Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell- a Review of this Swedish Police Procedural

Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well-known throughout the world for his police procedural novels, especially those about policeman Kurt Wallander. These novels typically involve gruesome murder, but are dominated more by the inner workings of Walander’s mind and his investigation of the clues than they are by the violence that pervades, say, one of the Kenzie-Gennaro stories by Dennis Lehane.

In The Return of the Dancing Master, TRotDM, we meet a new protagonist, Stefan Lindman. Lindman is a fairly young, though experienced, policeman who is greeted by two sets of bad news rather early in the story: he has a cancerous tumor in his throat that requires him to start chemotherapy in a few weeks, and Herbert Molin, his old partner and one-time mentor, now an elderly, retired policeman, has just been murdered in the remote area of northern Sweden to which Molin had retired.

Understandably beset by malaise, Lindman has trouble communicating with his girlfriend and doesn’t really want to talk to anyone about his condition or his possibly-impending demise. Instead, he feels like hopping on an airplane to the Spanish coast to drown himself in pity and alcohol in the company of strangers. However, as disconnected as he feels from reality, suffering what he thinks of as an old man’s disease while only 37, Lindman is roused by the tragedy of his partner’s murder, and ultimately decides to visit the scene of the crime during his medical leave, until it is time to start chemotherapy.

As everywhere, matters of protocol and jurisdiction must be followed in Swedish police procedures, and Lindman has every intention of doing so, but, since he is really just curious as a friend, he ends up at the actual murder site before contacting the local authorities. Lindman’s instincts as a detective kick in, and he notices a few things that had been overlooked by the local officers. This infraction against protocol earns the immediate resentment of the regional commander, but Lindman eventually finds an ally in the form of the highly effective, if somewhat oddly named, inspector Giuseppe Larsson of the Ostersund police force. Larsson is an intelligent man, and is grateful for the presence of Lindman, who not only continues to find evidence that had been overlooked, but serves as an excellent sounding board for theories. The two become de facto partners, while needing to hide this collaboration from higher authorities.

So, you ask, “What is unusual about this book? It seems to follow a relatively common formula…” I can assure you that the book is not common nor formulaic, however. It turns out that almost nothing and nobody, except Giuseppe, can be taken at face value here. The partner that Lindman thought he knew turns out to have had a hidden life, a life that terrified him, and which may finally have caught up with him. The killing itself is carried out by torturing Molin to death, and the circumstances are truly bizarre.

In the course of assisting the local police, unofficially, with their inquiries, Lindman uncovers facts about his own life and family that are profoundly disturbing, just as he uncovers facts about the existence of a neo-Nazi organization that is by no means a group of mere skinheads, but is a sophisticated and well-funded network.

In the Afterward, Mankell makes the usual disclaimers about TRotDM being a novel rather than a description of actual events and people, but he also says that, intermingled with the fiction, there is a set of truths, placed intentionally, for a purpose. These truths were as disturbing as they were illuminating. Although I have read extensively about the Second World War, I was completely unfamiliar with any close connection between some segments of Swedish society and the Nazi Party. However, this connection did exist, and more than a few Swedes served under Hitler as volunteers. In TRotDM, we learn about these wartime allegiances and how they may have survived to the present day. Of course, many Swedes also helped rescue Jews fleeing the Nazis, so this is no simplistic story, either in the book or in history itself.

The revelations about Fascism in Sweden come as a shock to Stefan Lindman. Able to work at the fringes of the investigation, he manages to employ unorthodox police procedure and to pursue possible tangents that end up becoming central to the story. Through Stefan’s eyes and ears we learn much about isolated Swedish villages, the varied terrain, the good-hearted people who live far from the bustle of cities, and the evil ones who might show up wherever a rock is overturned, be it at the side of a country road or in the confines of a modern business park. The book provides maps to help us follow all of Stefan's travels across Sweden.

The story is one of revenge, of the Holocaust, of wartime cruelty and long-delayed peace-time repercussions, of skin-heads and businessmen with the same agendas (if not tactics), of the repressed and suppressed memories of Swedish-Nazi collaboration, of how that collaboration may be continuing at this very moment, and of how this knowledge repels and horrifies the modern-day police investigators, who view Sweden as a peaceful country and who learned in school only of its careful neutrality during the war.

In the case of TRotDM, the policemen face a number of dilemmas, not the least of which is “What exactly the heck is going on? Are the murders connected? Is there a lone killer, a group of killers or several unrelated killers?” The revelations about complicity and duplicity take a good while to be completed, and we meet many well-drawn characters along the way. The young girl who works as a hotel clerk and waitress is a minor character, but she is very much alive. Life goes on, and sometimes stops, in small villages as it does everywhere else, regardless of what external circumstances may intrude.

Of particular interest, we are given entrée to the mind of a killer who was bent on taking revenge for war crimes against his Jewish family no matter what the cost– revenge he has been fixated on for more than 40 years. Nonetheless, this man is troubled by guilt about a number of things, though not the execution of his intended victim. This guilt causes the killer to stay in the area, at great risk to himself, to discover what forces may have been unleashed by his act of revenge.

Judging Herbert Molin’s killer is no easy task, even for his official pursuers, the policemen Stefan and Giuseppe, and even though the costs of his crime include many unintended consequences: a pleasant country constable ends up shooting someone dead and never really recovers from the experience, and other murders are committed. As the story unfolds, the killer must evade police dogs and police cordons, and a fascist group that is determined to trap and exterminate him.

Caught up in the crimes, Stefan is largely able to forget his fears of death and throat cancer while he works in tandem with Giuseppe to peel back every layer of the mystery, though, at night, when he is alone, the fears usually return.

Is it acceptable to take “an eye for an eye”? Clearly not in the view of Swedish law, which, like most developed nations, does not allow capital punishment. But is it acceptable under some circumstances? Stefan and Giuseppe must answer this question very specifically as the mysteries are wrapped up, just as they must acknowledge the hidden and shameful past that haunts a part of the Swedish soul, perhaps even with living ghosts. Author Mankell provides us with everything we might want in a novel, and adds extra elements that give the book an unusual resonance: suspense that ebbs and flows; human frailty and courage; stark terror; the remorse associated with unintended consequences of one's actions; historical fiction that exposes the (unfortunately, all too common) savage secrets of nominal wartime neutrality; several likely and unlikely comradeships; a backdrop of Swedish villages and beautiful lodges; and wonderful language.

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Nightlife, thrilling crime fiction by Thomas Perry– a Review

Nightlife: A Novel

I have enjoyed a number of Thomas Perry’s books, especially the early books in the Jane Whitefield series, a set of books about a Native American woman whose special gifts allow her to help people disappear from the face of the earth, assume new identities, and escape the evil that men would do.

Like the Whitefield series and many of my favorite detective stories (see books by Cara Black (Cara Black's books), Linda Barnes, and many others discussed on this blog), Nightlife also has a woman protagonist: Catherine Hobbs, who is a homicide detective from Portland, Oregon. Catherine is on the trail of a murderer and possible kidnapper, or perhaps several murderers; her picture of the crimes is muddled at first by a profusion of contradictory and incomplete evidence. We, on the other hand, have the advantage of hearing the killer’s own thoughts, though they are dissociated enough from reality that it takes some time to filter them properly and obtain some semblance of the truth.

The first victim whose murder Catherine investigates is Dennis Poole. She is joined nearly from the start by a private detective and retired member of the L. A. district attorney’s office, Joe Pitt. Pitt is extremely charming and an experienced investigator, and was brought on board by Los Angeles-based crime boss Hugo Poole. Hugo and Dennis, as it turns out, were cousins. What bothers Hugo, and Catherine for that matter, is that Dennis was, in a nice way, simply “a nobody”: a nondescript computer salesman in a seemingly boring job, one that he actually loved and was good at. Dennis was not a “player”, he was just a pleasant and unadventurous fellow, highly unlikely to meet the kind of person who would do him in. Yet the murder was clearly committed by a close personal acquaintance, or, more likely, with the unwilling help of such a person. Certainly someone involved was intimate enough with Dennis to have access to his apartment while Dennis was taking a bath. Access enough to walk up to Dennis and shoot him in the head during that relaxing bath. At least he never saw it coming- his eyes were closed while he rested in the tub after a long day at work. Perhaps, Hugo worries, the killing is some kind of retaliation for one of Hugo’s criminal enterprises in L.A.

There is immediate concern about the location of Dennis’ new girlfriend, whose presence is indicated all over the apartment, but who has disappeared. Was she used by a thug to gain entrance to the apartment, is she still alive, was she a witness to the crime?

The excitement and considerable suspense of Nightlife make for an enjoyable ride. At the heart of things is a killer who is nuts (a technical term), but who has developed an extraordinary skill at identity theft, and at preying on unsuspecting victims carefully set up for the kill with detailed planning. The killer’s mental illness manifests in the way that each new personality and identity are truly inhabited, bringing to them an authenticity of performance that fools everyone.

Adding to the suspense, one never knows what the murder will look like, or what the murderer’s new name might be. However, Catherine applies insight and exhaustive detective work to track the schizophrenic killer, hoping to put a stop to the seemingly endless trail of victims who are apparently connected by nothing except their availability and ready assets. Catherine is, however, able to tease out of the matrix of assembled and possibly unrelated data a couple of threads that send her off to investigate.

With a small but significant amount of help from Joe, Catherine finally tracks the killer down, but she is off her home turf, without backup, and in serious danger before she figures out the complete story. When Catherine realizes the new identity that the killer plans to assume, she is horrified, frightened and more determined than ever to try to stop the serial killing. Who survives this final struggle? Read Nightlife to find out.

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 24, 2007

Darkness, Take My Hand– a Review of the Detective Story/Murder Mystery by Dennis Lehane

I recently read and reviewed several books by Dennis Lehane, and, as part of the discussion, I referred to Lehane's outstanding and powerful Mystic River. With one slight bump in the road, I found my appreciation for these books growing rapidly. Darkness, Take My Hand (DTMH) is one of two extremely satisfying books I've enjoyed in the past week, courtesy of Mr. Lehane (one more review is in the works).

In DTMH, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro team up once again as private detectives working their old neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and any other parts of the Boston area that their cases call for. The chemistry between these childhood friends is consistently engaging, perhaps in part because their lives remain a confused tangle of old love and restrained desire.

This particular tale starts out with a brief childhood memory: we see Kenzie and his abusive, fireman father sharing some “quality time” at the scene of a fire, a memory that haunts Kenzie decades later. Then comes the Prologue to DTMH, where we find Kenzie, alone, on a Christmas Eve. The doors to the Kenzie-Gennaro agency are shut, forever, and Angie is nowhere to be found.

Kenzie is, in fact, very much alone, mostly abandoned by his friends and seemingly without work, uncharacteristically spending his time watching the news on TV, taking in the latest tragedies like the rest of the city, doing little or nothing beyond feeling depressed, feeling considerable pain, and wondering why life had gone off the rails. How did this crisis come to pass? What is the origin of this particular pain he feels? The key to the answers unfolds as reminiscences begin and we go back in time, to the start of Kenzie's trouble.

What we find is a complex story, full of misdirection, full of tragedy, full of horror and full of guilt. It is a story that starts in a near-contemporary setting and also ends near the present, but which connects to the distant past in unusual, sad and frightful ways.

From a reader’s perspective, the large cast of characters and the nonlinear, practically exponential way in which the truth unfolds are no cause for concern– this is a very tightly written, brilliantly plotted book. There is no bloat, and, though we read of horrific crimes that multiply and proliferate, the story has its feet on the ground: there is no reason to suspend much disbelief in order to forge ahead through Lehane’s masterpiece.

In some crime fiction which will remain unidentified, I am truly annoyed by the way that an outstanding cast, developed and painted with realism, ends up confronting a villain of comic book proportions. I find myself reading such novels to keep up with the fascinating or appealing main characters and their lives, but without much interest in what we might call “the evil genius of the month. In DTMH, there are no such problems. The increasingly familiar main characters, and the new characters we meet along the way, inhabit a world that is not our world, but it feels like all it might take is a little bad luck to bring us to the office of Kenzie-Gennaro Investigations, asking for help.

The bad guys we meet in DTMH, the worse guys, and the worst guys of all, have all grown organically from the mean streets of small, homogeneous, closed communities that appear like satellites, or something less celestial, around big cities. The innocent victims that we come across have grown up in these same places, as have those who long since shed their innocence, making whatever peace they can with the lines they constantly cross.

In DTMH, we find out a lot about crossing the lines of normal, decent and lawful behavior: how frequent the transgressions are for some, who can manage to transgress under duress, who enjoys it and seeks out transgression, who can’t cross the lines at all, and who can’t live with themselves after taking steps, even necessary steps, that leave the boundaries of humanity behind.

You'll want to know how the characters fair as they tour the different levels of Hell, willingly or not, that DTMH provides. The guide for these tours is neither the Moon and St. Christopher nor Cicero, though these thoughts started me musing and free associating on Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dante, Virgil, The Band, and Virgil Caine for some reason (relevant musical/cultural references given below). Perhaps Mr. Lehane's excellent use of music and musical tastes as both backdrops to his stories and a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff amongst characters started me off on these tangents. Perhaps it was his stealth use of classical themes as old as Western Civilization, if not older. Probably (c), "all of the above".

Shooting Straight in the Dark Mary Chapin Carpenter- a great album. The Moon and St. Christopher is not a song to miss.

Selected Works (Penguin Classics) Cicero, orator and statesman

The Inferno No comment needed

The Aeneid (Penguin Classics) Some of what Virgil did before he showed up in the Inferno

Rock of Ages The Band sings of Virgil Caine (live)

The Band The Band in the Studio with Virgil Caine

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Life more amazing than fiction

This is a brief follow-up to my set of three posts reviewing The Flanders Panel, Devil's Corner, and A Drink Before the War.

I happened to read the very last post in the series to my younger son last night- he is 13 and in 7th grade. He looked over my shoulder when I started reading and immediately said, "Is this like The Eight, because that was a really cool book." "What?", said I, "You read that? When?"
"Oh, I read it at the school library this year during comm arts (communication arts). I didn't bring it home because I thought I might lose it." He does tend to lose things. Anyway, I have to admit being stunned, and to exclaiming, "So you do read more than Stephen King! You were keeping this a secret?" I received the response I most deserved, "Gee, Dad, I guess I'll have to start giving you a list of everything I read." We immediately agreed that such oversight was unnecessary and undesirable. Anyway, it is a small thing, but in this world of video games, etc., I have to admit being truly excited to learn about this stealth reading.

Another brief comment: I have been working on my writing. In some cases this has involved re-writes of various posts, sometimes just a word or two, sometimes mixing and re-ordering thoughts into a new paragraph structure. I imagine that the RSS feed doesn't pick up on these edits (I wasn't subscribing to my own feed until this week for some reason, otherwise I would know). I suppose I should do a better job before I publish, the equivalent of looking before I leap, but I usually write in the middle of the night and my proofreading abilities are compromised. Reading the posts out loud later helps me locate parts for correction. If I were more patient, this all would be avoided, but I'm not. So, while there isn't much new content added, at the very least, late-adopters will see a slightly better writing style. If you read my review of The Flanders Panel but didn't see the note added later, at the very end, I suggest that you take a quick look: it encapsulates some of the amusement, pleasure and confusion that arise with translated fiction, a topic discussed on this site (search blog for translation), by Peter, and at Life in Translation, among other places.

Finally, after an unusual hiatus, I'm reading fiction again and just finished two more books in the Patrick/Angie series by Dennis Lehane. They were outstanding. Reviews to come soon, I hope.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philly- Part 3

The Flanders Panel (TFP) by Arturo Perez-Reverte was written by one of my favorite authors. I have read about 80% of his novels that have been translated into English. The writing is always outstanding. Unlike with many authors, these novels span genres, styles and subject matter, and have settings that are modern or historical, or both.

Chess plays a big role in TFP. Earlier this autumn I read and discussed Katherine Neville's cult classic, The Eight, in which the game of chess is also central to the story. TFP isn't a stuffy book by any means, however. We experience a world of Madrid's beauty, love and betrayal in distant the past and present, modern dance clubs and vices, art galleries, collectors and dealers, threatening businessmen, fast-living bums and studious academics. Oh, and plenty of murders that don't seem to make sense.

In TFP, first we meet Julia, a beautiful art restorer who is working on The Game of Chess, a painting from by the Flemish master Van Huys that needs some work before it can be auctioned. Julia has just received a set of X-ray photographs of the painting, and they reveal a surprising and startling secret. Underneath layers of paint, yet dating to the time of the original painting, is a Latin inscription visible only via the X-ray results:

Quis Necavit Equitem
The translation she immediately carries out yields "Who killed the knight?" It turns out that other slightly different translations are also possible, and perhaps valid.

Although "The Game of Chess" had been known for 500 years, and even hung in the Prado during the early part of the 20th century, the discovery of a hidden inscription has the chance to increase the painting's value greatly at auction, so the wolves start circling immediately. An auction is planned shortly in order to raise money for the once-patrician, and currently dysfunctional, family that owns the piece of art and history.

I like the idea of a place, Spain is this case, where a stunningly beautiful woman devotes herself to restoring and researching art and who has the background to read Latin with aplomb and write brilliant summaries and analyses of the provenance and authenticity of classical paintings. In such a place, I could perhaps live happily, maybe with a job as museum guard. Even though this seems like one idiot's version of paradise, the idiot being me, Julia is in for an extended patch of stormy weather. However, she may turn out to be one of the lucky inhabitants of this intriguing place where new and old worlds collide.

One of the pleasures of this book is the chess puzzles, the first of which is the puzzle left by the painter on the the canvas, one that does not require X-rays to be revealed. The painting shows a chess game between two men, a nobleman and a soldier, being played while a woman sits in the background reading a book. The whole scene is reflected in a mirror, and the floor tiles of the room represent the pattern of a chessboard. The actual chessboard used for the game is placed between the two male subjects, who are rendered precisely, as are all of the details of the room. The artist painted in an intricate style, and even the room's reflection in the mirror can be seen. The chess pieces and their placement on the board are clear, and the game has progressed quite far, though not very conventionally.

The first part of the puzzle is to work the painting's game in reverse and determine which piece took the white knight. Why? Because the painter seems to have constructed the entire painting to be a set of clues to a centuries-old murder. Julia solves this puzzle and its sad secrets with help from friends- an old family friend and a new recruit from a local chess club. The chess puzzles in the book are enhanced by pictures of chess boards, so you can try to work out the next (or previous) moves on your own.

However, while further researching the painting and its refractory inscription, odd events begin to occur around Julia, and several of her friends are murdered. It seems that she and her friends have to solve a new chess puzzle based on the game in the painting. The new puzzle is being set for them by some sort of deranged chess master, and it seems to encompass the lives and deaths of the painting's subjects and of Julia et al. The killer starts playing the painting's game forwards, and the taking of pieces corresponds to more murders. Anticipating the next move becomes a matter of life and death.

Will Julia survive? Is she the White Queen? Which of her friends are represented by the other pieces on the board? Which themes from Greek tragedy will play a prominent role? Perhaps the day be will be saved by Julia and an unlikely hero, an introverted chess master who never wins a game, but settles for showing his opponent that he could win if wanted to. At least this one time, settling for a moral victory could prove fatal. With all the confusion, possible betrayals, accelerating pace, and substantial odds against Julia's coterie, perhaps the game will will be lost. Read The Flanders Panel to find out.

Note added afterwards: I forgot to mention that I especially enjoyed reading that Julia listens to the music of Michael Edges! Mr. Hedges was never edgier.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 3, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philadelphia- Part 2

A Drink Before the War (ADBTW) is a tale of dirty politicians, drug wars, race relations (good and bad), and private eyes who operate outside the law with impunity. Add to this an unhealthy dose of behavior right out of a Greek play by Aeschylus and you have enough ammunition for a high-energy, high body count thriller. However, author Dennis Lehane doesn't stop there in his first novel about private detectives Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie. He takes on the problem of battered spouses, and he adds the baggage of growing up in a neighborhood where "hood" is the operative word, and the criminal in question may well be your Dad.

The good guys, the bad guys and the men, women and children who straddle the moral line come mostly from Irish, Italian, and African American ethnic groups that dominate various Boston neighborhoods. There is no correlation between socioeconomic status and moral character, though the poor and homeless beat the Statehouse crowd hands down when it comes to true character.

So, what is different about this book from all similar crime novels? The book differs in the way it addresses issues of race and class, head on, and pulls no punches. Some of the book touches raw nerves, but it does so by providing dialog and scenes that authentically portray how some black and white friends (and enemies) would discuss and argue and fight and make truces, or not make truces, depending on how far things had gone. Of course, this means that the book doesn't offer us any easy answers, or any answers at all, but with many of these issues, a whole a lot talking needs to go on before it will be possible for communities to agree on answers. ADBTW adds to the dialog and doesn't exploit the characters.

One additional subplot that rings true is the way that Kenzie, who has been in love with Gennaro since childhood, constantly subjects her to sexual harassment in the course of their professional partnership while simultaneously acting as avenging angel towards Gennaro's wife-beating husband. Patrick Kenzie isn't perfect, and he isn't a saint, and he still hangs out with old friends who are serious criminals, and he can barely control himself when it comes to Angie, and he doesn't have pat answers to serious problems facing society. On the other hand, with any matter not involving Angie, he does know right from wrong, if right and wrong can actually be identified. In this book, as in life, just identifying the right course of action can be difficult, and following it can cause considerable anguish, offering no reason for celebration once the final step is taken.

James K. Bashkin

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 30, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philadelphia- Part 1

I very recently read The Flanders Panel (TPF) by Arturo Perez-Reverte, A Drink Before the War (ADBTW) by Dennis Lehane and Devil's Corner (DC) by Lisa Scottoline (which I had read once before). On the surface, these books have very little in common. TPF is a literary thriller and murder mystery that spans 500 years, involves the game of chess and revolves around a Flemish painting being restored by a young woman in contemporary Spain. ADBTW marks the gritty debut of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, a team of private detectives from a working-class South Boston background who have stayed close to their roots. DC is a legal thriller about an upper-class Assistant U.S. Attorney who rolls up her sleeves to solve a murder in her father's old neighborhood; it has neither literary nor gritty pretensions, but offers an effective and entertaining story.

In spite of the genre differences, there are some threads that link the books, however. I read (actually re-read) DC because I needed a break from grittiness, and because I was frustrated that I couldn't remember the final twist to the plot. Vicki Allegretti is another Italian-American, Roman Catholic attorney from the Scottoline stable that numbers 12 or more novels. While the Scottoline protagonists are all women, they vary in a number of ways- some are working class, but Vicki grew up with all the advantages of a gated community, an Ivy League education and meddlesome parents who are both lawyers. The book offers a sober look at inner-city Philadelphia by reproducing transcripts from drug trials at the start of each major section. We read on the book's first page from the testimony of a someone who started dealing crack cocaine at age 13. The story itself opens with a nightmare of a night for Vicki: while trying to meet with a confidential informant (CI), Vicki walks in on an apparent robbery. Her colleague, an ATF agent, is killed and so is the CI.

Although this would seem to be a high-profile case, the outbreak of a (related) drug war pulls law enforcement resources in other directions and Vicki decides to investigate on her own. Vicki eventually forms a shaky alliance with the woman, Reheema Bristow, whom she was trying to prosecute, a young black woman who had supposedly bought firearms and then resold them to a criminal. The relationship between Vicki and Reheema starts off about as badly as possible. Not only does Vicki hold Reheema in custody (for a short while) after her only evidence died along with the CI, Vicki is so upset about the death of her partner Morty that she assaults Bristow in the Federal Building, with a public defender present.

Things get interesting when Vicki looks for Reheema's mother, trying to dig for facts about Reheema, and finds that the older Bristow is a drug addict living in the neighborhood where Vicki's father grew up, the tough streets of Devil's Corner. Snooping in the Bristow house and unaware that Reheema's mother has run of with her purse and cell phone, Vicki is surprised to find medals and photos of Raheema's career as a track athlete, supported by her mother, who poses with the team in one snapshot. Mrs. Bristow ends up being murdered that very night, and as Vicki continues to snoop, Reheema confronts her with a loaded gun. Antagonistic, but both wanting justice for Raheema's mother, the two young women slowly form a truce and then an alliance to investigate exactly what the heck is going on and why the police aren't following up on the cases. As the story progresses, the question of how this promising black schoolgirl and athlete became a tough criminal metamorphoses into the question, "Did she ever become a criminal?"

"Devils Corner" encompasses the subjects of decaying neighborhoods, police neglect, political corruption, the drug trade, the utter lack of regard for life that is found in sociopaths who inhabit all "classes" of society, and manages to toss in a love interest for Vicki that she sublimates by getter deeper and deeper into the mystery in a way that only Raheema's help could allow.

Needless to say, this book would not be mistaken for a Dennis Lehane novel or the script for an episode of The Wire. It treats difficult subjects head on, and with considerable detail, but the perspective and tone remain unashamedly rose-tinted under all but the worst of circumstances. Ms. Scottoline doesn't write to expose the rawest nerve endings of a city's lawless drug culture, but she does draw attention to serious problems, including race relations, while telling a good story. So, good for her. Some mornings I just don't feel like waking up to the booze-laden bad breath of Harry Bosch or John Rebus. Some nights I just don't feel like reading about the details of an evisceration, an autopsy or a the last living moments of some unfortunate victim of violent crime. Of course, the people who live out on the street don't get to choose where and when they encounter ugliness and depravity, so I'm very lucky. Nevertheless, only about 2% of my reading solution consists of books like DC.

ADBTW reminded me straight away, before I'd even opened the book, of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the early Matthew Scudder mystery by Lawrence Block, whose title is taken from the Dave Van Ronk song Last Call. At first, I mistakenly remembered the song title as "Closing Time". I liked that book so much that I spent about 5 years trying to find the van Ronk tune on CD (Going Back to Brooklyn). The CD was re-released in 2006, and when I finally played Van Ronk's tune, I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, the CD is so unremittingly bawdy that I didn't feel comfortable putting in on when my kids were around (and I still don't- they are 13 and 15). Anyway, do give Dave a listen- he combines jazz, blues, ragtime and folk, and sings in a way that a real Dylan fan can appreciate, but with wider appeal as well.

OK, back to an unremitting murder and mayhem. As you may have read, I had mixed feelings about Gone, Baby, Gone, the recent paperback volume in the Kenzie/Gennaro series. However, I felt the language and tone were excellent, it was the plot that just didn't ring true at the end. However, ADBTW stunned me: this book is a must read.

James K. Bashkin

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 9, 2007

Copyright replaced by Creative Commons License (CC)

I have added a Creative Commons license to the blog template under Creative Commons 3.0. This open source and nonprofit licensing collaboration has provided what our respective governments typically have not- a rational approach to licensing. For a great explanation, see Cory Doctorow's article. I'd like to thank my friend George Lenard, employment law blogger extraordinaire, for first alerting me to Creative Commons, its importance and relevance. My photographs have been under Creative Commons for some time now. I'll update the blog to replace or remove all of the traditional copyright symbols and claims.

This change is in part due to the tremendous response to my blog, for which I am grateful, to my feeling the need to share things appropriately, and to my growing appreciation of the Open Source and Publishing movement in its various forms.


Sphere: Related Content

Monday, November 5, 2007

Evil on the loose in Boston, Southie, Dorchester, Charlestown

Well, I just finished my first book in a while and it isn't one of those I said I was reading. I was reading them, and still am. I've mainly been writing and reading for my environmental blog. I just took a detour into crime fiction as a breather. Boy, was that relaxing.

So, I read Gone Baby Gone (GBG) by Dennis Lehane. Why I spelled Mr. Lehane's name wrong at first, I have no idea, but my apologies for the extra "n". I guess this is one of the dangers of blogging/proofreading late at night. On the other hand, I know I have corrected the spelling of "the" (from "teh") at least four times in the same spot on this page, and the typo keeps coming back! I probably need to collaborate with a professional. See Peter and Frances for examples of how a blog should be written.

Back to the book, Gone, Baby, Gone (Harper Fiction): yes, I'm the guy who typically can't handle books about kids as victims. So, maybe this wasn't a great choice. It starts with the disappearance of a child, and several more children disappear in the course of the story.

I had already read Mystic River, which I thought was excellent, though emotionally draining to the point where I had no desire to see the movie and go through it all over again. I was impressed with the writing then and still was with GBG.

Still, I can't say that GBG really worked for me as a complete book. It was like a rock song or classical music piece with many false endings that picked up again with a new theme just when I thought it was time for intermission (cheese cake and coffee in St. Louis at the symphony, beer at the rock concerts). I can be completely engrossed by conspiracies (take my loyalty and fascination with the TV show Damages, or the million or so espionage books I've read), but here, in GBG, the confluence of events and a profusion of parallel but largely unrelated plots, ones that linked up only from time to time, required too much of a stretch for me to be comfortable. I enjoyed the characters and the language very much, though I didn't find the ending "in character", the ending where Patrick, who has allowed himself to be judge and executioner in the past, suddenly has to follow "the book" and the law because he can't judge.

One odd coincidence (of the type I wasn't buying in the book) is that I was going through my digital photos of family trips and I had a bunch of photos of the exact area where much of the story took place (though from a distance). So I've added some of those here- Charlestown naval yard, Bunker Hill monument, and what used to be a legitimate part of Southie (I think), before warehouses were razed and the new convention center was built. It all looks so harmless it the mid-day, summer sunlight. Who'd have thought ...

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

Pictures by James K. Bashkin, some rights reserved, used by the photographer:


P6210558 USS Constitution and Bunker Hill monument

P6210554 USS Constitution in Boston Harbor

P6210553 WWII ship in Naval Yard at Charlestown in Boston Harbor

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Carnival of Bookworms: books that keep you up at night

The October carnival of bookworms just came out today- it highlights blogs on books, readers and writers and has a Halloween-related theme: books that keep you up at night. Thanks to Kirsten for hosting this traveling carnival. Kirsten says:

I'm so thrilled by the range of titles represented in the reviews submitted for this carnival. There are classics like Dracula, Beowulf, and Northanger Abbey. There are books that I consider new classics like Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel, The Historian, and The Handmaid's Tale. I'm excited that there are children's and young adult books represented in this carnival and really enjoyed reading both the author interview and the book excerpt. My to-read list has definitely grown and I hope yours will too! So, without further ado, here are Thrills and Chills: Spooky Books That Keep You Up at Night:

Sphere: Related Content

Please Read About the Environment Today

On blog action day, Oct 15, 2007, I encourage you to read about the environment. More than that, I encourage you to read articles that you do not agree with, or think you do not agree with. Challenge yourself to think from a fresh perspective, don't just inhabit familiar and safe territory. Only by understanding all sides of the discussion, at least at some level, can we make informed choices.

Science isn't a religion (at least in the normal sense), and if ideas can't hold up to scrutiny, they should be rejected. Of course, some contradictory arguments sound very convincing, but force of rhetoric is irrelevant to scientific argument in the long run, so let's not get trapped by rhetoric in the short term.

Express yourself by taking the multiple choice poll on the right, where you can give multiple answers (if you can see it- mine keeps becoming a comic book ad). Please see more on discussion, disagreement and trustworthiness of sources at my sister blogs: Chemistry for a sustainable world and my world headlines blog Thanks! Jim

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where did I go? "Remember, no matter where you go, there you are."

Housekeeping (but not vs. the Dirt) and with continued apologies to Nick Hornby: In addition to falling behind with my reviews, I have changed my photo, as regular readers might noticed. My wife felt that the old photo represented a much younger me, so in the interest of "truth in advertising", a more recent pic has been swapped in. I'm the one on the left.

I have been writing a moderate amount on my environmental blog,, though I wish there was more good news to report or discuss. That writing, plus writing for work, has inflamed tendinitis in my right thumb, so it's a good thing I'm not hitchhiking anywhere these days. It's always the mouse that does me in. Do you have similar issues?

Politics: my local State Representative, Democrat Maria Chapelle-Nadal, is up for re-election. Maria has been a tireless supporter of the arts, education, social services, and logic.

Please note that this is unsolicited and unpaid advertising for Maria, and I receive no compensation of any kind: there are prizes for top individual fund-raisers, but I have asked not to be considered for one. If you wish to make a contribution, the following is important:

Individual contributions may exceed what is considered a small donation (usually under $100), but are limited to a $325 maximum for each individual contributor under state law. Checks should indicate your profession and employer (this guards against corporations making stealth contributions via their employees).
Mail Contributions to:
Citizens for Maria Chappelle-Nadal
7133 Dartmouth Ave.
University City, MO 63130

Books and Music. The latest issue of The Believer is an excellent read, as expected. See also the Oxford American's music issue (I always enjoy these): read about jazz genius Thelonius Monk and much more, including:
"Sean Wilentz tells the story of Bob Dylan's all-night recording session in Nashville for Blonde on Blonde".
Added later in the day: for more on T. Monk and his Southern roots, see NPR. Monk is responsible for some of the quirkiest, most original and sometimes humorous jazz compositions.

p.s. That's Oxford, Mississippi, a literary center in the US, for you Oxonians and Cantabrigians (and Cantabridgians, for that matter) in the crowd.

I'm interested to hear more about readers' favorite music references in fiction. Any comments?

The title quote is, of course, from that modern classic:
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

One Woman Show! Sandra Tsing Loh, Master of All Media

Since I offered no graphical evidence to back up some of my last post, I thought I would add a few relevant gems about the poly-talent, Sandra Tsing Loh. As her 2006 bio indicates,

She has been a regular commentator on NPR’s "Morning Edition" and on Ira Glass’ "This American Life." Currently, KPCC (89.3 FM in Los Angeles) broadcasts her daily segment The Loh Down on Science and her weekly segment The Loh Life. American Public Media’s "Marketplace" broadcasts her monthly segment The Loh Down. She is currently a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly and was a 2006 finalist for the National Magazine Award.
Living in the environs of Los Angeles, Loh has so far inexplicably resisted launching the much- requested basketball commentary, "The Loh Post". Or is this refusal linked to the retirement of Magic, James, Kareem, Jamaal and Michael? Will we ever know the real truth? Perhaps only the NSA knows for sure.

Nevertheless, it should be clear by now that, with Sandra Tsing Loh, we see that rarest of all artists, an original with pen and piano, stage and studio, microphone and monthly magazine, and even science.

Ms. Loh's meteoric rise from famous performance artist to "master of all media" has not been without its occasional impact crater. Well, perhaps just the one, but it generated a shockwave powerful enough to open a new fault line in the general manager's office of one LA public radio station- a process documented by noted National Review columnist Catherine Seipp. Did I just plug a right-wing writer? If so, only because even The Right is sometimes, well, right.

I look forward to all of your comments, as usual! I'm afraid I'm going backwards with regard to finishing the previously mentioned "books in progress", having been inspired by the blog listed on MetaxuCafe to re-start Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Additional key links:
Depth Takes a Holiday
If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now
Aliens in America
A Year in Van Nuys

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Books I'm reading and thinking about- murder included

A Year in Van Nuys, Depth Takes a Holiday and If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now, all by Sandra Tsing Loh (read years ago and greatly enjoyed- discussed recently with friends). Loh is a multi-instrumentalist who has performed on piano (see LA freeway performance art), vocals (hear her commentary on public radio shows, including Marketplace: The Loh-Down) and typewriter.*

Murder Duet: A Musical Case by Batya Gur (thinking about, read and enjoyed years ago, want to write about it but can't review this one without going through it again- a fine, complex mystery).

A Perfect Arrangement by Suzanne Berne (read recently and enjoyed, will review, suburbia gets the creeps, and maybe more!)

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (read recently, a richly developed novel of mystery, murder and families, not necessarily in that order, review on its way).

The Innocent and Death of an Englishman, by the late Magdalen Nabb, read recently. These are wonderful mysteries, though The Innocent is a tragic tale, if tempered by the joyously deep understanding and love of his people, and the quirky pragmatism, of the Florentine Marshall Guarnaccia. This has been much in my mind because a note from Cara Black really personalized the loss of this wonderful author, as did the fact that my late father and mother met in Florence.

Chronicles by Bob Dylan. I'm savoring this one- reading it remarkably slowly. I just don't want it to end. I almost never read slowly, though sometimes I read over decades. A few of Lawrence Durrell's books fit in that category, for example, but in those cases the writing reminds me of traveling through Norway: each page is so beautifully written, each sentence is such a gem, that wherever you are, there is no great hurry to go anywhere else. I've been discussing (with friends again) the Dylan-related book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, by David Hajdu, which I thoroughly enjoyed (in spite of the bad review by Greil Marcus, whose own books I also enjoy, but I felt this review of his was done poorly). Somehow I can't get over the fact that my wife was growing up in Chelsea Massachusetts and going to the beach right when and where Bob and Joan where picnicking (well, we haven't established actual simultaneity, but the year was the same).

The Chekhov short stories and literary crit. on Wilkie Collins mentioned in previous posts: both still in progress, both well worth it.

My Strange Quest for Mensonge: Structuralism's Hidden Hero (MSQFM) by Malcolm Bradbury. I have the oddest feeling that I somehow incorporated the entire text of this book into my memory of Dr. Criminale, also by Bradbury, so that my review of Criminale is really a review of a composite of the two books. This will require some research (or helpful feedback!!??). MSQFM is the postmodern novel that really makes an art of the wild goose chase.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the book that helped spawn the environmental movement. I've been thinking about this because of the smear campaign being perpetrated against the memory of Rachel Carson by anti-environmentalists.

No musicology.

Amazingly, I can locate every single book mentioned on this page. In my house. Now.

I'll track down and add links and pictures later. Comments are welcome!

*Sandra is the sister of a very dear friend.

Added late: almost forgot that I just started The Vice-Consul by Marguerite Duras.

Added later: I've frequently found myself discussing The Emperor of Ocean Park (TEoOP) by Stephen L. Carter (a first novel for the acclaimed legal scholar). TEoOP is one of my favorite books of recent years because, while an excellent (if not absolutely perfect) mystery, it has also set me thinking a lot about race relations, white liberals (that would be me), African Americans and the Black church(es). Carter's protagonist makes some intriguing remarks on the subject, remarks that I suspect are rooted in truth. More to come.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content