CRIME AND ESPIONAGE OF COURSE….THE RETURN OF THE BOOK REPORT (3/17 through 10/17)

Sorry for the delays folks. Eye trouble (minor but annoying); time-time-time; working on my own book; the need to, for the first time in years, monitor what’s left of Politics. Etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, the book report is back. I’ve only read eight books in the eight months it’s been gone. Two will be handled at some point in other venues. The remaining six are all crime or spy novels of one sort or another. It’s been that kind of year.

March through June:

Cop Hater (Ed McBain, 1956)

Ed McBain was the pen name Evan Hunter (of The Blackboard Jungle and Last Summer fame) used for his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. Eventually there were more than fifty. Having never read one, I decided to start with his first.

It’s solid. A good basis for a series. Hunter/McBain liked to pat himself on the back a bit for having policemen–the only people actually authorized to investigate crimes– catch criminals (especially murderers) without the help of private eyes and such. The romance of realism.

Of course, the best private eye fiction doesn’t generally involve solving murders but trying–and most often failing–to prevent them. If a murder to two gets solved along the way, that’s okay, too, as long as it gets smoothly incorporated into the larger narrative.

Then again, a lot of private eye fiction isn’t very good and I think what McBain/Hunter meant was that if you were going to have a lengthy series based entirely on pursuing criminals (as opposed to say, family secrets), then only a cop made sense. Especially if Erle Stanley Gardner had already wrapped up the Fighting Defense Attorney market. He was right in that, and his leap to the next level was in realizing that the idea of a genius operating inside a police department had already been done as well as could be (see below)….but no one had written a series focusing on an entire department. That was his ah-hah moment. Once he perfected the formula it made him millions. The story of Cop Hater is pretty humdrum. But the sharp writing was there from the beginning:

The heat had persisted all day long, a heavy yellow blanket that smothered the city in its wooly grip. Carella did not like the heat. He had never liked summer, even as a kid, and now that he was an adult and a cop, the only memorable characteristic summer seemed to have was that is made dead bodies stink quicker.

I’d change “all day long” to “all day,” but otherwise that’s haiku-perfect. Much more of the book is merely swift and serviceable…And I doubt, at a book a month (the series ran past fifty, more than Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Easy Rawlins combined), he ever made the leap to higher ground for more than a page here and there.

But I’ll be interested in finding out at some point.

World enough and time please.

July/August:

Maigret’s First Case (Georges Simenon, 1949)

Speaking of geniuses working within the system…

I’ve read half a dozen Maigret novels over the years, always with guarded pleasure: Expert writing, a little chilly around the heart.

The chill breaks here. Maigret had debuted, in print, in 1931. By 1949, he and Simenon were world-wide institutions. But this “first” case is set in an earlier time. Much earlier. 1913 to be exact, a year that was, in some ways, closer to 1813 than 1931, and closer to 1318 than 1949.

Simenon remembered that lost world and he lets the reader see and feel what he remembers. The series as a whole worked on many levels–I really do hope I live long enough to read all seventy-six novels–many of which I’m sure have stronger stories. But here the principal value is painterly, as Maigret hurries or marches or strolls through the streets of a lost Paris and Simenon’s inimitable eye catches a telling detail around every corner at every speed.

And, as the young inspector deals with France’s pre-Great War class system, his creator is not above suggesting–ever so subtly–that such systems are bound to fail.

Hardly prescient in 1949, but certainly worth remembering in any year in a world where Franco-level hubris seems almost quaint.

Hostage: London (Geoffrey Household, 1977)

Household was a former British Intelligence officer (WWII) and nearing eighty when he published Hostage: London. He was most famous as the author of Rogue Male. (Big game hunter stalks Hitler for sport but does not kill him, with terrible consequences for much more than the World. Fritz Lang turned it into Manhunt, a film that caught the small scale, insidious evil of the Nazi state and deepened and personalized it in a manner seldom seen in the forties or since–I haven’t read the book so I can only speculate how much of the inspiration derived from the novel). But he hadn’t lost his fastball. After Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (likely unmatchable) this is the best novel I’ve read about the inner workings of a terror cell. Since the modern stakes of nuclear holocaust were barely imaginable in the days of James and Joseph Conrad, this is almost bound to have an air of implausibility, meaning I’m not sure even those writers could have done more with this than Household does. Anyone contemplating blowing up a nuclear device in a major city is truly psyhcopathic. So the only option left to Household is to have his inside man wrestle with a split conscience as he realizes the full implications of his comrades going a bridge too far. Of course he can’t accept the carnage and must turn on them….But what about the cause he still believes in?

The map by which the protagonist slips into madness is skillfully drawn. There are no wasted words.

No real lessons for our time either, Thank God, except this: If someone wants it badly enough, it will happen. And the line between wanting the very worst just badly enough–and not quite enough–is being daily tested somewhere.

The parting gift of a man who, having been born in 1900, when James and Conrad still walked the earth, had, perhaps. lived too long and seen too much.

Highly recommended for those happy few who need no comfort.

September/October:

XPD  (Len Deighton, 1981)

Skilled. Deighton was always skilled. 1981 was just about the last moment when the old “What If Churchill secretly met with Hitler to negotiate a truce and what if the modern world found him out!” premise could be taken with at least a grain of far-fetched credibility.

Maybe England really would have fallen apart! Within those limits Deighton sustains a certain tension and keeps a complicated story moving without let it sink in too deep or run completely off the rails. But there’s now attached a kind of poignance I’m not sure he intended. He seems to have still believed, as late as 1981, that there would always be an England.

We know better now.

The Player on the Other Side (Ellery Queen, 1963)

“Ellery Queen” was a pseudonym deployed by two New York cousins, David Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky, who wrote “professionally” under the names Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, respectively.

Got that?

The Player on the Other Side was a comeback novel, after the pair had dried up in the late fifties (whether writer’s block or that other old bugaboo, “creative differences” was to blame may have been unclear, even to them). Apparently the writer’s block part was a legitimate problem, because Science Fiction ace, Theodore Sturgeon (pictured below the cousins above), was called in to ghost-write, with how much supervision from the cousins, one can only guess.

The result?

A very fine whodunit–exemplary of the form, especially coming so late in the game. I read it in my early teens and hadn’t revisited since (or any Queen for probably twenty-five years or more). It’s still highly engaging and even has some haunted qualities in the early scenes. It ran out of steam at the very end, mostly because, by then, the revealing of the murderer wasn’t really surprising, even to someone like me, who always makes a point of not guessing. But the ride was still enjoyable and I envy at least some aspects of an age where the quality of pulp writing was better than anything we can expect from “literary” magazines today.

Breakout (Richard Stark, 2002)

I wrote about Richard Stark (a nom de plume for pulp genius Donald Westlake) in the last book report. Long story short, I put a lot of effort into reading Stark/Westlake’s Parker novels in order….and missed one!

Well, now I’ve read it and all I said about Stark/Westlake/Parker previously still stands. This one had a neat and memorable premise. Parker gets caught and sent to a holding prison somewhere in the midwest. Facing life in prison if he’s extradited to California, he rounds up a couple of confederates and makes a break. One of the confederates has a job (breaking into a jewelry warehouse, but that hardly matters) lined up and his price for helping Parker and one of his cellmates make the break is they have to help him with the robbery.

if you know Stark/Westlake/Parker, you know things will not run smooth. Suffice it say that Parker keeps jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. Really a kind of transitional novel between running storylines, but it more than holds it pace and place.

Now I just gotta decide if I want to spring for those last three in the new editions! In any case, one more check mark on the “done” side of the Life List, with much fun had by all!

THE END OF RICHARD STARK (Monthly Book Report: 2/17)

Last month’s reviewable reading consisted entirely of the final three novels in “Richard Stark’s” Parker series. He’s the crit-illuminati‘s favorite psychopath (Parker, not Stark), but don’t let that deter you. The final books, like the rest of the series, make for compulsive reading and–unlike most psycho-lit–say not a little about this “modern” world we’ve made.

Nobody Runs Forever (2004), Ask the Parrot (2006) and Dirty Money (2008) Richard Stark

Richard Stark was one of several noms de plume adopted by pulp genius Donald Westlake. Under his own name, Westlake wrote mostly comic caper novels, a sub-genre he defined for the ages (I especially recommend his Dortmunder series, but they’re all good). Occasionally, he went darker, but the Stark persona–especially the twenty-four novels, published between 1962 and 2008, featuring a man known only as Parker–was the main outlet for Westlake’s blackest pitch.

To grasp the unlikelihood of man having written the Dortmunder series and the Parker series you need to imagine that P.G. Wodehouse and Jim Thompson were the same guy. Only if P.G. Wodehouse had wicked plotting skills and Jim Thomson were bleaker.

To review any single volume in the Parker series would require a re-read of the entire set (something I might be amenable in the future if there’s world enough and time). Even then, it might be an exercise in futility. The Parker novels are engines of pure momentum: the darkest pulp energy reduced to the purest elements of speed, efficiency and insularity in a world that looks just enough like the real one to keep the reader from resting on any ideas he might be harboring about pure escapism.

This being the case, I’ll stick to generalizing for now.

For starters, these last three books (Westlake passed away in 2008, by all accounts, and some sort of miracle, as sane as any other clown in our parade) are up to the rest of the series. There’s a baseline–quite high, and not just for pulp–below which the Parker books never fall. These last three are probably somewhere in the middle. Well above the baseline, not quite up to the series’ highest points.

The key to Westlake (writing as Stark, himself, or anyone else) is scalpel like skill with both language (syntax, description, action) and plotting (swift, sure, complex). You read even one or two of his books, and that becomes a clear given.

The key to Parker is that Westlake makes no attempt whatever to “explain” him. He just is. You sail through 24 books, waiting for him to break character and demonstrate some human trait beyond will to power and the survival instinct. Now that I’ve finished the series (caveat below) I can say with complete confidence that the wait is in vain.

And it’s that quality which will keep the character relevant to modern life for as along as it takes Paradise to arrive.

To wit, from Ask the Parrot:

They walked around the building, and there was really nothing at all anymore to say what it had originally been, no platforms, no railbed, no rotting luggage carts. The place might have started, long before, as a temple in the jungle.

If the Parker series had/has a message it’s just this: In a moral landscape that is rapidly reverting to the jungle from which it took thousands of years to emerge, a man like Parker, who operates best as a killing machine, incapable of remorse or reflection, will be king.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy pondering Black Holes.

(An aside: I’m finishing the series now because, back in 2008-2011, the University of Chicago Press put out most of the series in a nice set of uniform paperbacks. They released them three at a time, every few months and I hoovered them up as they came out, thinking I would end up with a uniform and complete set. To my surprise and no small disappointment (I wait years for publishers to put out “complete” sets of authors, series, etc., because there’s a nice, satisfying, civilized feeling to complete sets–you can look at them on your shelf sometimes and almost believe the world isn’t really falling apart), they did not publish the last four. So in January, I finally bit the bullet and ordered these last three in hardback from another publisher. Naturally, the U. of Chicago Press has just announced that they will be releasing the final Parker books in August, 2017. Of course they are. And I forgot that they stopped four books short of the finale, not three, so I accidentally skipped book #21 and will have to read it out of order. Of course I will!)