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.
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.
In Down the River Unto the Sea, Walter Mosley takes a break from his series built around Easy Rawlins, the character Denzel Washington played in Devil in a Blue Dress. This is the story of Joe King Oliver, who gets framed, fired from the NYPD, and becomes a private detective.
As in so many P. I. novels investigating a small crime leads to discovering profound corruption. There are plenty of reversals and double-crosses here to satisfy fans of the genre.
In some ways, Down the River is not so far from the Easy Rawlins books. Rawlins and Oliver are both reluctant private eyes, forced into the trade by circumstances. And both have sociopathic sidekicks. Rawlins's associate, Mouse, has a habit of accidentally shooting people. Oliver teams up with Mel, a retired career criminal as dangerous as he is devious.
The chief pleasure of this book is the story-telling voice. Though the narrator is our hero, Joe King Oliver, the voice is that of the author of nearly fifty novels. It compels belief. Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 2016.
Veteran crime-fiction writer, Lawrence Block, had the idea for this book of short stories: invite great writers to write a story inspired by a painting by Edward Hopper, and publish the results as a collection, entitled In Sunlight or in Shadow. Each story has a fine color plate of the painting facing its first page. In each instance the title of the story is the title of the painting.
The writers draw inspiration from the paintings in different ways. Warren Moore in "Office at Night" unfolds an anecdote that accounts for each detail in the painting. Michael Connelly in "Nighthawks," writes about two people sharing their thoughts on the painting.
There are some big-name crime-fiction writers here, including Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Child, and Block himself. There are also some all-around big-name writers, including Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.
I'm grateful to the collection for introducing me to writers I didn't know. One of them, Joe R. Lansdale, wrote my favorite story in the book, "The Projectionist." He's the author of 63 novels in several genres: horror, western, science fiction, mystery and suspense, plus short stories, comics and screenplays.
This recent (2017) suspense novel compares well to classics such as I Married a Dead Man (film version: No Man of Her Own) by Cornell Woolrich, After Dark My Sweet by Jim Thompson, and Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams.
In each of these, the hero struggles not only with adversaries (law enforcement, con artists and thugs), but also with her or his own defects that result from a traumatic past. The conflict is both internal and external. The hero's problems are both in the present and the past.
Greyson's The Girl Who Lived is a pleasure to read not only for the complexity of the puzzle and the intensity of the hero's struggle, but also because the prose reads effortlessly. To use a figure of speech, not an ounce of fat.
We went to see the film based on Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs when it played in theaters in 1991. It featured wonderful performances by Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and the rest, and it's terrific film-making all around. At the time, everybody was taking about it.
I never read the book because the subject didn't interest me. I've never had a reason to think about serial killers with bizarre fetishes and I hope I never do. Everyday life serves up so many interesting examples of evil-doing that I don't see the point of seeking out the most bizarre examples instances of humanity's failures.
I'm reading the book now because I've recently read two books on writing that recommend it. The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird and Story Grid by Shawn Coyne both speak of it as a nearly perfect example of a hero-solves-a-big-problem type of story.
I'm enjoying it. It exemplifies Bird's point that readers pick up a book because it promises a good story, but they keep reading because it develops rich characters. Harris keeps us waiting for the next revelation of Clarice's personality as much as for the next break in the case.
Just for fun, we streamed the movie last weekend. It holds up very well, and it stays very close to the book.
Peter Lovesey has had a long-running success with his series about Superintendent Peter Diamond, set in the historic city of Bath. Throughout his career, he has had shorter series based around other characters, and he has written ten stand-alone novels.
One of those stand-alones, The Reaper, belongs to that peculiar genre in which the hero is the villain. Of course we're appalled at his crimes, yet we empathize because, as Matt Bird says in The Secrets of Story, he is making decisions and attempting difficult things.
The Soho Press paperback describes The Reaper as "A dark delicious tale of a handsome and popular village cleric who has no conscience." Publishers Weekly calls it "An extremely clever, exquisitely written story of a murderous rector who manages to earn a great deal of our sympathy while dramatically whittling down his flock."
Published in 2000, The Reaper, recalls mid-century classics such as Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It might also be compared to James M. Cain's benchmarks of the 1930s, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. And we must not forget Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012), which brought this kind of story into the present.
What sets The Reaper apart from the others is its tone. The others are infused with dread, but Lovesey's book is "a bit of a romp," as the Brits might say. It's as if he said, "If we're going to be inside the mind of a psychopath for an entire novel, we may as well have some fun."
The Reaper is an exception to Lovesey's usual novels in which the police do their job and justice prevails. The same might be said of Agatha Christie's Endless Night (1968). Long live the exceptions!
I became aware of Gillian Flynn when most people did: when Gone Girl, the movie, hit theaters in 2014. The book was published in 2012. Like everyone else, I thrilled to the reversal in the plot of Gone Girl, but there was something else about it that attracted me.
At a writers’ conference, I heard an author of cozy mysteries remark that there is not a single likable character in Gone Girl. It’s true. Flynn wrote a book almost everyone likes without including a character anyone can like.
I was reminded of that author’s remark a few years later In a meeting of a book club for crime fiction. We were discussing The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson, and one reader said, “It’s a book about awful people.”
True enough: Thompson introduces us to bad guys, usually in the first person. So does Patricia Highsmith, most famously in The Talented Mister Ripley. As a friend remarked of that movie, “It’s a little too dark for me.”
But not for me. I’m reading Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, and enjoying it. The main character, Libby Day, survived a horrific experience as a child. It did not make her a better person---far from it---and the people she meets are creepy.
I like books and movies full of “awful people.” In addition to stories by Flynn, Highsmith, and Thompson, I like stories by Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Other people must like them too. All these authors achieved popularity, fame and fortune in their lifetimes.
Of these authors, Flynn is the only one still alive. There must be others currently writing in this vein. Can you suggest any?
Private-eye novels, police procedurals, legal thrillers , , , all the stories about professional crime solvers, be they sheriffs or FBI agents or forensic scientists, are great.
But I have a special fondness for stories about crime solved by someone who has some other kind of job. I like amateur-sleuth mysteries, and that's what I write.
As the title suggests, Thomas Perry's latest is an example of the old saying, "It takes a thief to catch a thief." When Elle sneaks into a house looking for jewelry, she finds bodies.
From there on, Perry carefully gives Elle reasons to help the police solve the murders without of course identifying herself and revealing why she was in the house.
Along the way, the reader learns a lot about the craft of burglary. This is typical of amateur-sleuth mysteries. They take you into a world you probably don't live in.
One can't help wondering how Perry knows so much about burglary. I'm sure he did his research, though I'd like to know how. Did he go to a prison and interview burglars?
The Burglar is written with Perry's usual impeccable craft. I've enjoyed his books since the 1990s, when he was writing the series featuring Jane Whitefield, who helps people disappear. Since then he's been writing these stand-alones. He's always a good read.
By the way, Alfred Hitchcock had little interest in professional investigators. Police usually turn up on the fringes of his stories, if at all. Somehow it's more thrilling when an executive, a photographer, a doctor or some other civilian has to confront a crime. Or an art historian.