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ex libris reviews

1 November 2004

If you had a persistent rash, this would be a good room; you'd look right at home.
James Lileks


In This Issue:
Pratchett and Lileks

We've got reviews of new books by Terry Pratchett and James Lileks this month; failing a review of a new P.G. Wodehouse, what could be finer? Better yet, Craig Clarke is back, in a noir vein. Happy reading!

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Going Postal
By Terry Pratchett

So Jane and I went out on a date, as we sometimes do, and we went to a bookstore as we usually do on a date, and we found a new Discworld novel as we all too seldom do, and Jane got to drive home so I could start reading it to her, as we invariably do when we find a new Discworld novel at the bookstore whilst on a date.

As long time readers know, the city of Ankh-Morpork is ruled by the Patrician, a (reasonably) benevolent despot named Lord Vetinari. Lord Vetinari is a practical man; he's willing to adopt unusual methods to keep his city working smoothly. Early in his tenure, for example, there was a terrible problem with thievery in Ankh-Morpork; Vetinari retaliated by giving the previously shadowy Thieve's Guild equal standing with the other craft guilds--and then establishing an official schedule of rates and fees. Pay your Thieve's Guild fee regularly, and the Thieve's Guild will ensure that you remain untroubled by burglars while at home or by thieves while out and about. They'd better, or the Patrician will have words for them. Of course, the new scheme led to the near destruction of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a situation that has required a considerable amount of the Patrician's time (and many of Pratchett's books) to put right.

In this book, Vetinari turns his attention to the telecommunications industry, as it were. The Discworld's most recent technological development is the "klacks", a kind of telegraph system based on optical semaphores and line-of-sight relays by operators sitting in klacks towers. In recent books it has even been possible to send klacks messages all the way across the continent to the distant city of Genua, some three-thousand miles away, via the towers of the Grand Trunk.

But the klacks is a newcomer to Ankh-Morpork; long before the waving flags and flashing lights spread across the land there was the Penny Post and the Ankh-Morpork Post Office. But the Post Office has fallen on hard times; indeed, it's been decades since the last mail delivery. It's time for that to change, decides Vetinari; it only remains to find the right man to take on the job.

Enter the unfortunately named Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a con-man, and a skillful one; it's a sign of the improved status of the City Watch that they were able to catch him at all--well, that and the sharp nose of Lance-Constable Angua. But caught he has been, and Vetinari feels that a fast-talking con-man is just what the Post Office needs to get back on its feet. If Lipwig doesn't want to take the job, of course, there's always the scaffold...and should he take the job and then decide to leave town quietly, there's always his "bodyguard," a golem named Mr. Pipe, to fetch him back.

Meanwhile, there's something odd going on with the Grand Trunk. A new company has taken it over, and suddenly it's become much less reliable. Line men having been dying with distressing regularity. And they say the dead men's names circulate forever in the overhead.

The book isn't perfect; there's at least one thread I wish Pratchett had tied off neatly, and at one point there's a catastrophe that works out a little too conveniently for Mr. Lipwig. But on the whole, I'd say it ranks up there with Pratchett's best, and it's definitely less serious and more funny than the previous two Discworld novels, Monstrous Regiment and Night Watch. So go read it.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Hawkes Harbor
By S.E. Hinton

This book, Hinton's first for adult readers, has some serious flaws--but I have to admit that it's an interesting ride and kept me turning pages. It's a novel of rebellion and redemption; it's also the most peculiar vampire tale I've yet seen.

Although I usually avoid spoilers in my reviews, I find that I can't write about this book without going into significant detail. If you have fond memories of The Outsiders and you're inclined to pick up a copy of Hawkes Harbor on the strength of them, you should probably just go do so and skip the rest of this review. That was my motivation for reading the book, and on the whole I'm glad I took the time.

The rest of you can continue reading.

The first thing I have to say is that you should skip the prologue, as it's by far the weakest part of the book. In the prologue we meet our hero, eight-year-old Jamie Sommers. He's a bastard, and a tough kid, and his mother has just died; kindly Fr. Nolan, who promised Jamie's mother to look after him, is handing him over to a Cruel Nun (TM) to be raised in a Catholic orphanage. It's not clear what else Fr. Nolan could do, but young Jamie feels betrayed by both Nolan and his dead mother.

As an outline, that's not so bad--except for the stereotypical Cruel Nun (TM)--but the reason it doesn't work is that throughout the prologue Jamie carries on an internal monologue that just doesn't sound like the thoughts of an eight-year-old. It's too analytical, too crisp, too grown-up. It might be a reasonable description of Jamie's state of mind from an adult point of view, but my willing suspension of disbelief went into free fall.

I tell you this so that you won't be disappointed by the opening pages; the remainder of the book is blessedly free of this kind of narrative clumsiness.

Fast forward 17 years. Jamie Sommers has been checked into an upscale mental hospital by his employer, Grenville Hawkes. He is nearly catatonic; he is also recovering from being shot three times in the back. During the course of his treatment we learn quite a bit about his life to date, mostly in the form of flashbacks. He has spent most of his life at sea, sometimes working honestly as a merchant seaman, and sometimes participating in a variety of criminal activities ranging from petty cons to gun-running, mostly with an older scoundrel named Kellen Quinn. After blowing the proceeds of one such voyage on a massive binge of drugs, booze, and women in New Orleans, he follows Quinn to Hawkes Harbor, Delaware, where his life changes forever, and where he enters the employment of Grenville Hawkes.

I won't go into how he gets into the mental hospital, except to say that it makes sense; eventually, and probably before he really should have, Grenville Hawkes comes and takes him back to Hawkes Harbor. And the rest of the book is about the odd master/servant relationship that obtains between the two men, and how through it (among other things) both come to find health, happiness and even redemption.

Much of this process of redemption is both persuasive and touching; however, there are one or two bits that I thought were completely preposterous. There's a point after Jamie's return to Hawkes Harbor where he nearly over-doses on anti-depressants and pain-killers. It's accidental; he's still taking the meds he was prescribed in the hospital, and the local doctor had prescribed additional meds for him in ignorance of this. The result has been that so far from laying his personal demons, the cocktail of drugs he's been taking have been making him worse. Hawkes resolves to wean Jamie off of the medications altogether, and takes him on a sea cruise with only a limited supply. The regimen works wonders, and most of its success is due to the pair of beautiful young women Jamie spends most of the cruise in bed with.

That's right--somehow, despite being in lousy physical shape, and being strung out from withdrawal, and having a tendency to jump at shadows, Jamie manages not only to attract the attention of two smart, beautiful women, not only do they take him to bed, taking turns with him, but he manages to keep them well-satisfied, apparently many times a day, for the rest of the cruise. And at the end of that time he's renewed, rejuvenated, more self-assertive than he's been in years, and stronger in every way. This whole scenario is as unlikely as it is contrived, and I'm afraid I shall continue being skeptical of suchlike sexual healing.

Having dealt with that issue in more detail than it really deserves, I might as well end by saying that I found the ending satisfying, if a bit treacly, and perhaps more than a little theologically dubious.

Bottom-line...it was worth my time, even if I didn't always believe it.

The Gathering Flame
The Long Hunt
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

These are the fourth and fifth books in the Mageworlds series, and I'm reviewing them as a pair because in an odd way they go together.

The initial three books in the series tell the story of the Second Magewar from the viewpoint of Beka Rosselin-Metadi, star-pilot and Domina-in-waiting of the lost planet of Entibor. The Gathering Flame takes place a generation earlier, in the opening days of the First Magewar. As the book begins, the known galaxy is divided into two regions: the Civilized Worlds, and the Mageworlds. The Mages have begun to raid the planets of the Civilized Worlds, which remain woefully disunited in the face of the threat. And so Perada Rosselin, the Domina of Entibor, travels to the frontier world of Innish-Kyl to seek a leader with a proven capability to unite disparate forces to take the war to the Mages--privateer captain Jos Metadi.

The book goes on to relate Perada's and Jos's efforts to unite the Civilized Worlds, and ends with the destruction of Entibor by the Mages. (That's not a spoiler, by the way...this is a prequel, after all, and you'll notice that Beka is the Domina-in-waiting of Lost Entibor.) On the way, we also see a number of scenes from their respective childhoods.

The Long Hunt, by contrast, takes place a generation after the Second Magewar, and concerns a number of adventures had by Beka's son Jens and his cousin Faral. The events of this book seem oddly detached from those of the earlier book--but in fact they are not. And what ties them together is the ghostly presence of one Errec Ransome, star-pilot, adept, hero of the First Magewar, the Breaker of Circles.

Ransome worked as a star-pilot as a young man, until his talent manifested and he became an Adept on the planet Ilarna. So great were his powers that he was sent to the master guildhouse on Galcen for training. And shortly after his return to Ilarna, the planet was attacked by the Mages. The other Adepts in his guildhouse were slain; young Errec was taken captive.

Both Mages and Adepts can sense the currents of power and probability that flow through the universe, but they have entirely different philosophies and goals. Adepts do not manipulate the currents of power, but try to ride them instead. Mages regard power as a garden to be tended and brought into pleasing order. Not surprisingly, they don't get along.

Errec manages to escape, at great cost to himself, and makes his way back to the Civilized Worlds, where he falls in with Jos Metadi. Metadi wants to hunt Mages; Errec is happy to help Jos find them. And therein hangs a tale. One can argue, in fact, that although he's rarely on stage all of the Mageworlds books to date are mostly about Errec Ransome.

I can't say more without spoiling things; suffice it to say that I enjoyed both of these books immensely.

Wobble to Death
By Peter Lovesey

I'm a fan of Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, as is Deb English; but I've recently discovered that Lovesey has also written a series of mysteries set in Victorian England and involving a police sergeant (later inspector) named Cribb. They are long out of print, at least here in the United States, and I'd never seen any until a recent conference brought me to New Orleans. The French Quarter has six or seven used book shops, and I visited all but one of them (occult and new age stuff, not my thing). And in those six or seven shops I located four of the Cribb novels, of which this is the first.

The book's a competently written mystery; had I been in the mood for a mystery and picked it up at random, I'd not have been disappointed. But Cribb isn't particularly interesting, and Lovesey shows little of the flair I've come to expect from his later books. (Great word, flair--I'm not at all sure what it means in this context, except that Lovesey's writing has improved in the decades since 1970.)

The setting, on the other hand, is fascinating. It seems that footraces of various kinds were popular in mid-Victorian England, and one kind in particular--the Six-Day Go-As-You-Like, also known, gruesomely, as the Six-Day Wobble. The rules are simple: the racers have six days to walk or run as far as they can. That's six contiguous 24-hour periods--there are no mandated breaks. You can take a rest whenever you like, for as long as you like, you can eat whatever you like (provided you have someone to bring it to you), insecure in the knowledge that while you are resting or eating that your competitors might still be wobbling along.

Six-Day Wobbles were usually held on the open road; this book concerns a race held on a track in London's Agricultural Hall. There are two favorites, experienced "pedestrians" both, competing against each other on an inner track, and a number of unproven riff-raff competing on the outer track, and things look good for the race's promoter until one of the favorites collapses on the second day. Enter Sergeant Cribb and his dogsbody Constable Thackery.

Bottom-line: not bad, and I'm quite curious to see if Cribb develops into a more memorable character.

The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde

This is a very odd book my sister gave me for my birthday, and as it's the first in a series I can see I'm going to have to find the sequels.

It's sort of a murder mystery, and sort of a science fiction novel, and sort of a thriller, and sort of a literary fantasy. It takes place in an alternate universe where Literature is more highly prized than in our own, a world where criminal fiends might reasonably kidnap the original manuscript of, say, Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and hold it for ransom--and threaten to kill the title character if their demands are not met.

Literary detective Thursday Next is detailed to find the Chuzzlewit manuscript, and before she knows what's what she's entangled in a web of intrigue surrounding general all-around-bad-guy Acheron Hades, arch-criminal, seducer of college girls, and Thursday's one-time literature professor (she turned him down).

There's a lot of high literary foolishness in this book, and a lot of plain old ordinary foolishness as well, and I have to thank my sister because it was a great way to be "unavoidably detained" for a few hours. And I have to apologize to Craig Clarke, as he reviewed it for Ex Libris Reviews just last February, and I didn't go looking for it.

But I shall certainly go looking for its sequel, Lost in a Good Book.

The Body in the Bathhouse
By Lindsey Davis

It was just three-and-a-half years ago that I first made the acquaintance of Marcus Didius Falco, informer-for-hire and occasional agent for Emperor Vespasian. And you know how it is when you discover a new author--you start looking for excuses to visit every bookstore in town in hopes that they'll have some volume you've not yet devoured. By October of 2001 I'd read all eleven of the Falco books then available (you can find the reviews on our Lindsey Davis page). And then, sadly, I sat down to wait until the next book was published.

And here we are, precisely three years later, and finally, at long last, amazingly, I have a new Marcus Didius Falco book to review. What happened? Did Lindsey Davis take a sabbatical? Was she in a horrible accident? Did I simply grow tired of good old Marcus? In fact, the answer is "None of the above."

The plain and simple truth is, the publisher did me wrong. Yes, it's entirely the fault of Mysterious Press that the Foothills have been Falco-less for so long.

You know how it is when you walk into a bookstore and discover that there's a new book by a favorite author and you get excited and then you realize that it's a trade paperback and all the ones you've bought to date have been mass-market paperbacks and you really don't want to spend the extra money just to get a trade paperback that won't fit on the shelf with the others and so you decide to wait until the mass-marker edition comes out? And so you put the trade paperback down and try to erase it from your mind so that you won't pine unduly in the meantime.

You know how that is? Sure, you do. It's probably happened to you a dozen or more times.

But what if the book in question is never published as a mass-market paperback? What happens if the wily publisher discovers that Marco Didius Falco sells just as well--or better!--in trade format, and just goes on publishing new books in the series every so often, and only ever in trade format? And then hides them away with the hardcovers so that (not being one to buy murder mysteries in hardcover) you never see them again after their initial release?

What happens is you go for three years without reading any of them, that's what happens. Until one day you stumble upon them, lurking shamelessly in plain site with the hardcovers. And then you have to catch up.

That's what happens. And it's all the publishers fault.

(But what about the book, you ask? Oh, the book was great. I read it on the way home from New Orleans, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Vespasian sends Falco to Britain to see why a public building project is overrunning its budget. And for reasons too complex to go into here, he's accompanied by his wife Helena, his sister Maia, his two daughters, their ineffectual and snooty nursemaid, and Helena's two brothers-in-law. A foul time is had by all, especially by the older brother and the snooty nursemaid, the murderer is caught, and all ends happily. More or less.)

The Jupiter Myth
By Lindsey Davis

The Jupiter Myth is yet another Marcus Didius Falco mystery, and it follows directly upon The Body in the Bathhouse. That book left Falco and his family in Britain; his wife's uncle Hilaris is the Roman procurator in Londinium, and the current book takes place while Falco and company are visiting Hilaris prior to returning to Rome. All is well and good, and then a crony of King Togidubnus turns up dead in a Londinium wineshop. The crony wasn't supposed to be in Londinium; he wasn't even supposed to be in Britain, having been banished by Togidubnus some weeks prior; but he and the king grew up together, and Togidubnus is going to want to know who killed him. Falco having worked well with the king in the past, he's naturally dragooned to find out.

I don't have much to say about this one, but I enjoyed it.

Interior Desecrations
By James Lileks

Lileks' previous book, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, nearly caused me to disgrace myself in a public bookstore. When I heard that Lileks' next book (an examination of the most egregious interior design of the 1970's) was available, I made for the closest bookstore eftsoons and right speedily.

And I brought it home, and read it, and laughed far too much, according to Jane. So later on we sat down together and leafed through it, and we both laughed too much.

Lileks' basic shtick, if you're not familiar with it, is to take day-to-day images from past decades and ask, "What were they thinking?" A lot of fun comes in the way he answers that question. You can see it at work on his website; dig down until you find the Gallery of Regrettable Food pages for a sample.

Anyway, he's in fine form here, and I'd honestly like to quote large swaths of the text to you. It wouldn't be fair to do that, though, so I'll settle for descriptions of three living rooms:

If you had a persistent rash, this would be a good room; you'd look right at home.

Said of a room where the couch, the wallpaper, and the drapes all have the same extremely busy pattern: Surrounded and outgunned, the lamp and the pillow held out as long as they could.

Said of a room where everything was done in Bright Primary Colors: This room was designed for a blind blues singer, so that he could hear the furniture.

I'll probably be giving away at least one copy of this book sometime in December.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Blow Fly
By Patricia Cornwell

This is the kind of book you read while wolfing down a pound of Oreos followed by a pint of Haagen-Daz ice cream. It's trash, pure and simple.

Cornwell writes a series of action thrillers based on Kay Scarpetta, a forensic expert who at one time was the head of Virginia's state coroners office. She is highly gifted at her profession, incredibly intelligent and personally attractive. Her sidekick, a detective named Marino, is also highly gifted at his profession but is blue collar in his outlook, gross personally and lacks the finesse that distinguishes Scarpetta. A perfect foil. She also has an incredibly smart niece, Lucy, who at one time worked for the CIA as a computer expert, flies helicopters and is now running a private investigation agency. Kay had a lover, a profiler for the FBI named Wesley Benton, but he was killed off in a gruesome scene some books back, leaving Kay heartbroken and emotionally drained. She has left the coroner's office after a political fiasco and is now running her own private forensic consulting agency while trying to put her life back together in the wake of her lover's death.

And one of the criminals she's caught in the past, a psychopath with some weird physical anomaly that makes him have body hair all over and has caused facial deformities giving him the name Wolfman, is sitting on death row. He's the unloved son in a worldwide mafia type organization based in France and he's written Scarpetta offering to come clean on his family if she will visit him in prison, and administer the drugs at his death sentence.

That's the set up of the book. The action goes further, bringing (spoiler here if you plan on reading it) Wesley back from the dead, having Lucy commit a cold blooded murder described in technicolor detail and a whole series of grisly murders that Kay has to solve fast to save the next victim, who just might be herself.

As I said, trash pure and simple. And I am somewhat abashedly waiting for the next one to come out in paperback.

Mara Daughter of the Nile
By Eloise Jarvis McGraw

One of the first civilizations my daughter and I are learning about while homeschooling world history is Ancient Egypt. It's an interesting culture, there are lots of cool artifacts and monuments left by them to study and it's useful for teaching how to study a civilization in terms of government, social issues, geography, the role of religion and mythology, etc. We came to the conclusion that the Egyptians were a very visually-oriented people, extremely pragmatic in their thinking and not inward-directed or concerned about abstract concepts or philosophical questions. They developed extensive canal irrigation and water control systems, indoor plumbing, built the pyramids and carried on extensive trade, all with a clumsy writing system that left most people illiterate and, compared to the Greeks, an unsophisticated system of mathematics.

As an educational tool, historical fiction is useful for making the reality of the times come alive in human terms. Temples that we see as fascinating archeological artifacts were real places with sights and smells and sounds that are hard to imagine unless you are given a story to place them in. So we are reading some fiction as a way to make the history come alive for my daughter.

Mara is the first of these novels. It's set in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh in Egyptian history. Mara is a slave girl, bought by one of the Queen's advisors to use as a spy in the inner chambers of Thutmose III, the Queen's heir. Thutmose has been affianced to a Syrian princess who speaks only Babylonian and since Mara has been owned by a scribe she is fluent in that language. Her role is to translate for the princess when she speaks with Thutmose and report back to the Queen's advisor on anything amiss that she may hear. The conflict comes when she inadvertently falls in love with a young lord loyal to Thutmose who is involved in a plot to depose the Queen and put Thutmose in his rightful place on the throne. Her personal loyalties lie with Thutmose, but her owner will kill her if she betrays the Queen.

It's a good story, well told. The general background history is believable though I went back and read a bit on the reign of the Hatshepsut and Thutmose III and had to point out to my daughter repeatedly where the history ended and the fiction began. McGraw played a bit fast and loose with reality to build the tension in the story, which is ok for fiction as long as the reader understands the difference. It did serve to bring an ancient culture to life, particularly in the daily life of the temples and the common people.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Grifter's Game
By Lawrence Block
Fade to Blonde
By Max Phillips
Top of the Heap
By Erle Stanley Gardner
Little Girl Lost
By Richard Aleas

These four novels are the inaugural releases of a new imprint of Dorchester Publishing called Hard Case Crime. Hard Case focuses on reproducing the feel of the hard-boiled crime novels of the pulp era, either by reprinting books from the period (like Block's Grifter's Game and Gardner's Top of the Heap) or publishing new ones written in the same style (Phillips' Fade to Blonde and Aleas' Little Girl Lost).

All of these books are phenomenal, though they are different from one another. Where Block and Gardner focus on moving the plot along, Phillips and Aleas are more of the "literary" ilk, though no slouch at the action, either. Block offers up a stunner ending, while Phillips draws one of the great femmes fatales in literature. The lurid covers (newly drawn by experts in the field) hearken back to the original days of sensationalism.

Joe Marlin spends his days skipping out on hotel bills and double-crossing gold-diggers until one day, he discovers a large cache of heroin in some stolen luggage. Later that night, he meets Mona. Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the heroin and the heroine are somehow connected, but the pace moves so fast that it doesn't matter; this portrait of love between the hardest of hearts can only end in disaster. We just don't know what form it will take.

Lawrence Block is one of my favorite authors for his skill with detail and his insertion of humor in the story as a necessary means to break the tension (Marlin's response to a juicer pitchman is priceless). A book like this could have ended in any of a dozen ways, all of them somewhat predictable, but Block comes up with one that absolutely knocks you to the floor, turning Grifter's Game into a surprising and terrific story.

Ray Corson is a wannabe-screenwriter, ex-boxer, and odd job man. Now he's about to get involved in his oddest job yet: protecting ex-porn actress Rebecca LaFontaine from Lance Halliday, pretty-boy mobster, stag film producer, and lye enthusiast. Author Max Phillips is the co-founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, but any publishing house with an eye for the future would have taken on Fade to Blonde. Rebecca LaFontaine is one of the more interesting femmes fatales I've met lately, if only because she's so full of surprises. Just when you think you've got a bead on her, Corson discovers something else about her -- or she confesses it, and this girl just aches to confess things -- that changes key perceptions about her character.

In the course of Corson's travels, he comes across more people and gets himself involved in more difficult situations than should be able to fit in these 220-odd pages. This keeps the story moving because there are often two or more things going on at once. Fade to Blonde may be a little high-toned for the average pulp afficionado (he usually writes more "literary" fiction), but those who appreciate it will enjoy Phillips' depth of characterization and especially his ability to stick to the rules of the genre while giving it his own stamp of intellect.

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for creating the archetypal good lawyer Perry Mason, most famously portrayed by Raymond Burr in the popular TV series. (Did you know that Gardner himself played a judge in the final episode?) What most people don't know is that he also wrote another series of novels, under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, featuring the investigation team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Top of the Heap is the thirteenth in the series, but it also serves as a fine introduction to the characters, though mostly Lam, as the legman, is featured.

When John Carver Billings ('"The Second," he amended.') enters the offices of Cool and Lam, asking for the "senior partner," Donald Lam sits back and waits for the sparks to fly, since that title refers to Bertha Cool and Billings doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who will accept a woman as a detective. But when Bertha calmly calls Donald into her office, sans explosion, he knows there must be a lot of money involved. Billings is looking for someone to corroborate his whereabouts of the previous Tuesday night and is willing to pay for the privilege, but what seems like a simple job -- with a five-hundred-dollar bonus attached -- turns into something entirely other when Donald actually does some investigation and discovers that Billings has other things on his mind besides his innocence.

I was pleasantly surprised at how Gardner made the story intriguingly complicated but managed to keep it understandable. I never really got into his Perry Mason novels (I wanted them to be as tightly-written as the TV shows), but I'll definitely be on the lookout for more of the Cool and Lam series.

When the headline "Stripper Murdered" boasts a photo of his ex-girlfriend Miranda Sugarman, John Blake is floored. This is the girl who left their hometown to go off to medical school in Wisconsin to become an eye doctor. What happened that caused her to end up dead on the roof of The Sin Factory?

With the most striking first chapter in recent memory, Little Girl Lost, the debut novel of Richard Aleas (pseudonym of acclaimed writer, editor, and entrepreneur Charles Ardai) (Richard Aleas? How obvious can you get? -- Ed.), starts out strong and keeps up the pace. When your central character is a P.I. you've got to make him different from all the others to keep a reader's interest, and John Blake is not your typical tough guy. He's like Jackie Chan; he knows he can handle himself, he'd just like to get away with as few bruises as possible (Robert Parker's Spenser also comes to mind).

With help from his boss Leo and a stripper named Rachel Firestone -- who finds that she has a surprising knack for detective work -- Blake descends into the underworld of flesh display and runs into trouble that goes by the names of Wayne Lenz and Murco "Catch" Khachadurian. Along the way, Aleas gives us an insider's view into the day-to-day workings of a private investigator. This attention to detail, a fast-paced plot, a terrific cover from famed illustrator Robert McGinnis, and Aleas' definite knack for the genre, all combine to make Little Girl Lost an absolutely terrific read.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
By James M. Cain

After reading the Hard Case Crime series, I figured I should go back to an original and see if these new guys are really getting the point. Turns out they're dead-on. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a hardboiled classic. It has been adapted twice for the movies, once in 1946 (with John Garfield and Lana Turner) and again in 1982 (with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange), and Albert Camus even named it as the inspiration for his The Stranger.

It was also James M. Cain's debut novel -- he later wrote Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce (the inspirations for the movies of the same name) -- and it is every bit as good as its reputation. (Of the other four, Grifter's Game is most like it in tone and content.)

Postman was groundbreaking in terms of its stark prose (so much happens in 120 pages!) about amoral characters who do unto each other as it suits them. The "romance" between Frank Chamber and Cora Papadakis is so rife with violence as to be utterly disturbing, and really none of the characters are likeable; the only one who is sympathetic is Cora's husband, Nick, and that's because he is the target of their murder plans.

It is a quick read, and a disturbing one, something that is often missing in modern crime novels. Folks seeking a book that makes them feel dirty afterwards should look no further.

The Empty Hours
By Ed McBain

Here's a bit of a departure for McBain: a collection of three novelettes featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct. His novels are fast-paced enough as they are, but these stories, made even tighter by their short length (approximately 70 pages) and relative lack of subplots, seem to just whip by.

The title entry concerns the murder of Claudia Davis, a woman with mysterious surroundings: found strangled, she had just opened a new bank account and seemed eager to leave town in a hurry. In a story this short, any subplot -- however small -- has to be connected, which made the result mildly predictable, but the characters and McBain's taut prose keep the experience pleasurable in the midst of all the gritty realism.

When a local rabbi is murdered on the second day of Passover, "J" is found painted on the wall and Detective Meyer Meyer, a Jew himself (read any 87th story featuring him for the explanation to that name) is called in to investigate. This not only causes a run-in with a local Jew hater, but also causes Meyer to question his own devotion to his faith.

Cotton Hawes stars in "Storm" when he goes on vacation with his ladyfriend and ends up involved in the aftermath of a murder (using a sharpened ski pole, no less). Hawes is stranded at the resort due to the title atmospheric disturbance, and has the "city cop" has trouble with the local police investigation. Add trouble with the ladyfriend to this (he's not spending as much time with her as on the investigation) and you've got one of the fuller portraits of a usually supporting player. All three of these stories are top-rate and will easily please fans of the series.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 2004
Copyright © 2004, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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