Friday, June 17, 2011

I'll Never Learn

I am a great admirer of Kate Atkinson's last four novels: Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog.  They are tremendously entertaining and rewarding.  Moving, even.  She has made the use of coincidence an art form - maybe we were surprised that most everything tied together in the first book but by the third and fourth books, we knew what the trick was and it dazzled us anyway.  A great accomplishment.

I was excited when I learned the BBC was adapting Case Histories for TV.  Usually I can't watch a film or TV series of something I have read - it never works for me.  But I thought it would be different this time.  The first episode of Case Histories was kind of good - until I realized they were smashing the entire book into two one hour episodes.  I thought I was getting six hours to watch the myriad stories weave together.  Instead, we were treated to a quickie.  Which is a real shame because the source material was so good and the actors were good/interesting and the cinematography was great (I've never been to Edinburgh and I always imagined it a darker, dirtier, gloomier place - thanks, Ian Rankin) (and I even didn't mind they swapped Cambridge for Edinburgh - the kind of thing I would normally object to).  Why can't certain shows run longer?  Budgets?  Or do they think that people will only watch for an hour or two?  Can't they figure out that the best stuff on TV lasts longer (The Wire to name an example) and isn't hurried?  The second and third Jackson Brodie books make up the remaining four episodes but I've already given up watching.  I don't need to watched condensed versions of something I've already read and loved; I will stick with the versions of the books I have in my head I got from reading instead.

Now, having said all that, this morning, I bought on ebay a DVD of a British TV series called the Armchair Detective.  I guess this was a popular series on ITV in the late 70s.  I had never heard of it before.  One of the episodes is an adaptation of P.M. Hubbard's novel High Tide.  That was the first Hubbard I read so it holds a special place in my heart.  And since the DVD has yet to arrive in the mail, I am still full of hopes and dreams that I will love it.  It stars Ian McShane.  I know everyone loved Deadwood and says he's great but I never watched that show.  He does seem kind of cool and I don't think he will be the weakest link (if there is one).

In the mean time, I have one episode left to watch of the American remake of The Killing.  Remakes of foreign films and TV shows are almost always bad.  But I've liked the American Killing.  I plan to watch to Danish version over the summer (different killers I hear).

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Detection, and Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead

The best book I have read this year is not, as best I can tell, a book that exists. 

"There are no innocent victims.  The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain.  Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.  This time you may be the villain or the victim.  The next time your roles may switch.  It is only a role.  Try to remember."

In Sara Gran's new novel Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, there are dozens of excerpts from the legendary work Detection by Jacques Silette, published in 1959.  Claire finds a copy of the book as a young girl and becomes obsessed with it.  Already full of juvenile fantasies about becoming a detective, her copy of Detection and her devotion to it drive her to become one as an adult. 

 "Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection.  Novice detectives think it's about finding clues.  But detection is about recognizing clues."

Gran writes, "Detection was long out of print now and hard to find at any price.  I bought copies of it whenever I came across them in thrift shops or used bookstores that didn't know what they had....Detection was maddening.  The book is notoriously difficult - sometimes nonsensical, always contradictory, repeating the bad news and never repeating the good, never telling you what you want to hear, always just out of reach....Once you've read Silette there's no going back, people say.  Something in you has changed, and you won't be your old self ever again.  No matter how you may want to forget what you've read, you never can."

The central mystery of the novel concerns the disappearence of an assistant district attorney in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Claire is hired by a relative to find him many months after the storm.  Clare searches through the wreckage of New Orleans and her own life to find out what happened to Vic Willing (an interesting choice of name).  (I've been watching David Simon's show on the aftermath of Katrina, Treme, and from that I have all sorts of interesting visual images in my head to go along with what I'm reading.  Gran does a good enough job describing everything but it is really hard to imagine how much damage was done to the city.  I've been there only briefly since it happened and saw a little of the damage.  The show and the book go together well - especially the parts in both about Indians, Mardi Gras,  and New Orleans culture.)

Claire DeWitt is a devotee of this mysterious Jacques Silette.  And in addition to following his teachings, she also uses the five-coin I Ching Manual, Poisonous Orchids of Siberia: A Visionary Interpretation, and a book on the witchcraft practices of Northern Mexico.  Fictional private detectives usually have a sort of generic set of traits (they're cynical, loners, alcoholic, depressed, world-weary - you get the idea) but Claire is sort of a demented shaman as private eye.  And she takes a lot of drugs (bad ones - like smoking embalming fluid) while trying to apply the principles and techniques of Silette's Detection to the mysteries at hand.  Its a fantastic and fascinating new profile for a detective.

This book reminded me a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans.  That book is about a English boy born in Shanghai who is sent back to England when his parents disappear.  The boy dreams of becoming a famous detective, and does so.  As an adult, he returns to war-torn Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents disappearance.  I read this when it was published in 2000 and was unhappy with it.  I took one of my copies of it and re-read some of it after reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead to compare the two and I found that I like it better now.  Both concern an unreal world where detectives are celebrities, feature detectives returning to the scenes of past traumas (places devastated by war or natural disaster) to solve cases, and are not always reliable narrators.

After much Googling, I've learned that Detection is not a real book.  Gran created it for Claire DeWitt.  I pretty much knew that from the start but I really wanted the book to exist.  I read on a blog from her publisher that she may one day compile everything from Detection into a book.  I hope she does.  Until then, we have to wait for the next Claire DeWitt book, of which there are four already planned.  Book two is nearly completed and it is the book I am most eagerly anticipating aside from the continuation of Justin Cronin's The PassageClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a great first book in what should be a great series.

Today I obtained a copy of what will have to be my stand-in for Detection, Jurgen Thorwald's The Century of the Detective.  It is a great (but sadly out of print) history of the forensics, or the application of scientific techniques to the investigation of crime.  It was published in German in 1964 and in English in 1965.  I got a rather nice first edition hardcover of this difficult to find book (the few copies floating around out there go for a hundred bucks or so) at a bargain price because it had been listed as 'Century of the Dective' and attracted little notice.  (It may be easier to get this book by buying the two UK editions of it - the first part was published as The Marks of Cain and the second as Dead Men Tell Tales.)  The book is well-known in the forensic community but has fallen out of print and been largely forgotten by everyone else.   It was nominated for an Edgar Award when it was published but it lost to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


After Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake took a long break before writing his next Richard Stark novel, the aptly titled Comeback.  Twenty-three years between books.  I started at The Hunter and read mostly straight through to Butcher's Moon.  And then I took a break from Richard Stark. 

There is no accounting in Comeback for what has gone on in Parker's life since Butcher's Moon.  I suspect Westlake did this on purpose, just as he never gives a clear indication what year we are in in each book (and that it is a fool's errand to try too much to figure this out - and that it is not all that important anyway).  Given that Parker was in the military during World War II, we have some idea how old he is - I am guessing he was born around 1925.  I can see why Westlake avoids getting into dates because if Comeback took place in 1997 - the year it was published - then Parker would be around 72 years old.  (I used to think that old Parker would be exactly like Tom Jimson from the Westlake/Dortmunder novel Drowned Hopes - he was a scary old man.  I think I prefer the ageless Parker.)

Comeback felt, for the most part,  close in time to the books from the late 60s and early 70s.  The indications that we are closer in time to the present stem from some things referenced in the book.  Late in Comeback, Ed and Brenda Mackey, two of Parker's current gang and longtime associates, are watching CNN.  CNN went on air for the first time on June 1, 1980.  No one has a cell phone, computers are not mentioned as being in any offices, but fax machines are in use.  As are VCRs.  The heist in Comeback involves robbing the money room in a football stadium during a Christian televangelist event.  It is an attractive target because all the money is in cash - something that is becoming less common.  "Even in a world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace, there were still heists out there, waiting to be collected."

The term cyberspace wasn't coined until 1982 in a book by William Gibson called Burning Chrome and not popularized until his 1984 novel Neuromancer.  According to the Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer, the word is barely used at all until 1987 and doesn't take off until 1992.  This takes us closer to the present for the time of Comeback but still doesn't give a us a definite date.

Perhaps the funniest time reference in the book sounds more like it was written by Donald Westlake than Richard Stark.  When discussing crowds at the stadium, it is noted that there hasn't been a crowd this big since "the last Rolling Stones farewell tour." 

Even though I spent most of my time reading this book searching for clues about where in time we were, I enjoyed it immensely.  Parker is a little chattier than he used to be.  But that's okay - he knew he needed to work on that.  I won't say much more about the action in the book - I hate spoilers.

After I finished Comeback, I immediately started Backflash. [Can I say how much I love the title sequence of the first four post-Butcher's Moon Parker novels?  Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, and Firebreak.]  I've only read 30 pages or so of Backflash but it feels more modern than Comeback, even though it was only published one year later.  As I read I will compile a list of things that make it so.  The first line of the book has Parker with a Glock - and that feels very now to me.  The Glock was first produced in 1982 and didn't take off in the US for several years.  According to the Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the word doesn't take off until the early 90s.

Mike Carlow, a driver used by Parker in Butcher's Moon (and maybe some other books), turns up in Backflash.  The book says he's in his 40s and that the events in Tyler (the city in BM) were a long time ago.  So I suppose Parker could be a lot older than the guys he works with - I don't think I ever noticed any information about their relative ages.

I got a copy of Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, today.  I suppose, to use some ugly labels, Patchett is generally a writer of literary fiction.  This new book is, lucky me, about scientists in the Amazon jungle.  I read the first chapter tonight and it felt strange to read in that more literary style after a short course of Stark.  The past decade has been heavy on crime novels for me, but before that it was all literary fiction.  And while we speak of genres, there is one that I crave more of - lab lit.  In a nutshell, and in the words of the people who run the lab lit website, lab lit "is dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture."  It looks like State of Wonder will be an excellent example of lab lit.