Potted book reviews – part 1

Whilst in Thailand recently I did quite a lot of reading. Here are a few reviews of books that I hadn’t read previously.

Bordersnakes – James Crumley
Crumley’s novel brings together his two great private eyes, Milo Milodragovitch and CW Sughrue, in a complicated plot that marries two separate stories that see the detectives working together (Milodragovitch is pursuing a banker who has stolen his inheritance and Sughrue is trying to find out who shot him and why). However, most of their work seems to involve drinking heroic quantities of alcohol followed by chasers of almost industrial quantities of cocaine with a bit of sleuthing intermixed with the driving. The plot is almost secondary to the interplay of the characters and the beautifully textured layers of the writing. Crumley’s ability to evoke a sense of place is on a par with Chandler and Ross MacDonald and his dialogue is profane and razor-sharp. The plot is a bit scruffy, but when you can write as well as Crumley can and can sketch characters as finely wrought as Milodragovitch and Sughrue then that’s a minor concern. If you can hunt this one down (I think it’s out-of-print in the UK) then I heartily recommend it.

The Black Angel – Cornell Woolrich
Cornell Woolrich is an author who is considered one of the major exponents of the noir genre. Experts of the genre certainly consider him as important as Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Unlike these two authors, Woolrich seems to have fallen out of favour with the reading public. Much of his work is now out-of-print, so if you want one of his novels you’ll need to scour secondhand bookstores or an online bookstore. The Black Angel is one of those you’ll need to pick up secondhand. The plot involves a spurned wife discovering the corpse of her husband’s lover, whom she had planned to confront. She leaves the scene of the crime without telling the police and awaits the return of her husband. When her husband is charged with the woman’s murder she vows to find the murderer and clear his name, assisted by a list of names and a scrap of a matchbook she finds at the scene of the crime. She plunges into the seedier side of New York, amongst drunks, drug dealers and other criminal types, and leaves destruction in her wake. Woolrich is considered the master of suspense by his acolytes, but I honestly didn’t get him. He uses thirty words when only a few would suffice and some of his sentences are purple beyond belief. His plot has some logic holes that I could drive an 18-wheel truck through. Woolrich’s ability to get into the narrator’s head is well done and it’s certainly not without moments of incredible tension but, on the whole, I have to say that The Black Angel was not for me. I certainly won’t discount reading more Woolrich, but I have put his other books at the bottom of my current To Read pile.

My favourite crime novels – part one

I was thinking about a top-ten list of favourite crime novels recently and jotted them down on a notepad. They are in no particular order of preference. Some may have been covered in previous lists, but I’m trying to keep the list fresh.

1) The Laughing Policeman – The fourth in the series of Martin Beck novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö has probably the most ironic book title in crime fiction history. Beck and his team investigate a massacre on a bus in Stockholm, and find that one of their own has also been killed in what appears to be a meaningless slaughter. The pacing is superb, the writing spare and the ending is a marvel – the one moment where Beck does laugh, though not through amusement I might add.

2) Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett’s first novel might not be his best (a tie between The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key) but it’s certainly my personal favourite. The action is relentless and the storyline is anarchic. The Continental Op is brought into a town by a client who is murdered. He then realises why he was brought in by the client and proceeds to clean up the town by turning the various factions running the place against each other. The body count is high and Hammett’s camera-eye prose captures it all without a wasted word. Brilliant.

3) The Long Goodbye – Choosing between this and Farewell, My Lovely is a difficult one. I’m only going for The Long Goodbye because it contains some of Raymond Chandler’s finest prose and his most acerbic comments about humanity, friendship and the nature of the world. In many senses it is also the closest that Chandler comes to noir. By the end of the novel Philip Marlowe has spurned a woman who is besotted with him, has pretty much lost his one ally in the police force and has little in life to look forward to; the only thing he has is himself and he doesn’t really seem too happy about that. The following novel, Playback, probably the lightest and slightest of Chandler’s works, seems to almost be an apology for The Long Goodbye. But there’s nothing to apologise for – it’s a brilliant piece of work.

4) The Last Good Kiss – James Crumley’s superb hardboiled mystery has one of the finest opening paragraphs in all of crime fiction:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

And it goes on from there brilliantly. TLGK starts with private eye C W Sughrue tracking down Abraham Trahearne, a writer out on a bender, and leads into the search for a girl who has been missing in San Francisco for a decade. It almost feels like a distillation of the work of Ross MacDonald – an initial case which leads into another case involving family intrigue – but the prose is more incisive and the detective is harsher and less forgiving of human foibles than MacDonald’s Lew Archer. It’s a fantastic piece of work and if there was any justice in the world Crumley would sell far more novels than the Jeffrey Archers and Dan Browns of this world.

5) The Friends of Eddie Coyle – George V Higgins’ debut novel is a marvel of concision; there are literally no wasted words. Bare prose descriptions are merely a framework for some of the finest dialogue ever to be put on the page by anybody (including Elmore Leonard). The story is told in the dialogue, including backstory, and concerns arms deals, armed robberies, affable but ultimately deadly hitmen and Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle who is as tragic a protagonist as you’re likely to get in a noir. He tries to dig himself out of a hole, only to find out that he’s digging an even bigger hole, a fact he doesn’t really discover until the very end. The whole thing is pure noir, but it feels lighter because Higgins presents everything with such matter-of-fact brilliance. In fact, the damn thing is so good that Higgins spent the rest of his career trying to live up to it.

Part 2 to follow…

Interesting article on Guardian website


That old chestnut about whether literary fiction is better than genre fiction has raised its ugly head again.

There’s good writing and bad writing and in some ways that’s all there is to say about it. If anybody is foolish enough to roll out that old chestnut that the best prose writers are all literary, then that person has never reader any Raymond Chandler. Chandler turned out some of the most beautifully honed sentences in English in the 20th century, and his facility with metaphor is almost without equal. Dashiell Hammett’s output was as influential on modern prose as the output of Hemingway – both men seemed to throw off the shackles of 19th century prose at almost the same time. And Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad worked within genre, but nobody would say they were constrained by their ‘limitations’. And in France, try telling anybody that George’s Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ books aren’t literature and they will probably laugh in your face.

Using Larsson and Brown as a point-of-reference for the basis of an article is almost pointless. Everybody knows that Brown can’t write a decent sentence, and it’s fairly common knowledge that the Millennium translations aren’t very good. The fact that nobody picks on Walter Mosley or John Le Carre and tries to suggest that their work is inferior to literary fiction, just shows that the genre’s best and brightest are a match for anybody on their day and that any argument like Docx’s can be blown out of the water.

Anyway, I’m glad to live in a world where I can read Don Delillo’s ‘Libra’ one day and James Ellroy’s ‘American Tabloid’ the next, where John Updike and James Crumley share shelf space, where John Hawkes and John Le Carre are just as likely to be picked up and read.