Friday, February 23, 2007

The Straw Men Trilogy - Michael Marshall

The first book in Michael Marshall's Straw Men trilogy is called,aptly "The Straw Men". While never as great as I hoped it would be it's a great idea with some solid writing. Great, crazy plots, towering demonic villains and dark secrets in the background that aren't too easy to figure out are all in there.

The first book opens with a series of seemingly random acts of violence: mass murders in a fast food joint, girls abducted from the street and car crashes. We promptly meet our protagonists; a cop who retired when his own daughter was abducted several years before the novel's opening, a CIA employee who's parents die in a that car crash and LAPD detective. Within pages we are shown connections and intimations of motives linking the events and characters.

In the ancient past, all humanity was given to indulging its violent desires. There was no moral imperative to rein in such impulses. Then came the infection. Most of humanity was infected with a virus that encourage socialization, urbanization and peaceful coexistence.

The Staw Men are those who are uninfected and are manipulating world events for their own ends. What those ends are and how they'll be achieved are the mystery that occupy our heroes.

The books weave in classic conspiracy theories and urban legends as well as all the more typical serial killer trappings. Unlike most of the sub-Red Dragon crap being churned out these days, Marshall takes his plot and characters to levels of almost high camp and ultra-violence that overcome the inherent unbelievabilty of the material. Instead of suffering from trying to present essentially comic book materials seriously, "the Straw Men" revels in its pulpishness. Find these books and give 'em a whirl.

Truly heavy music

A couple of months ago in the New York Times one of the guys from Mars Volta mentioned a great new ultra heavy band from California called "Mammatus".   I tracked down the album at Vintage Vinyl and have been listening to it constantly.   It reminds me of reading Heavy Metal when I was a kid, particularly "Conquering Armies" by Dionnet and Gal.   I can picture armored men cutting through jungles in search of lost treasures to only fall short of their goals and die.   Very heavy then very spacey and then really heavy.  Cool stuff with a dragon on the cover.

So last night I finally did a little research on "All Music" (one of the 2 or 3 greatest resources on the web) for similar bands.  I found them and now I'm finding them as downloads to preview.   So far so good.

The first one I found is simply called "the Sword" and their debut album is "Age of Winters".   Where Mammatus only gives us four long songs 9one clocks in over 20 minutes), these Texicans hold the times to near radio-manageable lengths and go for more riffing and song structure than the latter's heavy, exquisite drone.

From "Age of Winters" we get a pretty Arts and Crafts maiden on the cover and songs about Norse goddesses and wolves (with howls) inside.  There's not a hint of irony or self deprecation.   These guys, like Mammatus are doing what they love without a hint of post-modern distancing involved.   I think if they even felt like they had to avoid that they would fall apart.   These albums work because they're played by utter true believers.   Definitely thunderous stuff.

There's more stuff I'm trying to find right now, particularly "High on Fire" and "Turn Me On Dead Man".   It's pleasing to learn there's a generation of people who know where to look for musical inspiration (the early 70's - Zep, Sabbath, and, well, that's sort of it.  OK, maybe a little early Floyd like "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" for the spacier bits) and then know what to do with it.   

For years I've complained about the lack of variety in music, especially heavy stuff.   I don't want another  (I really don't want any) metal/hip-hop band singing about their crappy lives.   Even when I loved hardcore I was more into the political than the personal.   I mean lyrically what's all that different from any filthy little emo-band and some modern metal act?   You don't have to sing about dragons and harpies (though I'm drooling at the thought), but c'mon.   I'm forty now and I don't really care about the misery of some teenager's problem.   SO give me my super heavy riffs and keep singing about them ruins and dragons.   I'm a happy listener for the moment.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"The Night Gardener" - George Pelecanos

"The Night Gardener" is the latest book by George Pelecanos. I've never read him before but I'm familiar with his insanely great work on "The Wire" (the single greatest tv show I've ever seen). I'd read a couple of good review for the book so I picked up a copy.
The book opens with 3 Washington DC cops at the discovery site of the latest victim of a killer of children. The first is an older black detective who's been working to no avail on the case for several months. The other two are two fairly new white patrolmen. All are indelibly tagged by the crime which goes unsolved.
Jumping ahead 20 years events occur which lead to a reexamination of the opening scene's crime and the commission of several new crimes. The older detective is long retired and diminished by a severe stroke. One of the patrolmen was forced to resign for inappropriate behavior and now runs a small time chaffeuring business. The other patrolman is happily married detective and is primarily concerned with helping his son avoid the pitfalls of adolescence.
Pretty swiftly Pelecanos plunges his characters into the investigation of a series of murders, some seemingly related and others not. There are gangster obssessed petty criminals and one-time criminals hoping to avoid temptation and stay straight. Pelecanos' style is sharp and realistic and his cops sound and act like the ones I've known.
I'm still not sure if I really like the book. Pelecanos strives for a realistic portrayal of the lives of several cops, their associates and criminals but the book suffers from a little too much mundanity.
The serial killer plot line is great. Too often such characters are presented as super genius gamesmen. The real serial killer is usually a creepy loner who kills a handful of easy victims until their craziness leads to their capture. The weight that his crimes have burdened the three central characters with seems true and their sadness over their failure is palpable.
However, in the end there's too much going on. Pelecanos is striving to create a real police unit and its series of ongoing investigations. The problem is that none of the plotlines really are served well by what's a relatively short book (384 pp). I wanted a lot more of each bit.
When he has the luxury of hours of development as parts of an ongoing tv show that goal is attainable. Here it's a little distracting.