Wednesday, August 29, 2018


After a fitful ride on Last Bus to Woodstock I doubt I shall read anything more by Colin Dexter. Ever again. I can't remember when a book has disappointed me—angered me—as much as this first in Dexter's thirteen-book series of Inspector Morse crime novels. I admit it would be convenient to put the blame on someone other than myself for steering me there, but I can’t. Not even my crime-blogging friends, whom I’ve let persuade me to try authors I’d never heard of. Nope, not this time. I’m stuck with it. Taking a cue from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, it's my own damned fault.
I say this by way of cautioning readers who enjoyed the TV series based on Dexter’s characters: Inspector Morse, its spinoff sequel Inspector Lewis, and its prequel, Endeavour (which is Morse’s first name). I haven’t yet seen any of the Morse series, but I’ve watched some episodes of Lewis, and of Endeavour, and enjoyed them immensely. Ordinarily if I like a film based on a book, I’ll give the book a shake. And I’ve found more often than not the original’s even better than its screen adaptation, or at least is engaging and entertaining in its own way. This was the case with the Inspector Gently TV series. The lead character in Gently Does It, the first of Alan Hunter’s forty-six books featuring the North British detective, was quite different from the TV Gently. It took some getting used to, but I enjoyed the read. Not so with Last Bus to Woodstock, which presents Inspector Morse as an unintentional (I’m guessing) parody—something as unpleasant to imagine as, say, Adam Sandler portraying Sherlock Holmes.

Kevin "Lewis" Whately" and John "Morse" Thaw
I should note that while the author handled the murder mystery competently, worthy of the TV series, his detective is boring and arrogant. Morse treats his assistant, Sgt. Lewis, with such contempt I felt at times like reaching into the story and slapping the feces out of Morse. In a bar, for example, while the two are interviewing witnesses in the murder of a young woman found outside with her head bashed in, the bartender offers Lewis a beer. “He’s on duty,” Morse snaps, but accepts a drink himself.
In fact, it appears Morse is a delusional lush. Sitting in his office, “mildly drunk,” he believes he’s gaining some insight into the case. “His mind grew clearer and clearer. He thought he saw the vaguest pattern in the events of the evening of Wednesday, 29 September. No names–no idea of names, yet–but a pattern.” Yeah, right.
At another time, stuck at home recuperating from an injury to his foot from falling off a ladder, Morse bores Lewis with rambling theories about the case, not allowing Lewis to comment or question anything he says. “A quarter of an hour later a bewildered sergeant let himself out of the front door of Morse’s flat. He felt a little worried and would have felt even more so if he had been back in the bedroom at that moment to hear Morse talking to himself, and nodding occasionally whenever he particularly approved of what he heard coming from his own lips.
“‘Now my first hypothesis, ladies and gentlemen, and as I see things the most vital hypothesis of all–I shall make many, oh yes, I shall make many–is this: that the murderer is living in North Oxford...” In fact, Morse has no evidence at all for this or any of his other screwball assumptions. I found myself screaming silently at one point, and suddenly bursting out laughing, as the long-suffering Lewis, the author tells us, “wished he’d get on with it.”

Kevin Whately

Another thing I found annoying was the multiple-viewpoint narrative. We’re inside the heads of most, if not all (I didn’t keep track) of the suspects, which, I know, is a perfectly valid literary device, but for me it doesn’t work in a mystery—or at least in this mystery, as the characters are stereotypes, thus less interesting than had they remained mysteries themselves, known only through the detectives’ sensibilities. In Last Bus to Woodstock none of the characters whose heads I was allowed to enter aroused my suspicion, despite some clumsy “clues” tossed my way. This left as likely suspects the few I knew only as Morse knew them. Presumably a craftier writer could bring off having a character we feel we know revealed as a surprise in the end as the murderer, but I cannot recall an example where such was the case, other than in a straight procedural plot.

Colin Dexter
I found the setting interesting—Oxford and its academic environs. Several minor characters are academics, and we get much byplay in this milieu—credible because of Dexter’s background as a classics teacher. I bought a three-book collection with my Kindle download. Unless I experience a brain transplant or a metaphysical change of heart, I shall not be reading either of the other two.
But I do intend to borrow the public library’s Morse/Lewis DVDs. I know they’ll be good!

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, August 23, 2018

THE TASTE OF FLESH – Dennis Hathaway

For me a good poem slips in through the layers of cultural conditioning with enough startle and spin to bring focus and context to errant idea fragments and give the familiar a fresh and knowing face. Good poems touch me in ways that are hard to describe beyond the usual adjectives. Complicating this difficulty is my vast academic ignorance of poetry, its traditions, and subsequently the conventional critical language that poetry scholars rely on to define whether a particular work meets certain acceptable standards. A saving grace for me is knowing that many poets celebrated today prevailed over disfavor from the scholars of their day.
My own feeble efforts penning the occasional verse have given me a respect infringing on awe for wordsmiths who dare to tread beyond the boundaries set by those who’ve gone before. Dennis Hathaway is one of those select few. His first collection of twenty-five poems, The Taste of Flesh, follows his story collection, The Consequences of Desire, which received the 1992 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

As I am unqualified to render a conventional review of The Taste of Flesh, I shall instead give you select snippets of its exquisite wordplay, its stunning visuals, humor, and delicate, soul-deep probes, many that left me slack-jawed, unable even to mumble the superlatives struggling up from somewhere near the heart.
These lines are from Cream, a reminiscence from his childhood on a Midwest farm:
He will remember the snow drifted against the barn,
He will remember the horses that bolted, or kicked, or otherwise misbehaved, Like surly children;
He will remember those children, and his wife, and his own father,
Dispensing wisdom that went down like medicine,
And he will feel that straggling line of ancestry,
Disappearing into the past.
And then he will sigh, and all will be quiet, and gone.

And this from the poem. Father, which has a Faulknerian feel:
And thus the son says, Goodbye.
Your strength, your endurance, your aphorisms,
They will settle with you into the earth
Which goes on, which persists despite our wanton recklessness,
And into the dust will settle anger, resentment, guilt, sorrow,
And you will be remembered,
And loved.

And here’s a little whimsy—with bite--from The Invention of Ideas:
It would be interesting (for someone)
To examine the persistence of failed ideas.

Propositions that don’t bear scrutiny.
For example: The trickle-down theory.

Why not the trickle-up theory?
Money in
The hands of the poor will find its way to the rich

Who own the banks, the fast-food franchises,
The automobile dealerships.

For aren’t ideas really gasps of confusion?
Smeared ink? Blackboards imperfectly erased?

For example: The trickle-down theory,
A nice turn of phrase, almost poetic
And more revealing than perhaps it was meant to be
By its inventor, Mr. so-and-so with such-and-such degree.

The title poem starts out almost whimsically, mentioning the tale of sailors forced to cannibalism after their ship went down at sea. The poem’s speaker wonders how human meat would taste...The arm, the hip, the liver, the heart. He describes how the captain butchered a sailor, trying to imagine butchering a more familiar meat animal, and mentions another well-known story of the pioneers caught during a blizzard in the Donner Pass. He takes us with him during a reminiscence of being broke and homeless as a teenager, and how he spent the night on the couch of someone who had “wanted to get me into his bed.”
I knocked on his door
And gruff with sleep his voice delivered the news
That another man was there.
But he gave me a blanket and use of the sofa
Just for the remnant of the night.

Next morning all he could find to eat was a box of matzos, Strange, tasteless things for a boy/Just months from a Midwestern farm. I ate them all...

If not for the matzos
I would have eaten the curtains
Over the kitchen sink.
The woodwork with its scabby
Layers of paint.
The worn linoleum on the floor.
But would I have eaten one of the men?
The one who softly snored,
Unaware that I was creeping toward the bed
With a long, sharp knife?

Donner Party preparing dinner

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

GENTLY DOES IT – Alan Hunter

Despite recommendations from friends, I put off awhile reading Inspector George Gently mysteries because I had trouble imagining a cop—even a British cop—named "Gently." Two things persuaded me otherwise: I realized I knew a real cop named "Nicely," and I enjoyed some videos of the BBC-TV series based on Alan Hunter's fictional character. Then I read Gently Does It, the first of Hunter's forty-six George Gently novels.
My first impression of the book was that some legalistic folderol must have intruded during adaptation of Alan Hunter's characters to the TV series. More likely the show's producers couldn't reach some sort of sponsorship agreement with the peppermint cream industry to enable Martin Shaw, playing Chief Inspector Gently, to pop one of the candies into his mouth every several seconds no matter what (I'm not entirely sure what a peppermint cream is, but the book's Gently carries a bag of them with him everywhere, helping him think and using them as bribes). Shaw's Gently was a believable cop and had a couple of believable detectives as his assistants. The only trouble I had was understanding a good deal of the north English dialect, which sounded to me like Gaelic. Dialogue was nowhere near as difficult for me in the novel, sparing me from having to struggle through extended incoherent jabbering when it takes only an occasional expression or two in each appearance of a speaker for me to imagine the character as Irish or French or Cajun or whatever he or she is supposed to be, ah gay-rawn-tee!

Martin "George Gently" Shaw

As a literary comparison, I found myself thinking of Simenon's Chief Inspector Maigret. Both are highly intuitive and prefer to work alone, their independent outlook dedicated to nothing else but solving the crime. Gently comes across as lighter hearted, more gregarious, and with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
"I oughtn’t to tell you this–I oughtn’t even to tell myself," he says to a constable. "But I’m a very bad detective, and I’m always doing what they tell you not to in police college." Gently's been called in from Scotland Yard to assist local police in solving the murder of an unlikeable lumber tycoon. Suspects abound, obviously, and Gently takes his time getting to know them all, asking seemingly innocuous questions to encourage them to reveal themselves. This tactic also helps him get along with subordinates. He tells the same constable, "I’ve been a policeman too’s high time they retired me. Some day, I might do something quite unforgivable."
He takes a sterner approach with rivals, such as Inspector Hansom, the local ranking cop working the murder.
" ‘’re the Yard and you think you’ve got to show us we’re a lot of flat-footed yokels,’ Hansom says in an early confrontation.
"Gently leaned back in his chair and blew the smallest and roundest of smoke-rings at the distant ceiling. ‘Inspector Hansom,’ he said, ‘I’d like to make a point.’
" ‘What’s that?’ snarled Hansom.
" ‘There is between us, Inspector Hansom, a slight but operative difference in rank. And now, if you will start sending these people in, we’ll try to question them as though we were part of one of the acknowledged civilizations.’ "
Gentle as his name, outwardly, he gives us a glimpse of what he's really thinking. A tad harder than he would seem:
In his mind’s eye the figure of the deceased timber-merchant began to take form and substance. He saw the foxy, snarling little face, the sharp, suspicious eyes, the spare figure, the raging, implacable temper of a small man with power...the man whose son had kicked free at any price, whose daughter was in league with the maid to deceive him: who declared the cinema improper while he ruffled Susan in his study...An alien little man, who had spent most of his life in a new country without making friends, shrewd, sudden, tyrannical and hypocritical...

Gently smokes a pipe in addition to his addiction to peppermint creams, and it's the pipe that first alerted me to the comparison with Maigret, his French counterpart. There are his moods. I recall that Maigret, when feeling stumped by a case, prefers to take a nap, curling up in bed and letting his subconscious ponder the seemingly imponderables until, refreshed, an idea presents itself from within. Gently hits a couple of downturns that neither pipe nor peppermint seems to help.
Alan Hunter
"Yesterday, the thing had begun to move, it was on its way. It had only needed one more stroke...and every nerve in his body had told him that he would find it that afternoon at Railway Road. But he’d been wrong, and he hadn’t found it...the instinct that had carried him through so many cases had failed him."
In despair he wends his way through the crowd leaving a soccer match where he'd expected to find that last "stroke" of luck. "He couldn’t quite believe it had happened to him. Always before the luck that smiles on good detectives had smiled on him at the crucial moment...he felt suddenly that he must be getting old and past it. He was falling down on a case."
Poor Gently seems to be on the verge of believing his silly lie to the young constable about being a "bad detective." One might think Gently Does It is the last in the series. Knowing it's the first, however, either we find him rallying his confidence, recovering his pluck and moving his prime suspect brilliantly to the hangman's noose, or bumbling his way through the remaining forty-five episodes, munching peppermint creams, puffing his pipe, growing more forlorn with each outing, and along the way picking up a nickname, oh, say...might there be an English word for "Clouseau?"

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

TATIANA – Martin Cruz Smith

Say goodbye to Arkady Renko. I have this chilly foreboding we'll not see him again, that five years ago Tatiana was his valedictory huzzah, his seventh "complication" after we met him confronting the mystery of three bodies found frozen and defaced in Moscow's Gorky Park. Since then the signs have been gathering, mounting. For one thing, his creator, Martin Cruz Smith, has allowed Renko to age somewhat naturally. I'm guessing he was in his thirties in Gorky Park and had advanced to his middle fifties in Tatiana, evidently dying his hair (which was "graying" in Three Stations, his previous outing).
"Arkady was a thin man with lank dark hair who looked incomplete without a cigarette," we are told in Tatiana in words that seem ominously fit for an obit. The odds his smoking will kill him from lung cancer by now are rivaled only by his accumulated physical damage from beatings, stabbings, being locked in a freezer, exposed to nuclear radiation and shot in the head, the latter leaving a bullet in his brain.
“Do you know what that does to you?" he asks someone threatening him in Tatiana. "Can you imagine? Like a second hand on a watch, just waiting to make one last tick. One tick and everything goes black. That’s how I live my life. Moment to moment...The strange thing is that having a bullet in the brain makes me feel invulnerable.”
Knowing the difference between feeling invulnerable and being invulnerable, methinks that one last tick has surely ticked by now, and if not, I surely hope it won't happen while we are watching.
It's a toss-up when and who will go first, Renko or his militia sidekick, Victor Orlof, who came onboard with just his first name in Wolves Eat Dogs. Again described in the past tense in Tatiana, "Victor was a bloodshot wreck who substituted Fanta for vodka. Or tried. Because of his drinking no one dared work with him but Arkady. As long as he was working a case, he was sober and a good detective. He was like a hoop that stayed upright as long as it was moving, and fell when it stopped."
The Russia they're growing old in is fighting its own death struggle. Renko reflects on this at a double funeral, one for a local gangster and the other for Tatiana Petrovna, a famous investigative journalist who officials say committed suicide by leaping from a high window. As he did with a similarly suspicious "suicide" by a gangster in Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko doesn't buy the official verdict, and, against opposition from his sleazy prosecutor boss and virtually everyone else except Victor, sets out to learn what really happened. He and Victor get to the bottom of it, of course, almost hitting bottom themselves in the process. At the gangster's funeral, Renko notes that other "mourners" there include "billionaires who had their arms around the nation’s timber and natural gas, lawmakers who were sucking the state treasury dry, boxers who had become thugs, priests as round as beetles, models hobbling on stiletto heels and actors who only played assassins rubbing shoulders with the real thing."
Meanwhile a protest has gathered outside the cemetery for Tatiana. Renko joins this group and gets a couple of cracked bones and a punctured lung when cops breaking up the rally begin "dancing on his ribs" until he shows them his militia credentials. 

Inspiration for Tatiana?
I have a couple of theories. The least plausible is that Renko will finally get a boss as honest, brave and stubborn as himself, and the two of them, with Victor, of course, will tear great gaping holes in officialdom and the criminal networks until, like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, they're mowed down at the Gorky Park bandstand in one momentous red blazing star of righteous glory.
In reality Renko's dissolution is a continuing process, the meticulous trudge toward official oblivion. His routine cases are drunken homicides followed by dreary confessions. Murders of greater sophistication are "all too often followed by a phone call from above, with advice to 'go easy' or not 'make waves. Instead of bending, he pushed back, and so guaranteed his descent from early promise to pariah."
He should have quit the prosecutor’s office years ago, and he knows it, "but there was always a reason to stay and a semblance of control, as if a man falling with an anvil in his hands could be said to be in control."
My third and most likely theory to keep the series going, or else veering off within the same setting and with some of the old supporting characters would be to promote Zhenya Lysenko to lead the way. Zhenya enters the series, along with Victor, in Wolves Eat Dogs. He's eight years old when Renko first meets him "standing in the cold outside a children’s shelter. He was stunted like a boy who pushed tubs in a coal mine, and virtually mute." Renko befriends the strange kid, and, despite Zhenya's fierce, inscrutably independent spirit, eventually becomes his legal guardian.
Seventeen years old in Tatiana, Zhenya seems "simply a larger version of himself. He was the ugly duckling that did not change into a swan and was self-effacing to the point of disappearing. Except in chess. In the confines of a chessboard he ruled and humiliated players whose ratings were far higher than his because he preferred cash to tournament trophies."
But by Tatiana he's grown tired of hustling chess games at train stations for petty cash, and is considering joining either the Army or becoming a cop. I believe this is the clue we need to anticipate at least episode nine in the series. Zhenya could ease into becoming Renko's successor. And maybe the lad is encouraging us with a wink to think so. In an exchange of quips with Renko, he predicts what will be engraved on his guardian's tombstone: "Things Got Complicated. ”


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Monday, August 13, 2018

BEARSKIN – James A. McLaughlin

Thriller. Hands down, thumbs up, no quibbling. We know this from the git-go. Bearskin, the debut novel by James A. McLaughlin, heralded by The New York Times as one of four authors "to watch this summer," has thus achieved the imprimatur that while most assuredly a page-snapping genre entertainment also reaches the rarefied stature of literature. With such prominent exaltation at launch we expect at least a fairly recognizable highbrow filigree, and Bearskin delivers. Without question. I enjoyed this novel on both levels. Its story kept me rapt, racing to learn what happens next while admiring some very fine writing--even glimpses of sublime brilliance in its descriptions of scenery in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and in the Arizona desert country. But, maybe because it’s McLaughlin’s maiden novel, and maybe because his publisher was a tad lenient with the editing, Bearskin occasionally shows its petticoat. There’s the awkwardly extravagant vocabulary. Rice, the protagonist, buried the deliquescent cow head...gunfighters had been in an egregious number of firefights...asked if he'd done a certain something, he demurred...
Granted this is the author’s voice, but it’s Rice’s viewpoint. And granted Rice has some college biology background and probably used a big word now and again in scholastic settings. But he’s a long way from the ivy halls. These days he’s ducking Mexican drug cartel assassins, interacting with barely literate mountain rednecks, and poking around the woods in black-bear country. Not surprisingly the voices sometimes get tangled. Here he is trying to lure a country outlaw biker type away from a biker party in full yeeha swing: “He laughed, trying to sound drunk. ‘There’s some bitch lying in the bushes back here!’” Lying? Really? Why not layin’ **hic** or, better yet, why any verb at all?
Yeah, yeah, I know, picky picky, but it’s a telling example of one of Bearskin’s several weaknesses. Another is the distraction of random dream-states Rice calls “fugues,” which slow the narrative without contributing much if anything to story or character. Too frequently McLaughlin gives us too much thinking, too much telling at the cost of showing, and he makes the all-too common mistake of describing with detail overkill—the kind that can sharpen focus in shorter pieces but clog the gears of a story that’s clipping along quite nicely on its own thank you very much. But blink and you’ll miss him slapping one over the center-field fence that can leave you gasping for breath
While he watched, a fresh breeze brushed against the big tulip trees, red oaks, sugar maples. Heavy branches rose and fell in slow motion, and a million leaves twisted on their stems, showing silver underneath. The forest was eerily animate, a gigantic green beast dreaming, its skin twitching and rippling. Not quite threatening, but powerful. Watchful.

Or punching a line drive to the gut: “The energy coming off that forest, so close now, thrummed in Rice’s chest, like he was standing next to a pipe organ.”
There’s enough of that kind of writing throughout to seriously tingle any literary sensibility. Loveliness dancing along in a standard page-flipping thriller, high-wire agility for a rookie novelist mixing such yin/yang styles in a single book. We know the Yankees are taking a look, but it’s a sure bet Bearskin can play wit’ da Bums.


For my money McLaughlin’s touched all three thriller bases, and should make it home with a dirty slide and a decent review in Soldiers of Fortune. The basic plot’s simple. We know Rice is trying to hide from Mexican drug lords, so it won’t be long they’ll track him down. Mandatory in such tales—like Chicken Man, the killers are everywhere they’re everywhere. We jump right in at the prologue, where the cartel demonstrates its clout by finagling two hit men into Rice’s prison cell, and then out again, one of them dead and the other with severed Achilles tendons. Leaves us no doubt what Rice is up against now that he’s out of slam and living on a 7,000-acre forest preserve as its lone caretaker.
For us reaching the inevitable showdown will take upward of 300 pages. McLaughlin does this well, doling out the suspense in tantalizing nibble-size increments of pulse-quickening happenstance, flashbacks, fickle fate, and derring-do. Rice meanwhile practices his martial arts, vocal impressions—y’all-- cunning, and chivalry trying to protect the local bear population from illegal hunting and shaking up the local outlaw types to learn who beat and raped blonde, leggy Sara, his predecessor, who checks in on him now and again.
Now comes the kind of detail so important to thriller aficionados: brands and models of everything from clothing labels and pocket knives to security systems, firearms, and accessories, each described with daunting precision—type, caliber, know the drill—personal combat tactics, and, unusual I hope, hideous methods of physical persuasion such as the old icepick in the ear-canal trick. About the time I started wondering how a biology major (albeit ex-con) would know all of this, Mclaughlin gives us a hint: Rice had been “well schooled” by Fernandez, his cartel-connected cellmate, and several Fernandez associates, “all of whom must have recognized something in Rice: a powerful will to survive, a latent capacity for violence, a willingness to kill. Some athletic aptitude. Certainly a good memory, though most of it he’d prefer to forget.” Okay, it’s a stretch. But, good gravy, what’s a thriller without a stretch or two, no?
If I could make one change before turning this better-than-average novel over to a savvy and insightful editor, it would be to switch the voice from third-person to first. This would eliminate inherent confusion when dialects are mingling and pronouns are losing their subjects. As it stands right now, though, Bearskin is a viable Hollywood prospect. It has story, characters, and...ackshun! And good screenwriters are incorrigible tighteners and streamliners.
So who should play Rice? (Cruise? Nope, impossibly tied up) Suzy may be onto something. She’s dispatcher/secretary for the local sheriff and has taken a shine to our tarnished hero: “You look like that actor, Viggo Mortenson? But not in a good way. You know, like in The Road?”

Viggo Mortenson

I didn’t like The Road, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle o’ carp.