It begins, as some of my favorite books do, with an obviously dumb proposal. Matt is talking to a friend in a bar. The friend has a foolproof plan for a kidnapping. He just needs Matt to be the driver. Matt knows this friend is an addict and even when sober is incapable of making rational decisions. So of course Matt turns him down.
But Matt has money problems and other problems that come with being a single parent. The parents of his late wife think his daughter would be better off with them. The pressure on Matt builds. He runs out of options and decides he may as well take a chance on his friend's plan.
From there on, it's not a question of if something will go wrong but of when, and what the consequences will be, and how far Matt is willing to go to survive them.
Much of the pleasure in reading this book comes from its perfect construction. Each complication plays out just long enough, the next one comes along just in time to boost the tension, and it's usually something we didn't see coming but makes sense once we've seen it.
Given the hero's compromises, we know the ending won't be sunshine and puppies. It's a question of how dark the shad of gray will be. This is a very satisfying crime novel.
Twisted City compares well with the noir masterpieces of the early and mid-twentieth century. The prose is crystal clear. It is admirably brief. And it is a voyage into the heart of darkness, to borrow Joseph Conrad's title.
In the first scene, David Miller, the narrator, fumbles his attempt to chat up a woman in a bar. And his wallet is stolen. We sympathize.
As we follow his efforts to get his wallet back, we learn he has recently lost his job as a financial journalist with the Wall Street Journal, and has signed up with a less ethical publication. And his sister has recently died. We sympathize more.
He gets a chance to retrieve his wallet. He gets chances to improve his love life. He gets chances to advance in his career. But things keep going wrong. He seems to be wallowing in quicksand.
The plot compares to those of Cornell Woolrich. The theme reminds me of James M. Cain. The first-person narrator is worthy of Jim Thompson. And the banality of this evil recalls Patricia Highsmith.
This novel from 2014 belongs with the classics of noir.
Scott Phillips builds suspense quietly, bit by bit. His hero, Charlie Argliss, visits the strip clubs he helps to manage and notices this is the last time he will see these places, speak with these people and do these things. The reader wonders why. Is he ill? Are the clubs shutting down? Is he going somewhere?
The possibilities are whittled down as his plan is revealed. When we see what he's up to, we wonder, can he pull it off? Eventually things start to go wrong, and we wonder how far Charlie is willing to go to see his plan through.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the people who work in strip clubs and those who patronize them. Phillips plays up the irony of their casual acceptance of the bizarre nature of their business. And it doesn't hurt that this is all happening on Christmas Eve.
Ultimately, this novel from 2000 is a dark story, as dark as those by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and others, half a century earlier. That's quite an accomplishment.
It's a fairly simple story. A young man's sister is kidnapped. He gathers an unlikely crew to rescue her. The wonder of this book is in the details of the time and place where it takes place is set: East Texas, when most people still ride horses and automobiles are just beginning to appear.
Essentially the book is one long chase. Along the way we get to know a lawless land. European settlers skirmish with Commanche. Gangs of psychopaths on horseback overrun homesteads, take what they want, and leave no witnesses. In the towns and on the roads, violence rules.
The details are not pleasant. This is the stuff of nightmares. But the author, Joe R. Lansdale, makes it worth reading by revealing the ideals, failings, regrets, and hopes of his principal characters. These are real people.
In an interview about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen was asked what mattered most when making a great movie. He replied, "Story, story, story." Writer and Director Bong Joon Ho could teach a master class on that subject.
Parasite has twists and turns, but it's never smarter than the audience. You see each one coming, or suspect something is coming, or know you could have seen it coming. Every event, every character, every prop, almost every line of dialogue has an echo later in the film. The craftsmanship is amazing.
A family of four---mom, dad, adult son, and adult daughter---live in a tiny apartment in a slum. They all work at whatever they can to get by. The son seizes an opportunity to get hired as a tutor in the home of a wealthy family. He fudges his university degree to get the work, but he's fully up to the job. As scams go, it's pretty benign.
This sets the two families on a collision course. I won't reveal anything beyond the opening minutes of the movie, because you should enjoy each delicious revelation for yourself.
Let's just say the movie is completely satisfying for its suspense, its social satire, and its profound questions. Usually we're satisfied if a movie does one of those things well. How rare it is to get all three in one movie.
Apparently, sail boats---the big ones that cost a lot of money---can be stolen. Some one sneaks into a marina in the dead of night sails it away. This is what Ingram, an experienced sailor, is accused of doing when police arrest him at the beginning of Aground by Charles Williams.
Ingram comes up with an alibi and is promptly hired by the owner of the stolen boat to help her find it. Not surprisingly for this genre, she is young and beautiful. Eventually, they find the boat has run aground, as the title suggests.
So we have two people failing in love on a sailboat, miles from shore, unable to move, and there is a dangerous man aboard. Williams generates considerable suspense from this seemingly impossible situation just as effectively as in another of his nautical thrillers, Dead Calm.
Of the two, I like this one better. The principal couple are more dynamic, the villain who makes their lives miserable is easier to understand, and the structure and pacing are flawless.
Also as in Dead Calm, Williams use correct nautical terms to describe Ingram's ingenious and heroic efforts to float the boat off a sand bar. I understand few of those terms, but that didn't stop me from following the action.
Dark Portrait, the fourth mystery featuring Nicole Tang Noonan, is available for pre-order on Amazon pending release on October 31. Here's how it begins:
Out on the trails in the Presidio, a long walk will usually soothe my soul, but it didn’t on that Thursday morning. The winding paths, the smells of the forest, the relief from city noise—all the delights that come with a visit to San Francisco’s national park were not enough to stop my mind from working overtime.
I’d been walking in this section of the park a lot as fire season turned to rainy season in northern California, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I had enjoyed my research leave up to that point, but each passing day brought me closer to returning to the campus in Ohio where I’d taught for four years. When that time came, I would have some hard decisions to make.
As I rounded a bend, I saw someone lying along a path connected to the trail. He wore a floppy canvas hat, a hiking vest over a denim shirt, loose gray pants, and hiking boots. His backpack and walking stick lay next to him. Since this was an unlikely place to lie down and rest, I wondered if he was injured. “Hello?” I called. “Are you alright?”
I heard footsteps on gravel about forty yards away, down a hill and across an opening in the forest. I looked that way just in time to see a man disappear into some trees. He was going in the direction I had come from.
After walking a few steps down the path, I leaned to one side and looked at the man on the ground. His eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything. His skin was gray.
I skipped backward a half-dozen steps without taking my eyes off him. I don’t know why I did that. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything to me. Maybe I was trying to rewind to the moment before I had seen him. Maybe I wanted to go back to the trail I had left, continue on my walk, and enjoy a day that did not include finding a dead body.
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To spend an afternoon watching the Smuin Ballet company dance to the music of Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, and Carl Orff, is to see humanity perfected.
Watching these dancers do such difficult things so that we can feel joy and sadness and wonder makes me think maybe we're not such a bad species after all.
The Fall, 2019, show starts off with new work by Rex Wheeler set to Dave Brubeck's, "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and other classic recordings. These are fun, full of chuckles and surprises.
The show also includes James Kedelko's "The Man in Black," a suite of dances set to songs from Johnny Cash's last album, The Man Comes Around, (2002). Listening to Cash sing songs like "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Hurt" moves us into the realm of classical tragedy. They are that deep.
Kedelko's dances put three men and one woman into costumes fit for line dancing at a cowboy bar, right down to the boots. Those boot heels play percussion on some numbers. The blending of vernacular dance with the power of classical ballet matches the intensity of Cash's recordings.
The company keeps alive the legacy of its founder, Michael Smuin, with his dance to Carmina Burana, a choral work from 1936, based on a collection of poems from the middle ages. The dance is as startling as the music. I would have to see it again to comprehend its symbols, rhythms, and physical daring.
As usual at a Smuin dance series, never a dull moment.
We enjoy going to the neighborhood movie houses in San Francisco, though there are fewer each year. I've lost count of how many have closed since we moved here twelve years ago. I wrote about one, The Clay, last year. It's still up and running and is thriving on art films and midnight showings of The Room, The Rocky Horror Show, and Halloween.
We recently went to the Balboa to see The Rock, the 1996 action flick set in San Francisco. Among other things, the movie is a contest to see who can deliver the best tough-guy line. Competition was intense between Ed Harris, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery , but, judging by audience reaction, Connery was the favorite.
However, the biggest cheer of the night was for the aerial shot of the bay blanketed by fog. Fog rules!
The retrospective showing was organized by two columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub. They hosted a trivia quiz before the movie started and handed out prizes. Then a guy in full Scottish tartan marched down the aisle of the theater playing "Scotland, the Brave" on bagpipes.
"Well," I thought, "why not?" Later my dear one suggested to me that this may have been a subliminal effort by local Scots to boost Connery's profile with the audience . . . as if Sean Connery needs an boosting!
This pedestrian mall interrupts Buchanan Street in the neighborhood called Japantown. This is where immigrants from Japan settled in the early twentieth century, but back then these blocks where covered with typical San Francisco Victorian-style houses.
All those houses were bull-dozed as part of an urban renewal project in the 1960s. That was possible because the neighborhood had been ruined by the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Today this development covers six square blocks and includes shopping malls, hotels, churches, and cultural institutions. The Buchanan-Street mall includes several sculptures by Ruth Asawa, a renowned artist who as a child was interned along with her family.
Although it was never again a Japanese neighborhood, Japantown became a living history museum for the Japanese community.
The store on the right is Soko Hardware. "Soko" was the immigrants' nickname for San Francisco.
Perhaps because I just finished writing and editing my fourth mystery novel, I am feeling the need for some perspective on the craft. I enjoyed Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print so much when I read it in 2017 that I read it again last year. I thought about reading it again this year, but somewhere I saw that Block had written several books on writing.
At first I wasn't enthused about Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, because it is described as "a collection of his slightly re-edited fiction how-to column from Writer's Digest." But I am finding in this book the same comfortable blend of instruction and memoir that I found in his first book for writers.
For instance, his chapter on "Creative Procrastination" clarifies my thoughts on when to let an idea ferment and when to get on with writing it down. He illustrates with the story of how his idea for Code of Arms was with him for a few years before he wrote it.
You don't have to take my word for the usefulness of this book. In her introduction, Sue Grafton wrote, "In the early years of the Kinsey Milhone series, I made a point of reading Telling Lies for Fun and Profit before beginning each new book."
By the way, my fourth mystery novel, Dark Portrait, will be available next month! I'll send out the details next week.
With Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais created a classic crime-fighting duo. Elvis is the all-around good guy who who has mad people skills. Elvis reminds me of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout and Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Joe Pike is the eccentric genius who has almost no social skills. He rarely speaks. His only facial expression is when the corner of his mouth twitches. Since Crais's books are set in twenty-first-century America, Joe Pike's genius is for violence. He has elite military training and experience as a mercenary. Unlike Nero, Sherlock, or Hercule, he does not solve the crime by deduction.
Also as in other series, the good guy is the storyteller. Like Dr. Watson and Archie Goodwin, Elvis Cole tells us how he and his friend caught the bad guys. This lets readers imagine what life would be like if their best friend was the smartest guy in the room or, in the instance of Joe Pike, the badest.
Robert Crais's latest novel, A Dangerous Man, drops the good-guy narrator in favor of multiple points of view. Elvis still narrates the chapters in which he takes the lead. When Joe or the bad guys take the lead, their chapters are narrated in the third person. Their actions are not filtered through Elvis's point of view.
I would prefer having Elvis tell me the story. It will be interesting to see what Crais does in the next book.
The Snatch is the first of Bill Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" novels. When he meets another character, instead of saying his name, the detective narrates, "We introduced ourselves." And throughout the novel, no one addresses him by name.
This would seem like a tactical error. Readers are loyal to detectives such as Kinsey Millhone, Harry Bosch, Jessica Fletcher, Sherlock Holmes, and so on. But though he lacks a name, reader's have been faithful to Pronizini's detective. He has published 46 nameless detective novels since 1971.
"Nameless" is in many ways a mainstream American hard-boiled private eye. He struggles with addiction (cigarettes), fails in his relationship with the woman in his life, and is idealistic about his profession.
Mostly, I think, "Nameless" has lasted because Pronzini tells a good story. He had me guessing about who committed the kidnapping referred to in the title. And he creates a realistic feel for San Francisco, where the story is set.
Susan Hunter's Dangerous Habits starts with journalist Leah Nash out in a storm watching to see if a tree floating down a flooded river will destroy a dam that supplies hydroelectric power to a town.
Safety crews drag the tree to the banks in time, but in the process they make a grim discovery. Nash's effort to report that discovery leads to darker revelations that set her on a personal quest.
Perhaps because Hunter is a veteran journalist, Nash thinks like a journalist and the book is written in crisp, efficient prose. I had no hesitation about making the journey with this protagonist.
Hunter gives Nash a fairly long list of suspects and quite a few allies. The book runs about 80,000 words and is well-structured. Complications and revelations happen at regular intervals.
I was most impressed by the subjects Hunter addresses. As Nash whittle's down that list of suspects, she reveals the sources of evil. They are as current today as they were when the book was written in 2014.
On its Amazon page, the logline for Miranda Rijks's suspense novel says, "The one obituary you never want to read is your own." Sure enough, the novel begins with Laura Swallow reading her own obituary in a local newspaper.
Thus the story begins with the hero's problem. And the problem gets worse. As Rijks says in her description of the book, "multiple announcements of her death are followed by increasingly sinister real-life events."
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. But when the story begins by introducing the problem, the hero's life becomes much more interesting. Her relationships, her tragedies, her triumphs---everything about her will affect the way she solves her problem.
So Rijks had me hooked from the beginning. And I stayed hooked because the book is written in clear, simple prose. I never had to mentally diagram a sentence. I was never tempted to pause and admire her "use of language." She told the story.
And, it is an interesting problem. I really wanted to find out who wrote that fake obituary and staged those "increasingly sinister real-life events," and why.