Thursday, March 27, 2014

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates

Harvill Secker, 2013
343 pp


my copy via Independent Publisher's Group (thank you!)

" was never supposed to be that kind of game." 

Because I'm such a voracious reader, sometimes I feel like I've read every possible mystery/thriller/suspense plot line that ever existed. Not only did this one bring something different,  it also made me think of a way the author could follow up this novel with another one.  [Dear Mr. Yates: if you want to hear my idea, send me an email. I promise I won't sue if you choose to use it.]   Overall,  Black Chalk was a good enough read -- one with its flaws, for sure, but I'll talk about that later.  For a now -- a little peek.

Jolyon Johnson is a first year student at Pitt College, Oxford.  The first person to befriend him is Chad Mason, an American student at Oxford, also a newcomer and enrolled in a one-year program there. Soon they meet Jack "no P in Thomson", a history student,  and it isn't long until the three find themselves at the Freshers' Fair, an "event to showcase for the new students the diverse multitude of thrilling societies they could join ..." where "the nomenclature of each society invariably concluded with the word 'Soc.'   When Jolyon and Jack are ready to leave and go off to a pub, Chad takes them to the "Game Soc" stall.  There Chad makes a strange "proposition" for "an entirely original and inventive game," one which quickly grabs the attention of the three people manning the stall:
"Six people, a number of rounds, one each separated by a week. A game of consequences, consequences which must be performed to prevent elimination. These consequences take the form of psychological dares, challenges designed to test how much embarrassment and humiliation the players can stand. Throughout the rounds players who fail to perform their consequences are eliminated until only one is left standing."
 The game would be played in total secrecy, the consequences starting out as "humourous dares," and as the rounds progressed, the "consequences would become tougher." Nothing illegal or dangerous is involved. The winner would win money, which Chad hopes the Game Soc will  help them with.  The Game Soc. is in -- albeit with a few conditions.  Chad, Jack and Jolyon go about recruiting the other three members: Dee, who writes poetry;  Emilia, a psychology student, and Mark, "the cleverest person at Pitt," according to Jolyon. The group hangs out in Jolyon's room to drink and the play the game -- and everything goes along swimmingly, at least at first.  Flashing forward to the present, fourteen years later -- Jolyon is now in New York City, a veritable shut-in living in his apartment with all of the windows covered, having to rely on his own mnemonics system to remember what to do each day -- and for him, the final stages of the game that started so long ago are about to begin.

The novel is related via journal format, moving back and forth in time.  It is in part Jolyon's "confession," and just 76 pages into the book  he posits a question that will set the stage  for the entire story:
"... I must place in front of you a question. Because there are two opposites to consider and before my story is told you must judge me.
What am I? Murderer? Or innocent?"
This one question, of course, whetted my appetite for more.

Frankly speaking, I found the novel to be an okay read, one which, if  I had to summarize it in one sentence,  I'd call  a story of psychological/head game warfare among a group of  people who were once friends, with the author  focusing on how the consequences of the game had lasting effects that spilled over into the present -- a premise that I found very cool.  The modern-day scenes relating to Jolyon as a recluse were also good and got me interested in how he came to be that way; my attention was also grabbed by the element of the last days of the game being at hand. At that point I had no idea a) what the game entailed, b) what Jolyon may have done that prompted his "confession," and  c) why the end of the game might be cause for Jolyon to be so concerned. Frankly it was the getting there, the events of the past linked to the game that held the bulk of my interest.

I'm of two minds here. First, in some areas, this book proves that old axiom that less is more. As just one example, I think that the author spent way too much time on extraneous things like what the students were drinking on a particular night or what drugs they were taking, the philosophical discussions they had --  almost as if he had to convince his readers that these people were indeed college students and doing what college students normally do. Throwing in the poetry one of the students wrote also seemed a little too much. There are just too many details that detract from the a) main thrust and b) the initial dark and mysterious  atmosphere of the novel.  On the other hand, the opposite is also true -- in some areas, I was left hanging with a lot of unanswered questions, most especially re the Game Soc. It's this weird, shadowy group without which the game would have never come to pass, but  there's only a small bit of explanation as to who they are,  not enough to really explain their presence, or why they do this sort of thing (as in what's in it for them),  let alone their sustained interest some fourteen years later.  And then, after so much time invested in getting to the circumstances behind the initial enigmas presented in the first chapters,  when the final "showdown" came along, I found it to be on the anti-climactic side and the ending somewhat abrupt. Plus, when all is explained, the final reveal is sprinkled with a few cliché thriller elements on the side that I'd already figured out very early on.

What I see overall is a good, fresh premise, some intriguing questions central to the plot that are asked and answered, and what could have been a very dark and satisfying novel had the author been maybe a little more experienced in terms of writing. I also have to say that while maybe it fell short of my own personal expectations,  this is his first book and yes, he made some mistakes here, but I think if he tries again, he'll be much more aware of the pitfalls. I'd certainly give him another try.

and yes, Mr. Yates, I really meant it about the next idea for the book --

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt, 2014
290 pp


also available as an audiobook from Macmillan -- if you'd like to hear an excerpt, just click the blue Streampad bar below. 

"I said it before, and I know I'll have to say it again: women are nothing but trouble."

Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, is the author of the excellent series of crime novels set in 1950s Dublin -- in The Black-Eyed Blonde,  he stays in the 1950s but moves to Raymond Chandler's mean streets of Los Angeles.  He also brings back PI Philip Marlowe for another knightly adventure.  After just last week or so having finished and fallen in love with all seven of the original Marlowe novels,  I was frankly skeptical that anyone could pull off a new Marlowe story, but as it turns out, I didn't have to worry.

One Tuesday afternoon, Marlowe is in his office at Hollywood and Cahuenga when in walks Mrs. Clare Cavendish, the "black-eyed blonde" of the title, and heiress to the Langrishe perfume fortune.  Marlowe notes the eyes right away: "A blonde with black eyes -- that's  not a combination you get very often." As she lights her Sobranie Black Russian ("what else?") in its ebony holder, she gets down to business. It seems that two months earlier, her ex-lover Nico Peterson disappeared and now she wants him found.  She hasn't gone to the cops since Nico was "rather shy of the police," leaving Marlowe to ask her if he had things to hide. Her answer "Haven't we all, Mr. Marlowe," turns out to be a major understatement -- as Marlowe soon realizes, there's definitely much more going on than the blonde with the black eyes is willing to tell.  It also isn't long until he's in it up to his neck, from a dead man who's now walking the streets of San Francisco and couple of psychopathic hit men from south of the border to the uber wealthy who hide their secrets in their grand mansions and gated clubs. And all the while he wonders if maybe it isn't some kind of set up. 

The author definitely has a firm hold on the essence of what it is that constitutes Marlowe. The description of our PI hero as a "shop-soiled Galahad"  in The High Window remains the same here -- Black's Marlowe continues to protect his clients and keep their secrets at all costs, which in this book turn out to be more personal than he'll realize.  He's still the same outwardly tough, hard-drinking Marlowe, with no illusions about human nature, especially when it comes to the rich and powerful. He's still the ultimate loner going back to an empty house with nothing but a chess board for company.  There's no question but that in building his own brand of Philip Marlowe Benjamin Black has been very successful.  The same is true for the rest of the book, with Black's own version of the famous Chandler similes and metaphors, well done, but not overdone.  I must say that I missed the depth of Chandler's Los Angeles in this novel -- Chandler was so in tune with the city that his descriptions of LA were one big reason I loved these books. While I think that Black has got the city's late-1950s feel down, no way does his Los Angeles come close to the one in Chandler's originals. On the other hand, perhaps that isn't a fair comment -- Black hasn't set out to become Raymond Chandler, and I think he made a good decision there -- it seems to me that by keeping true to the main character while not trying to pastichize (is that a word?) Chandler in general, it allows the author to make it more his own work.   If you've read  Benjamin Black's work,  you'll definitely recognize little bits of his own style in this novel. I marked one line that made me laugh, thinking "this is so Benjamin Black,"  where Marlowe's gone off to a joint called The Bull and Bear, and he notes  “I can’t decide which are worse, bars that pretend to be Irish, with their plastic shamrocks and shillelaghs, or Cockneyfied joints like the Bull. I could describe it, but I haven’t the heart.”

Overall, I totally enjoyed losing myself in this novel. You don't have to have already read Chandler to enjoy the twisty plot, the characters (especially Marlowe), and the late 50s feel, but it would be helpful.  Definitely a book I'd recommend to Chandler fans, to fans of older crime fiction, and especially to readers of Benjamin Black's work.  I'm in awe of how good this author is every time I finish one of his books.

And now, just a little note which might, for readers who are familiar with Chandler's novels, constitute a major SPOILER ALERT (if you don't want the spoiler, quit reading right now):

The back-cover blurb by Stephen King really pissed me off because it totally gave me the direction that the book was going before I even opened it.  I seriously don't know how he could do that or how the PsTB at Henry Holt could have let this happen -- by the time the big reveal came along, I already knew how things were going to play out -- I mean some of us have already read all of the Chandler novels. That's just wrong.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Playback, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1988
originally published 1958
163 pp


Raymond Chandler's death in 1959 marked the end of  one of the best PI series ever written. Playback is the last of the fully-original Marlowe novels, although later Robert Parker used Chandler's notes to finish his unwritten Poodle Springs.  After now having finished the original seven, I'm going to skip Poodle Springs for the time being; truth is I'm sort of ambivalent about picking it up because the originals are so good.

In Playback,  the action begins when Marlowe is roused from a deep sleep by a phone call.  On the other end of the line is an attorney, who is calling on behalf of an unnamed client. He wants Marlowe to find a woman named Eleanor King.  All he has to do is to be there when the 8:00 Super Chief pulls into Union Station, identify the woman, follow her until she checks in somewhere and then report back.  He'll make a hefty sum of money for what should be an easy-as-pie job. Marlowe, who always likes to know the score, has no idea who he's actually working for but takes the job anyway.  After tootling around in Union Station for awhile watching the woman, he follows her to the coastal town of Esmeralda, a very wealthy town near San Diego.  Like any good PI, he rents a room next to hers, and listens via stethoscope to his quarry and a man who's with her who seems to be talking blackmail.  He's technically done his job, but he can't pry himself away from the case because he's not sure if this woman is bad news or if she's being set up somehow and needs his protection.

Playback is a novel that is one long conundrum -- every time Marlowe figures something out, it leads to another mystery, and  getting down to the basic truth of matters takes the reader right up to the end. Of course, this wouldn't be Chandler if he didn't remark on society, and setting his novel in the town of Esmeralda (read La Jolla)  makes it easy.  As he untangles his way through the knotty enigmas of the case, he becomes aware of the social and economic discrepancies of this community.  The rich and powerful are respected in this town, and there's very little room among their set for the the tasteless, the classless and the poor.  Marlowe also spends time with an elderly gentleman who clues him in on aging and how this segment of society is often ignored just because they're old. 

This book might not be Chandler's finest work, but the fact that there's a mystery that keeps you guessing may be a big draw for those interested only  in the crime aspect.  But really, what makes this and all of the other Marlowe novels work is his humanity, his ongoing compassion and his determination to get to the truth despite the costs to himself, all while protecting his clients.  In Playback, these very traits are juxtaposed against another PI, who is rough around the edges, shows no class or discernment, and is there to make his money despite what his client is asking him to do. 

I can most highly recommend the entire set of Marlowe novels -- as an oeuvre, they constitute some of the best writing in the history of crime fiction while  remaining intelligent, sophisticated, and consistent.   The plots are convoluted and tangled, there is definitely a formula attached to the works as a whole, and sometimes it's like you need to keep scorecards on who's involved with whom, etc, etc. However, if you read these books simply  for their plots, you're really missing the best part -- and that is most certainly Philip Marlowe, created by the genius who was Raymond Chandler.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The next to the last original Marlowe novel: The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
originally published 1953
379 pp


The Long Goodbye just might be my favorite Marlowe book yet. Loved The Big Sleep and The Little Sister, but this one trumps both of them.  When I started reading this series, it was because I wanted to read Benjamin Black's new book The Black-Eyed Blonde (which I  got yesterday!),  another Marlowe novel, and I wanted to see  how his Marlowe stacks up to Chandler's, but I'd never read any Chandler.  Since The Big Sleep, however, I've been reading these old books because I genuinely have come to love them.  Life is not all about new and contemporary -- especially considering that Chandler has been an influence on many authors on down the crime-writing line.  This book is the longest and most intense of all of them so far, and though it continues Chandler's run of overly-complicated and tangled plots, it's in this book where the author seems to have most fully expressed different facets of his real life, from alcoholism to publishing. 

Marlowe first meets Terry Lennox  outside of a club called The Dancers, when the parking lot attendant can't shut the door of the Silver Wraith because Lennox is totally plastered and his foot is hanging out of the car. The woman with him, who turns out to be his wife, leaves him behind, claiming to be late for an engagement. Marlowe takes pity on him and takes him to his house, gives him a coffee, and takes Lennox back to his own apartment.  He makes an impression on Marlowe, and as he notes, "there was something about the guy that got me."  It wasn't just Lennox's scarred face, either. He also saw no reason why he'd ever see the guy again, so he didn't ask a lot of questions.  Later, he'll come to regret it:
 "He would have told me the story of his life if I had asked him. But I never even asked him how he got his face smashed. If I had and he told me, it just possibly might have saved a couple of lives. Just possibly, no more."
As it turns out, however, this random meeting with this man with the scarred face will take Marlowe down some of the darkest paths throughout  Los Angeles  -- leading him to crooked and corrupt cops, jail time, the world of the rich, famous and most powerful people,  doctors who peddle narcotics to their patients, beautiful women, and, of course, murder.  While you might say, well, this sounds a lot like every other Chandler novel, trust me -- it's not. But to say more would spoil everything.

After reading and reporting on the five previous Marlowe novels, there's very little left for me to say about my favorite PI except for the fact that here his penchant for doing the right thing will turn into one of the most severe and personal  betrayals of his career.  However, it's really what Chandler says in and around Marlowe's work that I found most intriguing.  He is no stranger to social criticism in these books, but here it's like he's also inserting much more of his personal life into the story.   Everyone knows that Chandler was himself an alcoholic, and in this novel, alcoholism plays an extremely large and important role, with two alcoholic characters.  One of them, the novelist Roger Wade, who admires F. Scott Fitzgerald, "the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope," writes mass-appeal, popular historical books and is so drunk much of the time that he can't finish his latest one. Once he refers to himself as "a literary pimp."  Through Wade, Chandler seems to be evoking his own emotional and other struggles with alcoholism as well as the whole writing biz.  There is a most telling scene where Marlowe reads something "really wild" Wade wants him to get rid of before Mrs. Wade sees it (203-206), where Wade describes his ambivalence about drinking and writing. I must say, while I love all of the Marlowe novels, this one probably is Chandler at his ultimate finest. 

I'm so loving this series, and I loved this book.  The Long Goodbye appeals to my need for edge, for in-depth character study and my constant search for intelligently-written crime fiction. These books are, as I've said a number of times, some of the best literary works in the crime genre.  If you have not yet made the acquaintance of Philip Marlowe, it's something you need to do and soon.