It's a Mystery to Me

Crime Novel Illustration
illustration by Penny Van Horn

Believe it or not, mystery musketeers, there are people in the world who maintain a certain snotty conceit that all genre fiction is somehow inferior to so-called "literary" fiction, that Hammett was a hack, that the MacDonalds (John D. & Ross) were mediocre. Indeed, it's a mystery to me how true book lovers could develop such nasty prejudices. In my book, one of the most awful consequences of ghettoizing crime lit is missing out on the rarefied pleasures of books like Michael Connelly's Angels Flight(Little, Brown & Co., $25 hard), the most recent outing for the brooding LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch, a lone wolf in the same class as Spade, Marlowe, and McGee. Howard Elias, a controversial civil rights lawyer, is murdered on the eve of another one of those L.A. trials that threatens to blow the city sky-high. The convoluted, paranoia-laced plot ricochets across a landscape made up of specters and symbols overloaded with meaning: the fabulous Bradbury building, Frank Sinatra's star on the Walk of Fame, the corner of Florence and Normandy (where L.A.'s chickens of infamy come home to roost once again), and that wonderful noir monument and metaphor, the Angels Flight railway, whose rumbling steel "X" links together the different planes and crazy counterbalances of downtown L.A. Like the corrupt and smoldering city around him, Bosch's private life once again implodes as his wife abandons him to the oddest kind of brooding solitude to be found in that place at the far western end of the American rainbow -- an island called conscience.

Robert B. Parker, who created Spenser, the hero of mystery fiction's longest-running and most successful series, is rightfully acknowledged as one of the old lions of hard-boiled. Spenser, the one-named, Boston-based poetic-and-pugilistic P.I., is dependable, infallible, incorruptible, and ultimately, predictable. For those searching for something different -- but not too different -- there's Parker's other series protagonist, Jesse Stone, sheriff of the sleepy little town of Paradise, Mass., who debuted in last year's Night Passage. An ex-LAPD cop, Stone is perhaps more prone to bad judgment (a weakness for drink made him an ex-LAPD cop) and retro-guy behavior than Spenser, and therefore slightly more interesting and likable. The new novel, Trouble in Paradise(Putnam, $22.95 hard), finds Stone wrestling with old demon alcohol, his curiously clinging actress ex-wife, and a stuffy little town with too many rich people in it who apparently had never seen the movie High Noon before they hired their new sheriff. Ostensibly, the "real" trouble in Paradise erupts when a badass ex-con named Jimmy Macklin blows into town to pull off a big heist, but we all know that it's inner conflict that really tears apart a Y2K macho man. Parker is obviously having fun by employing sometimes obvious, sometimes too-subtle variations in characterization and style. The Stone novels, for example, are written in third person,while the Spenser novels are narrated in first person. Trouble in Paradise also has passages that I'd rank among the very best writing Parker has ever done. It's all quite familiar territory, though, and readers might be forgiven for assuming that these novels are actually Spenser spinning barroom tales about a screw-up cousin of his named Jesse. But I don't see anything wrong with that.

The crooks never seem to have a chance against Spenser and Stone, but luckily they've never had to tangle with the one-named protagonist that Donald Westlake writes about under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Parker (no relation to Robert B.) is his name, and big-time heists -- meticulously planned and executed with a crew of like-minded pros -- are his game. Backflash (Mysterious Books, $20 hard) is the 18th Stark novel in this brilliant, totally rocking series, which began with The Hunter (retitled Point Blank, after the movie version) and, after a 16-year hiatus, was, thank God, resurrected last year with Comeback. This time our anti-hero knocks off a floating casino on the Hudson River. There's always a weak link in the plan, and this time it's the inside man: a pudgy, self-loathing, anti-gambling, career politician who sees the heist as a chance to boost his own profile and his agenda. That much is obvious to Parker, but there must be something else. That something else isn't quite resolved until it's apparently too late. As usual, Parker treads close to the edge but never gets caught, loves women but never goes for a roll in the hay before jacking a payroll. Westlake has written scores of novels but -- at least under the pen name of Stark -- has never been accused of wasting an excess word or superfluous scene. That's why they call him Stark. Rarely has bad ever read so good.

The Crook Factory (Avon, $24 hard) might sound like the title to the next Parker caper, but in fact it's a novel by genre-jumping author Dan Simmons, who has won various kudos for his previous novels. In The Crook Factory, Simmons reimagines the espionage activities conducted by a spy ring led by Ernest Hemingway (actually called "The Crook Factory") in Cuba during World War II. Not only is this intriguing premise fact-based, but Simmons' story, Hemingway's escapades as a spycatcher, submarine-chaser, and all-around wartime spy-guy, are "95% true," says the author's note at the end of the book. It takes more than a true story to make a riveting novel, however; what Simmons does in the way of exceeding expectations is something like taking a flamethrower to a recently issued stack of the two dozen next-best historical novels. The Cuban setting is deliciously portrayed with all the throbbing pulse and color one might hope for, and the big man himself makes his first loud, blustery, smelly (I mean that in only the best sense) appearance on page 48, a larger-than-life force of nature, a self-imploding human whirlwind that stayed with me long after the end, almost 400 pages later. Cleverly underplaying his hand, Simmons uses a Hispanic FBI agent named Joe Lucas (assigned to keep tabs on Hemingway's operation) to reveal Hemingway to us. It's a good device. Before going to Cuba, Lucas has little previous knowledge of the famous author; as he explains to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (drawn with appropriate sliminess), he doesn't read "make-believe books." Thank goodness for this make-believe book. In the fine tradition of what "Papa" once opined was the best kind of writing, it seems "truer than true."

Cover of Moody ForeverNight Dogs, by Kent Anderson, was one of the big success stories of 1997. The fact that the small press edition of this ultra-tough, autobiographical Vietnam vet/cop novel not only quickly sold out and became a hot collector's item, but was picked up by a major publisher, should have surprised no one who read it. Anderson writes about the cop experience (his protagonist, Hanson, is a cop in Portland, Ore.) with the same kind of naked intensity he employed in writing about Vietnam in Sympathy for the Devil -- which was also autobiographical, also narrated by Hanson, and one of the very best Vietnam books ever written. Liquor, Guns & Ammo(Dennis McMillan, hard $30) isn't the highly anticipated sequel his fans have been waiting for, but it's a welcome diversion nonetheless. The short essays about horses in the first section of the book speak volumes about pain and memory and Vietnam in staccato-like flashbacks that haunted me for days. There are also nonfiction essays about cockfighting, bullfighting, and militia groups. Also included: a screenplay called Shank and outtakes from both of Anderson's previous novels. There's a jagged elegance to Hanson's writing -- whether his characters are enveloped in the jungles of Vietnam or the mean streets of the city, or merely trying to keep the much-clawed walls of memory from closing in on them. All the pieces included here throb with a hopped-up reality; you can almost smell the sour breath of fear from the narrator's voice. This guy is so good he's dangerous.

Vietnam also haunts the protagonist of another uniquely different crime series set in the Pacific Northwest in the late Seventies. Although the tone of Steve Oliver's novels isn't quite as dark as Kent Anderson's, it certainly is noirish, highly personal, and intoxicatingly surreal. Moody Forever (St. Martin's, $22.95 hard) is the second novel in Oliver's series about Scott Moody, a recovering schizophrenic who moonlights as a cabbie; he's also a divorced Vietnam vet with a four-year-old daughter. While barely hanging onto the margins of the world the rest of us take for granted, Moody manages to stumble into the kind of off-center criminal scenarios that often leave him wondering whether he should believe his own eyes or chalk it up to hallucinations. This time, Moody investigates the murder of his rich girlfriend's father, and doggedly pursues a shaky trail of leads all the way to a mysterious sanitarium in the desert that seems to be running cruel and highly lucrative con games on people who'd like to live forever. Ironically, while unraveling the shenanigans of a gang of crooks peddling the dream of eternal life, Moody is battling his own obsessive preoccupation with death and dying. Oliver's writing is loaded with irony and an off-center soulfulness that is addictive. I find myself rooting for this seriously dysfunctional hero, with his slippery grip on reality and permanent outsider status. With his pathetic efforts to prevail against evil while trying to hold on to a job and a girlfriend and an apartment, Moody knows full well that the stakes are not only his life but his mind. I look forward to his next adventure.

Cover of Hot TicketI didn't expect to go crazy for Hot Ticket by Janice Weber (Warner, $24 hard). This tacky-looking book (the dust jacket shows a shapely female in a cocktail dress, with the dome of the White House gleaming against the night sky like the crown of a granite phallus), with its sassy, hard-to-like female superspy narrator was impossible to put down. The pages turn faster than the quick cuts in a rock video. Riffing on spy capers between gigs as a concert violinist, author Weber's protagonist is Leslie Frost, a concert violinist who doubles as a super-duper secret agent. Think of a female James Bond or a revamped Modesty Blaise. The adventure starts in the White House, currently occupied by President Bobby Marvel, who happens to be -- surprise, surprise -- a skirt-chasing Southern boy. Frost swings into action after performing at a black-tie concert at the White House, checking up on a fellow female agent who last checked in during a bubble bath with Big Bob himself. The agent, it turns out, has been tortured and murdered. Frost could be next. In short order, we find her dangling from a balcony at the Watergate apartments one moment, diving into the sweltering jungles of Central America the next. Frost is tough and beautiful, she knows it, and she doesn't let you forget it. She unwinds by riding her motorcycle -- a confident, hard, beautiful, lethal package. Men, contemptuous and pathetic, dissolve into puddles of lukewarm testosterone at the very sight of her. What's missing from this picture? How about some irony once in a while? There's not a trace on the radar screen. With plot points sharp, shiny, and pointed as fake fingernails filed into daggers, Weber's writing zips along like a cheap sports car sailing through red lights with little more than a wave and a wink. Book and heroine alike seem custom-made for readers who normally might rather watch TV. But sure enough, it even sucker-punched a guy like me, who normally reads books by, for, and about the hairier sex.

Guys and gals alike who know noir will be familiar with the name of Leigh Brackett, who either wrote or co-wrote great films like The Big Sleep, Niagara, and The Long Goodbye. Brackett also wrote the cordite classic Rio Bravo as well as The Empire Strikes Back (which is dedicated to Brackett in the film's credits), almost two dozen novels, lots of short stories, and lots of teleplays. Many years ago, after constantly seeing Brackett credited with so much work that I admired, I started wondering just who this Brackett character was. Another person who became curious about Brackett was the great director Howard Hawks. After reading Brackett's powerhouse hard-boiled novel, No Good From a Corpse, in 1944, Hawks told his secretary to call "this guy Brackett -- he'd be good to write the screenplay of The Big Sleep with Bill Faulkner."

As it turns out, Hawks made a great decision. However, the director was wrong about one thing: This guy Brackett was a woman. One helluva writer, Brackett enjoyed a long, prolific career in film, television, and print that proved that she could not only write in almost any genre but strike gold wherever she dipped her pen. Now the novel No Good From a Corpse, a hard-hitting, atmospheric mystery in the vein of Raymond Chandler, has been reprinted in a collectors-edition quality volume (Dennis McMillan, $35 hard) that also includes eight of her crime fiction short stories, an introduction by Ray Bradbury (Brackett mentored Bradbury in the Forties back when he was a struggling nobody), an afterword by Michael Connelly (whose decision to write crime fiction was sparked by her adaptation of Chandler's The Long Goodbye), and a bibliography and filmography. In case you, too, have been wondering "who this guy Brackett is," or you just want to plop down into 557 pages of top-notch storytelling, No Good From a Corpse gives a lot of bang for the buck. It'd be a crime to pass it up.

Readers who are unable to find the Dennis McMillan titles reviewed above can access http://www.dennismcmillan.comor call 520/760-8642.

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