Thursday, August 31, 2006

Resurrection Row, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1981: fourth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

“Accompanying his wife home from Gilbert and Sullivan's latest diversion, Inspector Pitt makes the exceedingly unpleasant discovery of the body of a cabbie – a discovery made even more unpleasant by the fact that the man has been buried and unearthed, and that he is not after all a cabbie, but apparently one Lord Augustus Fitzroy-Hammond Resurof number 12 Gadstone Park, London. The outrage is kept as quiet as possible, and the peer is reburied soon afterward.

“Yet when, beyond all imagination, the man is found unearthed again, Pitt is forced to reconsider the course of his investigation. Who would continue this senseless atrocity, and for what reason? As the gruesome series of grave-robbings takes a new and even more macabre turn, Pitt is brought time and time again back to Gadstone Park, an elegant street that begins to reveal ever clearer glimpses of a most inelegant secret.”

Review:

Worthy fourth entry in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery series. Author Perry injects enough plot and character variations in Resurrection Row to set it apart from earlier Pitt novels. The tone is lighter than the first three books. There's also less emphasis on the ongoing “hypocritical rich folks hiding secrets” element that makes up the thematic backbone of the series.

Not only that, Emily and George Ashworth, Charlotte's sister and brother-in-law, are barely mentioned in Resurrection Row, aside from one character's noting of their son, Edward, who was born less than a year before – shortly after the finish of the last Pitt mystery, Paragon Walk.

George's Great-Aunt Vespasia, a seventy-year old upper class woman with few pretensions and a long memory regarding her less-forthright neighbors, fills the character void left by Emily and George. Vespasia, introduced in Paragon Walk, was a notable character in that book, but in Resurrection Row, she's essential to the plot.

Another past character, Dominic Corde, Charlotte's widowman ex-brother-in-law (from The Cater Street Hangman), reappears. Corde, who rattles Thomas (given Charlotte's past, schoolgirl infatuation with Corde), provides an additional, welcome tension to the plot.

The true villains of the book – whom may or may not have anything to do with the grave-robbings – are easily spotted, but it was more a matter of form on my part, not a failure of cleverness on author Perry's.

Followed by Rutland Place.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Friday the 13th: Carnival of Maniacs, by Stephen Hand

(pb; 2006)

From the back cover:

“After twenty-five years Pamela Voorhees is back and she's ready to join her son in a rampage of murder. Only Jason is not at home anymore; he's the main attraction in a traveling sideshow. Pamela will stop at nothing to bring Jason back to Crystal Lake, but she had better hurry, because someone at the sideshow is planning to sell Jason's body on an Internet auction site! Who would be crazy enough to want Jason in their own home? Will the FBI step in and put Jason away before the final bid?”

Review:

Jason and Pamela Voorhees (Jason's mother, decapitated at the end of the first Friday the 13th film) – working separately, but psychically linked – go on homicidal wildings when Pamela's head is discovered by a trio of adolescent goths; simultaneously (and coincidentally) Jason's nearby lifeless body is dug up by two tourist-murdering, cannibalistic hillbillies.

Pamela's hatred of procreating camp counselors (two of whom let her beloved Jason drown, in 1957) has sustained her ghost, which allows her to possess the living, resulting in a psychotic quest for her son, who's sporadically engaged in his own kill-fests, when certain situations – which I won't reveal here, but it's really plot-lame – allow.

Author Hand is a good writer. There are many flashes of sanguineous-apt wordplay, an impressive focus on all the elements (characters, history, murders) that make up the eleven Friday films – Hand even references the future set-in-outer-space Jason X. Not only that, Hand saturates the original novel's characters and slaughter-ramas (not all of them committed by Jason or Pamela) with a gleefully sleazy and appropriately cheesy jeu d'esprit. Some cool plot-twists, not completely predictable, also grace the trashy narrative, and the novel's title is fitting.

However, this is strictly slash n' hack work. Hand does the Jersey-based series as much as justice as he can, but its plot-thin, film-based elements ultimately sink it, though not as quickly as a certain fictional retarded kid sank, in a flashback 1957.

An obvious guilty pleasure, this: as a Jason fan, I'm glad I read it. Wouldn't want to own it, wouldn't re-read it, but it did turn me onto author Stephen Hand (whose non-Friday novels I may check out), and it did turn me on to other Friday novels (put out by the same publisher, Black Flame Publications ). These books are: Hell Lake, by Paul A. Woods; Hate-Kill-Repeat, by Jason Arnopp; The Jason Strain, by Christina Faust; and my titular favorite, Church of the Divine Psychopath, by Scott Phillips (which I may just read).

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

(hb; 2002)

From the inside flap:

“In Coraline's family's new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close. The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

“Only it's different...

“At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there's another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

“Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself...”

Review:

Author Gaiman has created a stunning children's book – possibly one of my instant all-time favorites – with Coraline. It's full of childish whimsy, nightmarish (but not too nightmarish) corollaries, excitement and memorable characters, like the “crazy old man upstairs” and his mouse circus, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (spinster-former actresses who live downstairs), a sarcastic black cat, and her “other” parents (who ooze black-button-eyed creepiness).

This is a lean read, with deadpan-funny lines, inspired descriptions, and riveting situations.

#

The animated film version is scheduled for stateside release on February 6, 2009.

Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline. Dawn French voices Miss Spink; Teri Hatcher, Coraline's Mother/Other Mother. Keith David voices The Cat. Ian McShane voices Mr. Bobinsky. Jennifer Saunders voices Miss Forcible.

Henry Selick, who co-wrote the film, is set to co-direct.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Carpe Demon, by Julie Kenner

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

“Lots of women put their careers aside once the kids come along. Kate Connor, for instance, hasn't hunted a demon in ages...

“That must be why she missed the one wandering through the pet food aisle of the San Diablo Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, he managed to catch her attention an hour later – when he crashed into the Connor house, intent on killing her.

“Now Kate has to clean up the mess in her kitchen, dispose of a dead demon, and pull together a dinner party that will get her husband elected to County Attorney – all without arousing her family's suspicion. Worse yet, it seems the dead demon didn't come alone..."

Review:

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) plus Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) equals Carpe Demon.

Predictable, quip-filled and breezy PG-13 read, this: an amusing diversion to pass the hours away with, whether you're sunning at the beach, or moonlighting in a graveyard.

To author Kenner's credit, her characters are interesting and full of (serial) promise, and the situations, while familiar, have a natural semi-spiky suburban sense of humor, one that maintains a PG-13 rating, but hints at R-rated underpinnings.

Don't expect greatness, just enjoy it for the light-hearted entertainment that it is.

Followed by California Demon.

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

(pb; 1969: second book in the Dune Chronicles)

Review

Twelve years have passed since the battle of Arrakeen (Arrakis), the climactic battle in Dune. Paul Atreides, now called Paul Muad'dib (among other things), rules the Fremen empire through a political marriage to Irulan Corrino (daughter of deposed Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV) – she's a “Princess Consort,” not an Empress – and his tight control of the spice.

Paul's empire is a troubled one, largely because of political infighting between the Bene Gesserit (still smarting from their Kwisatz Haderach backfire), the Spice Guild (who resent Paul's control over the spice, which allows them to travel through, or “fold,” space), and the Tleilaxians (who can change physical form, and manipulate genetic technology).

And now the aforementioned political groups have secretly come together, with the aid of a certain Princess Consort.

A more personal issue haunts Paul. His beloved Fremen consort, Chani, who fought beside him in Dune, is unable to bear the children they want. They are not the only ones who want children; so does Irulan, whose desire is purely political, untempered by love.

Cruel, heart-breaking ironies and intentions dictate the tone and events of Dune Messiah, which is notably shorter than its source novel. The intellectual warmth is still there, with familiar characters mingling with new characters in an interesting fashion. (One of the most fascinating characters is Hayt, a Tleilaxu ghola – a cyborg made from the original flesh and memories of its source person, in this case loyal Atreides follower Duncan Idaho – who's been sent to destroy Paul.)

This is a worthwhile read, followed by Children of Dune.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jackal, by John Follain

(hb; 1998: biography)

From the inside flap:

“On an August night in 1994 French counterespionage officers seized the world's most-wanted terrorist from a villa in the Sudan. After more than two decades on the run, Carlos 'the Jackal' had finally been caged. For years he had murdered and bombed his way to notoriety, evading capture thanks to powerful backers and the blunders of Western secret services. Jackal is the definitive biography of this self-proclaimed 'professional revolutionary,' ladies' man, and cold-blooded killer. Setting his story against the larger political picture of the time, it exposes how the Soviet bloc and certain Arab regimes sponsored terrorist actions for their own ends during the Cold War.

The tale of Carlos's exploits, including his most daring coup – the kidnapping of eleven OPEC oil ministers in Vienna in 1975 – crackles with suspense, deception, and violence to rival the best-selling fiction of Le Carre and Forsyth. Tracing Carlos's evolution from his childhood in Venezuela to London, Moscow, Paris, East Berlin, and the Middle East, Jackal uses previously untapped sources, including the archives of the East German secret police and the files of France's judicial investigations into Carlos's crimes, to tell his fully story for the first time.

Jackal reveals the web of intrigue, blackmail, and fear that guaranteed Carlos's survival, the helping hand of Colonel Qadhafi, and the true nature of the 'Kremlin Connections.' John Follain shows how the CIA and French intelligence issues their agents a license to kill in their efforts to stop Carlos; how his bravado, combined with events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, forced him out of the Communist fold; and how betrayal and revenge sealed in a secret pact between France and his masters brought about his downfall...”

Review:

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, born October 12, 1949, in Caracas, Venezuela, became famous in 1975 when a reporter, investigating a Rue Toullier apartment (where Sanchez had lived, and later shot three cops, killing two, wounding the third), noticed one of the novels sitting on a bookshelf: Frederick Forsyth's 1971 thriller, The Day of the Jackal. Sanchez had already been using the nom de guerre Carlos, as suggested by one of Palestinian employers, since 1970, but it wasn't until that 1975 attack that Ramirez became known to international security services, and the public as “Carlos the Jackal,” as he was named by that sharp reporter.

Carlos's career as a “revolutionary” officially began in December 1973, when he bungled the ordered assassination of Joseph Edward Sieff, a prominent London Jewish businessman – Sieff was wounded, but survived. Prior to that, Carlos, son of a revolution-minded father and an intensely Catholic mother, had spent a year or two in Palestinian training camps, learning how to build bombs, use various guns, and utilize psychological terror.

Follain's succinct yet descriptive writing and characterizations of the events and players in Carlos's life keeps the true-life tale moving along briskly. Near the end, the pace slows a bit as the author reveals details about Carlos's trial (which focused on the infamous 1975 Rue Toullier shootings), but it's still semi-interesting.

Worthwhile read, especially if you're fans of Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy (Ludlum's Carlos, though notably fictionalized, still bears a faint thematic resemblance to the real-life Carlos), or Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Werewolf, by Peter Rubie

(pb; 1991)

From the back cover:

“Something is prowling the streets of World War II London. It goes hunting during the fires and turmoil of the Blitz when most people are dodging Nazi bombs. But this creature isn't deterred by the destruction or the carnage. As its victims start turning up shredded and gnawed, the East End community of Smiths Common become terrified of what might be preying on them. Only the gypsies will give it a name: werewolf.

“Detective Sergeant George Llewellyn's assignment is to restore order to the chaos of the war, and solve a series of brutal child slayings. A victim of his own abuse, Llewellyn is disturbed by the killings. As the pieces of the case begin to come together, he is forced to confront his own rage and fears, something he must do before he can stop the ravages of war and the beast...”

Review:

This intimate gem of a horror novel gripped me from its first word to its last, with its intense focus on character (each character, particularly the leads, read like real, multi-dimensional people), mood – much of it grim, given the death and destruction brought about both by werewolf and German bombs – and violence, which is grisly, while reflecting the personalities of those inflicting it (German bombs notwithstanding).

Memorably great lycanthropic read. If I ever abandon short story writing for novel writing, I hope my work is this intense and character-true.

Among The Missing, by Dan Chaon

(pb; 2001: story anthology)

Overall review:

Chaon captures well the emotional fragilities and curious minitiae of his characters' lives and surroundings; there's a quiet, underlying confidence to the writing, though a few of the stories come off as half-baked, with limp endings that just don't work.

Recommended, with the aforementioned reservations.

Review, story by story:

Safety Man”: Sandi, a widow, struggles to deal with her husband's recent death, and the fears it raises within her. Her semi-disconnection from the world around her (she's steady, functional in daily life) is reflected in the emotionally-removed tone and exact language of the piece. Solid, this.

I Demand To Know Where You're Taking Me”: Decent tale about a woman who's offended by the foul-mouthed presence of her brother-in-law's macaw (her brother-in-law is in jail, convicted of rape). The ending, while not completely abstract, is too oblique and inconsequential to be effective.

Big Me”: Strange, warm-fuzzy entry about an imaginative child who grows up to be an imaginative man. Reminiscent, tone-wise, of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird in some spots.

Prodigal”: A young father ruminates on the dark and sometimes sentimental intricacies of the parent-child relationship, and the vagaries of perception that develop over time. Tragic, introspective and insightful: one of my favorite stories in this collection.

Passengers, Remain Calm”: A man (Hollis) tries to fill the void left by his supposedly more-reliable brother (Wayne) when Wayne disappeared, leaving behind an eight-year old son (F.D.) and a wife (Jill). Focused on F.D. And Hollis's relationship, this is another introspective dream-piece, exploring the notions of self, and one's role in the world. Sublime pleasure, this.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom”: Half-baked tale about a sperm donor who ponders possible children he might have fathered, and what appears to be an otherwise empty life. A vague, unsatisfying ending further ruins the tale.

Among the Missing”: A suicide-murder prompts a man (Sean) to wonder about his mother's suppressed inner life, certain family traumas, and the nature of relationships between the sexes. Masterful pseudo-twist finish. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

Prosthesis”: A woman considers alternate lives and other lovers she might have known, had she not wound up with her real-life husband. Her alternate thoughts are salted with memories of another real-life ex-lover as well. Beautifully emotive and prose-transcendent, it's marred by an abrupt, ambiguous (and thrill-less) denouement.

Here's A Little Something To Remember Me By”: Decent, semi-creepy tale about a man (Tom) who's forced to constantly remember a childhood friend (Ricky), who disappeared when they were fourteen years old. Predictable, disturbing (it deals with sexual perversion), with an effective title that's meaning-laden.

Late For The Wedding”: Trent, a bartender in his mid-twenties, is living with Dorrie, who was once his college instructor (before he dropped out). Now, her raw-humored son (David), who's a couple of years younger than Trent, is coming to visit, and it's stressing Trent and Dorrie out – will their affair survive David's visit?

Solid work, that builds towards an equally-solid, if expected, finish.

Falling Backwards”: An emotionally-distant woman's life is viewed in an episodic, first-person narrative from age forty-nine to age seven. Good story, with an ending that simultaneously foreshadows and looks back.

Burn With Me”: A young punk rocker and his forty-two year old father revisit the father's hometown, and relatives who live there. The writing, as always, is solid, but the tale runs longer than it should.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, by Simon Reynolds

(pb; 2005: non-fiction)

Review:

Landmark book – there aren't many non-fiction books covering this musical era with such singular focus – about the musical genre largely spawned by the Sex Pistols' implosion, as well as the industrial squalor of England's lower classes. Reynolds covers many bands, including PiL (John Lydon's post-Pistols musical endeavor), Warsaw (who later became Joy Division, and even later, The New Order), The Talking Heads, Culture Club, The Residents, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the New York Dolls, Depeche Mode, and other bands, and how they got together, became well-known, and influenced (or became stars on) MTV in the early 80's.

Appropriately, little mention is given to the larger rock bands of the era (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, et cetera), but one thing I found annoying was that Reynolds defends bands like Scritti Politti and Dead or Alive, who obviously were “sell-out” bands, yet criticizes Floyd and Zeppelin for the same characteristic (becoming popular).

Also, Reynolds neglects key bands like The Cure (they literally get a line or two), Shriekback (featuring members of XTC and Gang of Four), The Residents and others, who had more influence than Reynolds gives them credit for.

Flawed as it is, Rip It Up, for the most part, graphically represents and overviews that six-year pop-culture period in colorful and confident language. The breadth and fervency of Reynolds' prose makes for an often-invigorating read.

On a related note, for those who are into that era of music, there's an interesting film that centers around the bands The New Order and The Happy Mondays (whose lead singer, Shaun Ryder, later formed his post-prison group, Black Grape): 24 Hour Party People (2002).

Paragon Walk, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1981: third book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

“The third in a series of delightful Victorian mysteries, Paragon Walk once again pits the highly unconventional detective team of Charlotte Ellison Pitt, a young woman who shocked her proper upper-class family by marrying far beneath their level, and her husband, a police inspector, against an unpleasant and baffling crime. In the posh London Street of Paragon Walk, where Charlotte's sister Emily, Lady Ashworth, lives in well-mannered splendor, an unspeakable crime has occurred: a young woman has been brutally raped and murdered.

“As Inspector Pitt attacks the mystery through the front doors of the indignant households on Paragon Walk, Charlotte, with Emily's help, undertakes her own investigation inside the polite, subtly charged world of formal calls, soirees, and garden parties. As the elegant masks of the well-born suspects begin to slip under this combined scrutiny, it becomes appallingly clear that something very ugly lurks behind the handsome facades of Paragon Walk – something that well lead to still more scandal and murder.”

Review:

Paragon Walk has a business-as-usual feel, with a few minor plot variations, but otherwise it's not much different than the two previous Pitt novels. This is offered as a fact, not a criticism, for the third novel is as strong as The Cater Street Hangman and Callander Square.

Thomas and Charlotte now have a daughter, Jemima, who's one and a half years old – the same amount of time that's passed since the last mystery. Emily is pregnant, just as her socially-smart marriage to George is hitting a rough patch. New, possibly more disturbing, elements have entered the murder scenario, also, chief among them rape.

Perry's well-mined theme of facade-busting and nasty not-so-little secrets is explored again, so in that regard, it seems that Perry's found herself a comfortable writing groove, one that doesn't seem to challenge her, or her regular readers.

It's a recommendable read, however, as Perry is a dependably excellent writer, with an ear for incisive wit, murderous impulses and clever love. The ending is impressively Gothic and cliff-hanger-ish, and the killer isn't easily figured out, at least not early on.

Followed by Resurrection Row

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

(hb; 1959, 1998)

From the inside flap:

The Rum Diary was begun in 1959 by a then-twenty-two year old Hunter S. Thompson. It was his first novel, and he told his friend, the author William Kennedy, that The Rum Diary would 'in a twisted way... do for San Juan what Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises did for Paris.' In Paul Kemp, the novel's hero, there are echoes of young Thompson, who was himself honing his wildly musical writing style as one of the 'ill-tempered wandering rabble' on the staff at the San Juan Daily News at the time. 'I shared a dark suspicion,' Kemp says, 'that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles –a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.'

The Rum Diary is a brilliantly tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcohol lust in the Caribbean boomtown that was San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. 'It was a gold rush,' says the author. 'There were naked people everywhere and we had credit.'

“Puerto Rico was an unspoiled tropical paradise in those days – before Castro, before JFK, before civil rights and moonwalks and even before drugs – but the San Juan Daily News was a vortex and a snakepit of all the new corrupt schemes and plots and greedmongers who swarmed in...”

Review:

Paul Kemp, a thirty-two year-old, itinerant journalist, winds up in San Juan, a small island town, where there's little to do but get drunk, get laid, and find new ways to work within a commercially corrupt system.

The “gonzo” element – the chemical-fueled insane asides that would predominate Thompson's later writings – is subdued by the pervasive cynicism of most of the characters, all of them alcohol-, sex- or money-mad (or all three). It's bleakly amusing, at times a sorrowful novel, especially when Kemp looks back on what he views as his wasted life, careering in a futile career, while the world goes to exploitative hell.

Kemp is further unquieted by the presence of Chenault, a beautiful, nature-friendly Connecticut girl, who awakens unwanted desires within him, even as she cavorts (often half-naked) with one of his drinking buddies, Yeamon, a wild-tempered, fist-throwing fellow journalist.

Engaging novel, this. Reading this felt like spending a few months in a seedy island town with a charming if tired friend, as Thompson's images and language are indelible and delectable (in a black-funny way).



The film version is set to be released in 2011.

Johnny Depp is set to play Paul Kemp. Amber Heard is set to play Chenault. Aaron Eckhardt is set to play Sanderson. Richard Jenkins is set to play Lotterman. Michael Rispoli is set to play Bob Sala.

Bruce Robinson, who penned the film's script, is directing.

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

Haunted... is made up of stories: twenty-three of the most horrifying, hilarious, mind-blowing, stomach-churning tale you'll ever encounter – sometimes all at once. They are told by people who have answered an ad headlined 'Writer's Retreat: Abandon Your Life for Three Months,' and who are led to believe that here they will leave behind all the distractions of 'real life' that are keeping them from creating the masterpiece that is in them. But 'here' turns out to be a cavernous and ornate old theater where they are utterly isolated from the outside world – and where heat and power and, most important, food are increasingly short supply. And the more desperate the circumstances become, the more extreme the stories they tell – and the more devious their machinations become to make themselves the hero of the inevitable play/movie/nonfiction blockbuster that will surely be made from their plight...”

Review:

Twenty-three writers with troubling, often foul, secrets are brought together to what they think is a writer's retreat, only to discover that they're in a Lord of the Flies situation (largely exacerbated by their own intentional acts of sabotage). Brought together, manipulated and dominated by Brandon Whittier, who may be the most foul of them all, the writers write what might be their “masterpiece” tales, all of which are autobiographical; many of these tales are nasty enough to make easily-queasy readers lose their lunches (as some listeners did during Palahniuk's Haunted book-tour readings, particularly during the Saint Gut-Free pool masturbation scene).

Echoes of Palahniuk's earlier novels appear: Lullaby, which had a malevolent Earth-First hippie named Oyster in it – there's a passing mention of boy named Oyster in Haunted; also, there's a vaguely Fight Club-ish element in one of the writers' tales.

Your typical Palahniuk novel, this, with an ongoing fascination for bodily functions and fluids, fractured stories making up its structure, plenty of ghoulish cleverness, and an end-twist so out there I sat upright and nearly yelled, “What the f***?”

Recommended, for those with strong constitutions and a really dark sense of humor.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Gargantuan, by Maggie Estep

(pb; 2004)

From the back cover:

“Ruby’s life is nothing if not complicated: she’s spending a lot of her time worrying about a jockey named Attila Johnson; a good-hearted Teamster with a bad back; a neighbor who’s suspicious of anything that moves; one very fat cat who craves raw meat; a missing FBI agent; an underused piano; a few fine horses – and the sure knowledge that somehow, somewhere, there’s a killer among them.”

Review:

The second Ruby Murphy mystery maintains much of the joy of its predecessor, Hex. Most of the characters are charming, believable and eccentric, save one, the villain, who comes off as simple – and simplistically rendered. The black-witted, zesty story moves along quickly.

Most mysteries read on one level, as they're generally focused on corpses, clues and suspects. Estep’s use of alternating first-person POVs for each chapter eschews that traditional mystery structure, putting focus on the characters, and their mostly-pullulating personalities. Because of this, Gargantuan moves beyond its mystery-genre limitations.

This is also the reason why Gargantuan fails as a mystery. Estep’s emphasis on the characters not only fleshes out the traditional mystery structure, it makes the “mystery” element a less-than-mysterious afterthought. This flaw is exacerbated by the fact that Estep reveals the lead pseudo-villain in the first quarter of the novel.

Read as fiction, this is more than worthwhile, with Estep's understated quirkiness suffusing the prose with a life it might otherwise lack.

Followed by Flamethrower.

The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, by Robert Beck

(pb; 1971: biography)

Review:

Pimp-turned-author Robert Beck (aka, Iceberg Slim) eschews semi-autobiographical novel writing for a series of honest, confessional and redemptive essays about street life and what he calls “Black” politics.

Despite the dramatic title, the writing is largely straight-forward. Beck clearly has talent, one that Beck says saved his life. The few pimps and cons that survive into old age rarely do well, as Beck notes several times in Naked.

The biographical collection opens with “From A Steel Box To A Wicked Young Girl,” in which Slim recounts hitting the street after a short, final stretch in a Chicago jail. He has one whore left in his stable, and he has to find a way to free himself of her, without pissing her off. (A pissed-off, pimp-dumped whore can turn her pimp into the F.B.I.; the F.B.I. can charge the pimp with “white slavery,” a beef that was an especially big deal, taking into account that this was 1960, and Slim is Black.) As if Slim doesn't have enough problems, his mother, who lives in another state, is dying, and only has a short time left – Slim wants to see her before she goes. Slim must figure out a way to make the whore think that it's her idea to leave... Excellent, perceptive essay about how people play each other.

Letter To Papa” is, as one would guess, a heartfelt, regretful missive Beck writes to his father, whom he hasn't seen in ten years. Good, to the point.

Rapping About The Pimp Game” covers ground already written about in Slim's first book, Pimp: The Story of My Life. Set in 1970, Slim tells about a young man who approaches Slim and asks his advice about pimping. Bitter, wise and eventually hopeful, this essay. One of the best in Naked.

Other essay subjects include: befriending a future Hollyweird starlet (“Baby Sis”); the first girl he fell in love with (at age fifteen), and her later years (“A Goddess Revisited”); other people he met while in the game (“Vignettes: Conqueror Jackson,” “Vignettes: An Old White Slave And Shield,” “About Rain And Rapping With Sweetsend Pappy Luke,” et cetera); and Black politics (“Vignettes: The Black Panthers,” “Melvin X,” “Racism And The Black Revolution,” “Uncle Tom And His Master In The Violent Seventies,” among others).

Another stand-out essay is “An Open Letter To Iceberg Slim,” in which a young Black Vietnam Vet asks Slim about how to go about becoming a writer, and how to deal with the psychological baggage – much of it furious, born of the war – that he (the would-be writer) is dealing with. Despite a few political asides, this is one of the better essays, as Slim replies in a truly concerned way.

When he's writing about less political stuff, the tone and language of his essays is down-to-earth, tender, and romantic (especially “A Goddess Revisited”). When he's writing about politics, the tone is usually hyperbolic, abstract, weary and angry.

If I have one bitch about this biography, it's that much of his political stuff comes off as hot air; it seems like he could've condensed his ideas – steeped in a lifetime of racism and the volatile nature of the sixties and seventies – to two uber-potent essays, instead of dissipating them into six or seven.

My favorite entry in this fifteen-essay collection is the closer, “Iceberg Adrift: Musings, Lamentations,” where Slim talks about people he knew and misses, things he wishes he'd done, how he's mellowed over the years, and his gratitude to still be alive. This is the perfect bookend for this biography, summing up all the best ideas and moods of the earlier essays, minus the political bullsh*t.

For the most part, this is enjoyable, if generally sad and roiling stuff. Ultimately, though, it's – as Slim notes throughout Naked – about hope.

<em>Phantom</em> by Jo Nesbø

(hb;  2011, 2012: ninth novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett .) From the back cover...