Thursday, August 27, 2009


Referring to books, I am. Thousands are published every year and as technology changes, it becomes ever easier to publish. Ever more books are out there. We miss much in our busy lives so I've gone backwards a few years and picked out some books I read that I think are worth remembering and reading. Who knows if they are available. Check your local library. Here are three to draw to.

by Robert Goddard
ISBN 0-552-14224-7
pb Corgi, 1996

Robert Goddard is an outstanding mystery writer; for that matter, he’s an
outstanding writer, period. This novel tells the story of Harry Barnett, returned from “Into The Blue,” a loiterer, a failure at most things in his life, but a man who doesn’t quite mind that. Oh, he knows he’s not successful, at least in ordinary terms, but he’d rather wrap his fingers around a glass of good ale at the local pub, than think about all that.

He has a modest job that keeps him off the dole and life is fairly placid for Harry until... well, until he learns that he was successful at one thing. Harry learns that thirty years ago he’d impregnated a married woman during a brief fling. She never told him and now his son, David, who has become a well-known mathematician lies dying in hospital.

When Harry discovers there are a host of unanswered question about David and his missing notebooks, Harry develops a cause. And soon, Harry draws murderous attention.

Moody, introspective, exciting and very entertaining. Goddard draws you carefully inside Harry Barnett’s mind until you find yourself looking at the world in the same way as does Harry. Goddard will keep you guessing until the quite surprising ending and you’ll enjoy this fascinating ride inside English life.


Risking Elizabeth
Author: Walter McClosky
Publisher: Berkley, 1997,
ISBN: 0-425-16413-6

This is the author’s debut novel. It takes the reader to enthralling places inside New Orleans society. One is dazzled by the convoluted slick politeness on the surface, even when one is aware of the chicanery and double-dealing that takes place at the same time on other levels. None of the activity chronicled by McClosky is unknown to the wheelers and dealers in other cities around the world, but because New Orleans is the setting, there seems to be a special aura about this novel which enhances the plot and the characters.

Larry Preston is a successful widowed lawyer with an old-line prestigious firm. New Orleans is the city where he grew up and where legions of his relatives live and work. And play. So Preston brings his young son back to the bosom of his family. But Larry Preston discovers that he knows less about the convoluted undercurrents of the city and its power brokers than he imagined. How little he really knows he really begins to discover when he meets beautiful, willful, socially suspect, Elizabeth Bennett.

Set during Mardi Gras, Preston finds himself falling into a complicated swamp infested with some of the worst and some of the best of New Orleans residents. Big money, big oil, big power and murder are skillfully revealed. The pace is swift, the characters ambiguous and complex, and the atmosphere moody, damp and dark, even in the hot Southern sun. Well-written and very entertaining, rife with tension, Risking Elizabeth carries the reader carefully to its inevitable conclusion.


by Lisa Scottoline
Harper, 244 pgs.
Mass Market
ISBN 0-60-109411-0

Rapier wit abounds in the novel, another fine outing from this author. She's writing a series, but there just aren't any continuing characters, so you can read this, her fourth, without fear of missing anything. (But the rest of the series)

Our protagonist is poker-playing defense attorney Rita Morrone, daughter of a blunt, old-world Italian butcher in Philadelphia. The fact that Rita is cohabiting with the son of an important federal judge from the Main Line, and without the benfit of marriage, must drive the poor man nuts. But we only have a few allusions to this particular concern about his daughter, Rita's situation. There are more important things to consider.

Her lover's father-in-law is accused of sexual harrassment. Whoa. Who better to handle his very public defense than the judge's son's live-in-lover. Excuse me? I wondered if that would violate most ethical canons, but never mind. This author is a smart, former attorney herself, so she must know, right? Complications. The affair between son-of-judge and Morrone is going badly, and in fact, Rita is mightly disturbed to learn that she's contracted a non-fatal virus from her playmate.

Murder happens and the judge stumbles closer to ruin. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Marrone calls on her regular poker buddies to help her with the case. And who are these poker buddies. Why, old uncles! Family. An amateur Italian mob. This is very funny stuff. It is also very together, very well-written and holds your attention. Wonderful minor characters, good pacing and, as always, fine writing. I think it's just great. But if you're the kind of person who wants her good guys to be very upstanding and moral, this may not be your cannaloni.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Once Upon A Crime
ISBN: 9781932472851
Ed: Gary Bush & Chris Everheart
Pub. By Nodin Press, Mpls, MN
256 pages, Sept, 2009, Trade Paper

As with many collections of short stories by Crime authors, this one is a mixed bag, quality wise. It contains several really nice, taut, economic stories which are entertaining, surprising and a pleasure to read. There are others which don’t quite measure up, although all of them are readable. The anthology was conceived as a way to provide some financial support for the popular co-owner of one of the best mystery books stores in the nation. Indeed, Once Upon A Crime, the store for which the anthology is named, has been voted by readers of CrimeSpree magazine, the best independent mystery bookstore in the entire country.

I wish this anthology achieved that distinction. It comes close. The stories are widely varied by a motley collection of new and experienced crime writers. It is, as I have said, entertaining, but its greatest value may be in that it introduces readers to a range of writers and the quality of their work. Among the writers are several award winners of note, including William Kent Krueger, Reed Farrell Coleman, Max Allen Collins, Gary Phillips and David Housewright. It’s a good value.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

NOIR? Whose Cup of Tea

In 1998 Ed Gorman, Lee Server and Martin Greenberg produced an excellent book titled "The Big Book of Noir."

It comes closest, in my opinion, to accurately capturing and defining the scope and rise of noir as a worldview, particularly in film and literature. There are, of course, earlier examples, Roman Noir being one. It is possible to trace the definitions of noir as originally coined and used by French critics in the late nineteen-thirties and early forties, but such tracing requires more careful handling than is the case in much discussion of noir that happens today. A recent Newsweek article is a good example of that carelessness.

The 1946 dense and penetrating study of the German film, “From Caligari to Hitler,” by Sigfried Kracauer, does not use the term, nor can I find it in Agee’s writings. A brief discussion I had with motion picture critic Pauline Kael, at a film festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan touched on the label, but she seemed unwilling to give the term widespread use. That does not mean the films and literature that might be called noirish are not included in the consideration of a worldview that is about as dark as this segment of literature and film ever gets.

Noir began life in our modern era as a way to describe or identify the kind of American film which was popular in the nineteen-thirties and forties. These films are a cynical, suspicious assumption that things will generally turn out badly, and that most of the individuals in power had or have their own personal interests at heart, and care little for anyone else. In this regard, context is important. French film critics were writing during a time when most of Europe was a war zone or occupied by the Nazi. And most European citizens in particular, could still recall a previous world war meant, it was said, to end all wars.

One of Kael’s strengths in her essays was her insistence that films be judged in the social and political context in which they are born and presented. The same should be true for the novels of Megan Abbot and James M. Cain.

In the Western Hemisphere, during this time of the great depression and then global war, government and certain industries, especially the American film industry was called on to make movies with uplifting or at least upbeat messages, to bolster the war effort and rally the home front. All very well, but many artists, depressed, watching loved ones wrestle with loss of friends and relatives, found more telling expression and satisfaction in the strong imagery of those black and white films, often referred to as “B” films.

It took very little time before critics began to make the connection backward to literature of the nineteen thirties written by the likes of Cain, Hammett and Chandler, to name three. But I believe it is incorrect to label all three writers as noir writers. Yes, there are elements of the grim present, corrupt establishment, and a possibly dark future in much of this literature but, there is almost always a sense of possibility, a feeling that one will persevere and things will get better, if not in the confines of the existing novel or film, then later, after the final fadeout.

The Continental Op and Marlowe would go on to champion other poor souls, to right egregious wrongs. But for Frank Chambers, there was no tomorrow. The recent corruption of noir, if that’s not too strong a term, can be seen in three works. The book, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and then the two subsequent films, one released in 1946 with John Garfield and then the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson.

True noir, using a more accurate and narrow definition as was originally envisioned, involves the gradual degradation and dissolution of all meaning and rationality in the life of the sympathetic protagonist or main character. It cannot be that the protagonist simply got in the way of big government or big business. The process must be initiated and fostered through the actions and attitudes of the protagonist. It cannot be ineptitude, it cannot be simply lack of resources, and it cannot be seen as inevitable until the end is reached.

There are many novels of crime fiction mis-labeled as noir fiction primarily because the principal character never reaches the level of sympathy from reader or viewer which is required for the label. It’s a difficult thing to achieve. This pervasive destruction of a once-normal life, of an existence that may be very similar to that of the reader or viewer, may leave one in tears, and it is not likely to be the kind of film or novel that will attract enormous crowds of fans.