Friday, April 27, 2007

"Hostage" - Robert Crais

I'm a pretty solid Bruce Willis fan and will check out most movies with him (okay, I will not see "Perfect Stranger") and one night I stayed up and watched "Hostage". There's not all that much to it but it's an entertaining enough hour and a half.

Sometime later Otto Penzler strongly recommended the original book and wrote pretty emphatically that its author, Robert Crais, is one of the best hard boiled writers around. So, ever the ready fool, I took Penzler's advice and rushed out and found a copy in the increasingly disorganized stacks of books at the Barrett Book Trader.

Yeah, well, I know Penzler's one of the most knowledgable fellows around when it comes to the history of crime and mystery writing. I love his weekly column in the New York City Sun and would actually pay to own them in a bound collection someday. I don't, however, think I'll fork over money for another book he pushes quite so quickly anymore.

"Hostage" is pretty much, well, it is entirely nothing special. Grizzled hostage negotiator burns out and moves out of LA and becomes the chief of a small town police force. A group of young punks invade a house and unintentionally take a mob accountant and his kids hostage (work that title). When the mob gets wind they force our hero to devise a way to get their records out of the house without any one finding out.

The book reads like a slick Hollywood treatment from the start and reeks of high concept and no originality. There isn't a character or a situation that doesn't feel old and tired. The villains might as well be twirling long mustaches. Crais needed to find a way to hide the neon "I'M THE VILLAIN" signs hanging about their necks.

No, this is not a good book for even whiling away mass transit time or laundry time or any sort of time you have to waste on potboilers. There's plenty of good crappy thrillers out there (can you say Preston and Child?) to spend money on instead of "Hostage"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"The Grave Tattoo" - Val McDermid

Val McDermid's the author of the "Wire in the Blood" series of serial killer books that I haven't read but I have watched a lot of the BBC movies based on them. They were sort of okay. Pretty much run of the mill in these days of CSI and its tiresome ilk.

"The Grave Tattoo" chronicles the adventures of a low level Wordsworth academic searching for the connection between a two century old tattooed corpse in an English bog, Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty fame, and William Wordsworth, long winded, now deceased, poet laureate of England.

The reviews made the book sound pretty cool, I swear it. But it wasn't. McDermid threw in so much ancilliary crap (such as a clever mixed race tough girl with a penchant for poetry, conniving gay male friends, untrustworthy ex-boyfriends and jealous brothers) that none of it really helped move the story along and kept it from ever really achieving any sort of depth. In the end it felt like a sort of politically correct Agatha Christie singleton with none of the true cleverness the old dame brought to a mystery.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Every Secret Thing" - Laura Lippman

I was reading an article about "The Wire" and discovered that series creator David Simon's wife, Laura Lippman, was a writer of mysteries set in Baltimore. Since becoming a fanatic regarding the show and slightly addled and obssessed about all things Baltimore I decided to check her out.

I quickly learned she has a series detective character and a batch of standalone books. The latter are more concerned with the psychology of people involved in tragic, violent events. I went for one of the second group.

"Every Secret Thing" opens with two mismatched young girls who are not really friends being kicked out of a birthday party. On their way home they find a seemingly abandoned baby in a carriage. The next thing the reader knows is that the baby is dead and the girls are convicted of her death.

Seven years later the girls are released from juvenile incarceration and returned to their families in Baltimore. Soon their are new incidents involving young children being temporarily taken from their mothers. Eventually all the people involved in the past murder begin to converge around each other again.

There are the two girls, the deliberately bohemian mother of one of them, their public defender, the cop who discovered the body of the dead girl and the victim's politically connected mother and a reporter. Soon all are weaving around each other trying face the past or their inability to do so.

The book's not really a mystery. It's similar to Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine books. Lippman's opening up the minds of two broken young women and the people who's lives they changed. There actually is a question of what really happened on that day the baby was found but it's important only as to unveil the deepest nature of the girls.

"Every Secret Thing" is a despairing book with damaged characters unable to staunch the flow from their wounds. There's nothing happy here and nothing heroic. There is a good book about wounded minds and the weight of murder and revenge.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"The Road" - Cormac McCarthy

"The Road" is somehow Oprah's new book club selection. I'm curious how her fans will take to one of the grimmest reads I've encountered in a little while. Simply, "The Road" details the journey of a man and his son from Tennessee to the Gulf Coast in an America devastated by nuclear winter and beset by marauders, cannibals and encroaching doom.
As a genre fan by birth, I'm always wary of non-genre authors trying their hands at basic sci-fi tropes. They usually are ignorant of other work and write like they've come up with something new that says "I'm important" in loud, pretentious tones. They also always seem to insist that they're not writing science fiction (witness Margaret Atwood).
Nonetheless, something about the reviews of this book made me want to actually envision reading it one day. With its paperback release that day has come.
I tried to read McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" some years ago and couldn't get into his style. There's limited punctuation and lots of pure dialogue. In "The Road" it served the story beautifully. It conveys the personalities of the man and boy struggling to hold onto their souls and lives as the world disintegrates around them exquisitely.
The book is filled with descriptive passages of icy beauty and black terror. I've read everything McCarthy wrote in "The Road" in other books but never with such perfect prose.