperation and devastation behind her as she goes.  As Blackshear follows in Merrick's wake, the story develops through the points of view of different characters,  Blackshear, who is starting to relish his role as PI, ultimately discovers a slowly-unfolding  panorama of long-kept, long-buried secrets relevant to his investigations. 

 What comes out of this case goes far beyond the stuff of normal crime fare, as Millar takes her readers into middle-class Los Angeles of the 1950s, a place of societal constraints and, especially for this cast of characters, a number of unfulfilled expectations that have, over the years, remained dormant until finally germinating into crushing disappointments. Furthermore, while the central character, Helen Clarvoe, is a loner,  Beast in View is a novel with a profound emphasis on  human interactions and human failings at its core.  While many reviews I've read have noted that the solution was easily grasped from the outset, I didn't figure it out until the end when all was revealed, and decided that I liked being artfully manipulated by the author throughout the entire story. 

Don't let its age fool you.  Beast in View is very dark, almost noirish in tone, and probes deeply into the human psyche, in many ways much more realistically than many modern offerings.  This book will not be the last of Margaret Millar for me.  Highly recommended, but beware -- there is little in the way of happiness to be found in the entire novel.

*part of October's focus on American authors. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chalk Valley, by D.L. Johnstone

kindle edition, 2012
363 pp
download from author -- thanks!

Reading this book is a first for me -- I received an email from the author, who asked if I would be interested in reading & reviewing his new novel.  Normally I'm just too busy in my nonbook life, I have my reading lists pretty much established for the month, and I have a few publisher ARCs that I somehow have to weave in to the stack as time allows, so I generally turn these requests down.

Well, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised after reading this book. It's not a mystery, but more of a mix of police procedural and suspense. The bad guy is known to the readers from the beginning, and as the novel opens, he's at a mall in East Vancover, BC, where he's managed to lure a young girl to his van with the promise of a job if she'd go with him to his office to pick up some conveniently-forgotten forms.  In the meantime, two Chalk Valley cops are outside of a  roadside restaurant where they notice a car screaming by.  Rather than go after the driver, the cops are too focused on each other, and they go their separate ways.  Fast forward a month to Chalk Valley, about an hour and a half away, where a group of teens are gathered to smoke pot and drink.  As they scour the woods for firewood, they first notice a "putrid" smell - following their noses, they come across a body.  In the meantime, on a highway near Blind River, a reckless driver has an accident right in front of Dave Kreaver, who just happens to be a police sergeant.  When Dave goes to check on the guy, he realizes that there's a second person -- a young girl who is totally out of it, whom the driver, Phil Lindsay, says is his niece.  But Kreaver isn't so sure that the guy's telling the truth, especially when he runs away from the scene. Searching through the van the police now on the scene discover a bag containing rope, duct tape, metal pipe, a pry bar, handcuffs and a black pantyhose leg with two eye holes cut into it.  Later, at the hospital, the girl, Denise,  tells Kreaver a strange story about the man in the van, who offered her a job but had forgotten the application forms at his office.   Kreaver knows that the driver, Lindsay, is a kidnapper and probably a rapist, but legal issues, the fact that Lindsay has a good job, a family and  no previous record, and finally, the he-said/she-said situation all  make it likely that he won't be staying with the police for any amount of time.  But Kreaver is not about to let go. Back in Chalk Valley, the search for clues regarding the recently-discovered body  leads to the discovery of two more bodies. With very little to go on,  John McCarty knows this is going to be a tough case. As the two storylines converge, nobody is prepared for the eventual outcome of this case, which winds up taking a great personal toll on the people involved.

The author has obviously put in some research time and one of the highlights of this novel is his portrayal of conflicting police jurisdictions.  McCarty's boss reluctantly calls in profilers, but is determined that when all is said and done, the case will stay the property of the Chalk Valley police department.  As tips begin to come in and pile up, McCarty and his staff are buried chasing down leads, but McCarty wants to solve the case by himself, despite the task force that is formed as a joint police venture.  Valuable information comes in but is ignored or given low priority, stalling the investigation even further.  These ongoing segments are among the best parts of this book.

For a first novel by someone who's never even written in the crime field before, Chalk Valley is much better than what I would have expected.  The story is good and for the most part, credible, although it is a bit rushed toward the end when everything up to that point has rolled out at a slower pace.  Some of the characterizations could have been reined in and a bit more controlled.  For example, the news reporter Jamie Straka is realistic when she's doing her job, but a bit overdone in the scenes involving her personal life.  On the other hand, there are two characters who seem especially credible: Kreaver, a former RCMP officer who changed directions when his little boy died, and Phil Lindsay, the bad guy who's manipulative, in control and whose behavior progressively gets much worse as the novel progresses.  Of those two, Mr. Johnstone has done the best with his portrayal of Kreaver -- a character I wouldn't mind seeing again.   I also  have to give the author a huge amount of credit for his ability to create a viable sense of place -- the woods in this area of British Columbia are very beautifully described and I know because I've been up there; at the same time, in some places the prose  was a little overwritten.  Sometimes when switching chapters after a tension-filled previous scene, he throws out a descriptive phrase or paragraph about weather, temperature, the moonlight, etc. which detracted from the earlier action and lessened the impact of what's just happened.  Less would have been so much more here!

All in all, it's pretty good with a few rough edges that could easily be smoothed out as the author's writing career progresses.  There is a definitely a lot of action and tension which would make thriller-oriented readers happy; there's a great villain for readers of serial-killer novels, and for police-procedural fans, there is his portrayal of the intra-agency conflicts that gives this first attempt an edge over other the work of other nonprofessional writers I've read. 

Aside from all of the first-time mistakes and a few instances of overwriting, the story is a good one and I liked it.  I'll look forward to seeing more of the author's work in the future.