Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Farewell to Parker

Reviewed by James L. Thane
4 stars out of 5

This is the twenty-fourth and final volume in Richard Stark's excellent long-running series featuring Parker, a cold, amoral, methodical criminal. Parker was almost always involved in a gang of crooks that had been pulled together for some specific job, usually a robbery of some sort. In each of these capers, it always turned out that some of the gang members were more dependable than others; there was usually a weak link or a turn of bad luck somewhere along the way, and Parker would have to scramble, using all of his resources, to save himself and as much of the loot as possible.

Parker was always the most competent and often the deadliest man among the thieves and others he partnered with. He did what needed to be done, and if that involved leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, well then, that was just what the job demanded. No hard feelings.

Along the way, Stark (a pseudonym for master crime writer Donald Westlake) took an extented break from the Parker books between 1974's Butcher's Moon, the sixteenth book in the series, and 1997's Comeback, the seventeenth. The earlier books tended to be leaner and cut closer to the bone. The later ones are not quite so spare and Parker might be just a tad softer. They are still a lot of fun, but the first sixteen are grittier and generally better.

In the twenty second book, Nobody Runs Forever, Parker and his confederates knocked over an armored car that was carrying a little over two million dollars from one bank to another. But the law moved in so swiftly that the gang could not get away with the money. They were forced to stash it in the choir loft of an abandoned rurual church.

In the twenty-third book, Ask The Parrot, Parker is still struggling to save himself in the days after the robbery, and Dirty Money takes place shortly thereafter. Things are still hot; the cops still have roadblocks up searching for the robbers, and they are circulating sketches of the criminals.

To make matters worse, it turns out that the serial numbers on all of the bills the gang stole had been recorded. One of the robbers, Nick Daliesa, attempted to pass one of the bills and was caught. He then killed a deputy marshal and escaped again. Parker knows if Dalesia is caught he will try to trade the stolen money, or worse the identity of the other gang members, in order to obtain leniency.

As much as he hates to do it, Parker must return to the scene of the crime in an effort to recover the money and deal with his ex-confederate before Parker himself is compromised. To make matters worse, a female bounty hunter now inserts herself into the situation, demanding a share of the loot.

It's a lot of fun watching Parker jump from one crisis to another in an effort to keep his life from going completely off the rails, especially when he knows that, even under the best of circumstances, the money will be worth only ten cents on the dollar. A harsher man than I might argue that the book could have been a bit tighter, more along the lines of the earlier entries in the series, but that would be a small complaint and I'm certainly not going to make it at this point.

I put off reading this book for over two years, simply because I couldn't bear the thought that I would never have another fresh Parker waiting for me, and I hated getting to the last page. The book itself may rate four stars, but the series overall is five stars all the way. It's one of the best crime fiction series ever published and I'm already looking forward to starting it all over again.

Jane Whitefield's Poisoned Flower

Reviewed by James L. Thane
3 stars out of five
I've long been a huge fan of Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series. Jane is a contemporary Seneca Indian woman who lives in upstate New York. She's a "guide" who helps endangered people escape their current lives and settle into new ones. She often does this at great risk to herself since the villains chasing after the people that Jane is rescuing are most often very devious and extremely evil. A particular joy of the series is watching the ways in which Jane helps her clients disappear.

Poison Flower is the seventh book in the series, which Perry began in 1995. He published a new Jane Whitefield novel annually until 1999. He then took a ten-year break before the sixth book appeared in 2009. As this book opens, Jane disables a police guard and breaks free James Shelby, a convicted murderer who has been brought back to court for a routine procedure. Shelby's sister has convinced Jane that he was wrongly convicted and Jane agrees to help him escape.

Leaving the courthouse, though, Jane encounters five thugs who work for the man who framed Shelby. Shelby escapes and goes to the place where he and Jane have agreed to meet. Jane, though, is shot and captured by the bad guys who brutally torture her in an effort to force her to tell them where they can find Shelby.

This is still very early in the book and through a clever ruse and utilizing her own skills as a warrior, Jane manages to escape and make her way to the rendezvous with Shelby. Along the way she picks up a battered woman from a shelter and the three of them then collect Shelby's sister who will obviously be a target of the vicious thugs. The bulk of the book consists of the efforts of Jane and the three people whose lives now depend on her to escape the bad guys so that Jane can settle the three safely into new lives.

It's a good read and it's fun to watch Jane at work again. Still, I confess to having some concerns about the book. (I should note, in fairness, that this book was very well reviewed by professional critics who apparently did not share these concerns. This doubtless means that the wise reader will stop at this point and ignore the following.):

I found it hard to accept the idea that Jane would bust a convicted killer out of jail. All of Jane's previous "clients" have been genuinely sympathetic victims that the reader could immediately empathize with. In this case, Jane has no hard evidence that Shelby is actually innocent. She is apparently acting on her gut instincts that tell her that Shelby's sister is correct in insisting that he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It's one thing for Jane to rescue an abused wife and spirit her away from a sadistic violent husband. It seems quite another for her to substitute her own wisdom for that of the police, prosecutors, jurors and judge who convicted Shelby and thus break him free. This just seemed wrong to me and it clouded my whole experience of reading the book.

I also couldn't figure out why the five thugs would show up for a routine court hearing. Certainly they have no way of knowing that Jane is about to break the guy out. Why are they there? We never learn.

In the process of breaking Shelby free, Jane commits any number of serious crimes. The police as well as the thugs are in hot pursuit. The cops have Jane's description and her picture. Jane is concerned about avoiding the cops but apparently assumes that if she survives this ordeal she will be able to simply return to her "real" life as a New York housewife with no legal repercussions. This also apparently assumes that no one in her hometown is going to be watching the Great Escape play out on cable news and say, "Ohmigod--look! That's Jane from next door!"

As another concern, Jane is now a married woman. Perry has made no secret of the fact that he intended to end the series a couple of books ago, and as he prepared to do so, he married Jane to a handsome and very likeable doctor. At that point, Jane promised her new husband that she was retiring from her guide business and from that point on would be content as a wife and (she hoped) a mother. Her husband did not ask her to do this; she made the promise of her own volition.

The promise, of course, was short-lived. Otherwise there would have been no new Jane Whitefield books. But Jane has now left home on several occasions, putting her life at great risk, communicating only rarely with her husband and leaving him lonely and worried sick, wondering if he will ever see her again.

This seems unkind, unloving and somehow just wrong on Jane's part. It would be one thing if she were a cop or an FBI agent or some such thing where this was simply a part of her job. But, as her husband points out, Jane is a civilian under no obligation to help the people who keep showing up at her door. There are police and other agencies whose job it is to help these people, and the reader (at least this one) can't help but feel that her husband has a legitimate concern here. And this is not a gender issue. I would feel the same way about it if the protagonist were John Whitefield and he were leaving his wife in his wake like this.

Jane's first adventure in the wake of her marriage came about in a fairly legitimate fashion after a bomb exploded at a hospital charity function. She could promise her husband that she had to go out on one last mission and both he and the reader could buy into the premise. But if Perry intended to keep sending her out like this, it might have been a better idea simply to have killed the husband in the explosion. This would have allowed Jane an added motive for getting involved in these matters again and would not leave the reader wondering how she could so easily inflict this kind of heartache on a person she loves. There's a good reason why super heroes generally do not have spouses or other permanent romantic entanglements and Jane would be better off without one.

One final and fairly minor concern: Whenever Jane goes out on one of these missions she spends thousands of dollars buying cars, renting homes for long periods of time, paying for gas, meals, hotels and the like. Her clients are generally not in a position where they can pay for her services. Where does the money come from?

The answer is that even after she married, Jane kept her old childhood home. In the basement there is a length of ductwork that contains an apparently endless supply of money and fake IDs. Whenever Jane is ready to go out on a mission, she simply stops by the house, picks up a few IDs and a big wad of cash, and she's good to go. There have been a couple of opportunities along the way for Jane to squirrel away some money, but after a while this starts to stretch credulity. You have to figure that sooner or later, Jane is going to open the magic ductwork and discover that she's down to her last fifty bucks. But it never seems to happen.

This litany of concerns should not suggest that I didn't enjoy the book; I did. And I would certainly encourage any reader who hasn't already done so to find the series. But I would also strongly encourage them to begin with the first book, Vanishing Act, which introduces the character and which is also a great heart-pounding ride.

Mystery with a Twist

THE CORONER'S LUNCH (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1)
Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.875* of five

The Publisher Says: Laos, 1975. The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old Paris-trained doctor, is appointed national coroner. Although he has no training for the job, there is no one else; the rest of the educated class has fled.

He is expected to come up with the answers the party wants. But crafty and charming Dr. Siri is immune to bureaucratic pressure. At his age, he reasons, what can they do to him? And he knows he cannot fail the dead who come into his care without risk of incurring their boundless displeasure. Eternity could be a long time to have the spirits mad at you.

My Review: In the Vientiane, Laos, of November 1976, green-eyed Dr. Siri Paiboun is the seventy-two-year-old coroner...the only one in the newly liberated by communism country...charged with discovering why Mrs. Nitnoy, powerful leader of the Laos Women's Union and wife of Member of Parliament Kham, suddenly keeled over dead. Her husband insists it was her peasant taste for raw pork. The judge Dr. Siri works for thinks that sounds reasonable, and also unnecessary to investigate.

Dr. Siri knows otherwise. Not because he's that good a coroner, since he's only had the job for ten reluctant months...he knows because Mrs. Nitnoy told him so.

After she was dead.

So begins a fascinating look into the chaotic world of Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War, told from the out-of-the-Anglophone-ordinary viewpoint of the Southeast Asians left to pick up the pieces. The story follows Dr. Siri as he is manipulated from behind the scenes in someone's quest to hide truths from the doctor, someone who clearly doesn't know...heck, even the good doctor doesn't know!...that Dr. Siri is the latest incarnation of legendary thousand-plus-year-old shaman Yeh Ming, and so has the ability to see spirits and call on ancient energies intrinsic to Laos's beautiful forested mountains.

Dr. Siri is called upon to use his increasing skills as a coroner to look into the deaths of three Vietnamese nationals, in Laos for purposes both secret and unknown to anyone Siri knows; then is sent to the ethnically Hmong south to deal with the sudden and unexpected deaths of Army officers in charge of an economic revitalization program that doesn't seem to be revitalizing so much as devitalizing the men in charge; and while among the Hmong, who worryingly seem to know him better than he knows himself, Siri finally gets to know Yeh Ming, his fellow traveler in this green-eyed body in a country of brown-eyed people.

With a combination of mundane detective skills, spirit guidance, and help from a formidable nurse, an eidetic Down's syndrome laborer, an old friend in high places, and a new friend in clandestine ones, Siri ties all the malefactors in knots and delivers them to the proper authorities (whether spiritual or mundane) with ribbons on.

This book is such a welcome addition to my series-mystery-loving world. Dr. Siri is a delight. He's too old, and too weary, and too smart to be scared by petty bureaucratic thuggery. He values his comfort...oh yeah baby, the older we get, the more we do!...but his idea of comfort includes doing the real right thing, not the easy right thing.

Cotterill gives Dr. Siri a deep and rich backstory reaching into Laos's colonial French past, extending into the jungles of Pathet Lao communist resistance, and through to the time of victory and the inevitable Animal Farm-esque disillusion that accompanies regime change. "Throw the crooks out!" the cry goes up, but the unsaid and often unrealized second part of that cry is, "and let our crooks have a turn!" Dr. Siri sees this, knows it, and frankly doesn't care. He's got no children, so no grandchildren, and so no, or a very small, stake in this Brave New World. Except, well, you know, there IS justice in the world, imperfect and piecemeal though it may be, but justice demands a good man's best be given and a heavy price be paid both for administering and evading it.

He might only have one (metaphorical) eye, but Siri is honor bound to use it among the blind he lives with. It's this quality that makes him irresistible, and gives Cotterill's creation a semblance of life that brings him out of the pages of the book and into the imagination of the reader who lives in a world where ideals of fairness and decency and selflessness have degenerated into "don't tread on me" selfishness and mock-"liberty" that curiously resembles "don't tell me what I can do with what's mine" greed. It's these very things that Siri grimaces at.

Just like me.

I'm your huckleberry . . .



by Mary Doria Russell

Published by Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Amanda
5 Out of 5 Stars

A youth in the South. An education in the North. Bred for life in the East. Trying not to die in the West.

This synopsis of the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday is elegant in its simplicity and perhaps holds more truth about his life than the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about him.

I will confess that my earliest exposure to Doc Holliday was Val Kilmer's excellent portrayal in Tombstone. I have probably watched that movie in its entirety no less than 15 times; however, I've always known that, as is true with so much history, it's a super-charged, testosterone fueled, balls out version of events that plays up the romanticism of the Old West and makes giants of common men in uncommon circumstances. Unlike so many movies and books about him, Doc by Mary Doria Russell is not interested in perpetuating the reputation of Doc Holliday as a cold-blooded killer and a ruthless gambler, but instead focuses on trying to restore humanity to a man whose world was broken by war and sickness and shaped by the luck of the draw.

Doc is not a biography, but instead a fictional account of Doc's life from birth up through his years in Dodge City, where Russell imagines the circumstances that would cement his friendship with the Earp brothers. Using the framework of Wyatt and Doc's friendship with the fictional John Horse Sanders and the mysterious circumstances of his death, Russell explores the lives of John Henry Holliday, dentist by day, gambler by night; his tempestuous and fiercely intelligent companion, Kate Harony; a reticent and doggedly honest Wyatt Earp; Mattie Blaylock, already ruined and addicted to laudanum when she enters Wyatt's life; the friendly and intelligent Morgan Earp; and the vain Bat Masterson. In doing so, she brings the society of Dodge City to life and vividly portrays a town at the edge of the American frontier where the law had no finer points other than "Don't shoot the customers." Lawmen like Wyatt Earp were expected to do little more than keep the drovers who came to Dodge at the end of a cattle drive from killing each other before they could spend the season's wages on whores, alcohol, and gambling. While Dodge prospered, there was a ruthless, mean edge to its economic principles.

Born to Georgian aristocracy, classically educated, trained as a dentist, raised for the life of a gentleman, and already diagnosed with tuberculosis, a town like Dodge should have consumed a man like Doc Holliday who seemed so ill-suited to a rough-and-tumble lifestyle. Instead, Doc's recognition of life as the ultimate gamble ("Bein' born is craps . . . How we live is poker") served well in equipping him with the ability to make the most of a poor hand. Suffering from a cleft palate that his uncle repaired once the baby became healthy enough, Doc was been born struggling to cling to whatever life chance would allow. This resilience, along with a sharp tongue and an intellectual's curiosity, helped sustain him during his exile West and enabled him to make a family of friends to substitute the one he longed for back East.

Russell also reminds us of the Doc Holliday that existed beneath the swagger and bravado--a man, little more than a boy, who knew he walked in death's shadow, but was determined to prevent death from claiming its prize too soon. The pain of Doc's circumstances, especially in a town where young men treated life so carelessly as they courted danger, is evident: "Certain that if he were to move at all--even slightly, even to speak--everything human in him would be lost to blind, bestial, ungovernable rage, John Henry Holiday sat silently while in the coldest, most analytical part of him, he thought, If I go mad one day, it will be at a moment like this. I will put a bullet through the lung of some healthy young idiot just to watch him suffocate. There you are, I'll tell him. That's what it's like to know your last breath is in your past. You won't ever get enough air again. From this moment until you die, it will only get worse and worse."

Doc is not a fast-paced book, but it is a beautiful one. Often funny, philosophical, and gritty, it honors the men and women at its core and removes them from the lofty heights of myth and returns them where they belong--firmly on the earth they walked not as titans, but as mortals.

Zombie Bulls and Riddling Cats

Ted Hughes
Faber & Faber

Short and sweet.
No, what am I talking about? Short and bitter. Bitter from beginning to end. And histrionic. And full of extreme behaviour. Oedipus and his family, in fact the entire character list, even the ones who only appear in reported speech all do crazy, over-the-top and generally fairly stupid things. But they don't have a choice; you can't escape Fate.
Ted Hughes' version of Seneca's Oedipus (that's the Latin one, not the Greek one) has no punctuation. Instead everybody's speeches are broken up into short phrases with long spaces between like this which is weird but works really well because of all the crazy histrionics the idea that nobody can manage more than a fragment of a sentence makes sense works
The language is somehow amazing yet simple at the same time and the story - well, curses, incest, patricide, a Sphinx, self-mutilation, spirits back from the dead, animal sacrifice, plague, zombie bulls - it's either an Iain Banks dream sequence or a Greek play - even if it is an English version of a Roman version of a Greek play.

Fielding a lot of Waffle

Henry Fielding
Wordsworth Classics

Wowzas! What a lot of waffle!

The history of the novel is perhaps one of a decline in the use of the Authorial Voice, which was still quite prevalent in the Victorian era. This book, written shortly after the failed second Jacobite Uprising of 1745 has more Authorial Voice than I can remember in any other novel, including even earlier works by [author:Defoe Daniel 1661?-1731|5109659] and stands as a testament to why it is undesirable: At time the story drowns in it. We are treated to 18 books, the prefatory chapter of each the author openly admits will not advance the plot or even include any narrative at all. That's 18 chapters of pointless waffle. If it was confined to those chapters it would be easy to deal with; just ignore them. However, the authorial waffle pervades the vast majority of chapters to some extent or other up to probably 75% of a chapter being authorial voice rather than narrative at times.

My enjoyment shows a clear inverse relationship to the proportion of this waffle at any given point. The most readable parts of the book being where it gives way to just getting on with the story - most notably in the final book.

The novel is intended to be comical, to which purpose, various techniques are deployed, usually repeatedly. One is exaggeration; almost everything is exaggerated, so that quite commonplace events and emotions are mock-elevated to Homeric heroics, tragedy and passions. Perhaps the single funniest part of the book, for me, was the hero-versus-army description of a common brawl in a churchyard. Another technique that is ubiquitous is to extol the virtues, intelligence or learning of some newly introduced character in description only for that character's actions and or dialogue to immediately demonstrate the opposite. Then there's just plain farce.

One trouble I had with this was that rather than finding it all hilarious I mostly found it merely faintly amusing and exponentially less so as each technique was repeated over and over.
One might ask, what with all the annoying waffle and decreasingly funny comedic aspects, why I staggered on through 700p or so? Indeed I did ask myself this, many-several times! I read three other novels whilst ploughing slowly through this one and I rarely read multiple novels in parallel, though I am almost permanently working on other types of book in parallel with a novel.

What was stopping me giving up, besides being a stubborn git? In fact, it was the plot, or more precisely, the mystery - who <i>is</i> Tom Jones? Somehow I had to know; I could not give up until I found out - so close to the end that finishing was no longer a chore. So Fielding hooked me early and never let go.
Looking back I find that the plot of the book is not only intricate but extremely clever; there is hardly an event described that does not turn out to be crucial. Such a shame those events are mostly buried under mounds of Authorial Voice...

I can't believe others will enjoy this more than I did unless they find it funnier, which is entirely possible. Unfortunately, the only way to know if you will do is to try it.

What Happens When Hipsters Get Older? Read On

Joshua Mohr

Soft Skull Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: When his bicycle is intentionally run off the road by a neighbor's SUV, something snaps in Bob Coffen. Modern suburban life has been getting him down and this is the last straw. To avoid following in his own father’s missteps, Bob is suddenly desperate to reconnect with his wife and his distant, distracted children. And he's looking for any guidance he can get.

Bob Coffen soon learns that the wisest words come from the most unexpected places, from characters that are always more than what they appear to be: a magician/marriage counselor, a fast-food drive-thru attendant/phone-sex operator, and a janitor/guitarist of a French KISS cover band. Can these disparate voices inspire Bob to fight for his family? To fight for his place in the world?

A call-to-arms for those who have ever felt beaten down by life, Fight Song is a quest for happiness in a world in which we are increasingly losing control. It is the exciting new novel by one of the most surprising and original writers of his generation.

My Review: Have you ever wondered what would've happened if Updike and Cheever had mated while watching a Rock-and-Doris comedy on an acid trip, produced a son, and infused him with García Márquez's sense of the absurd? No? Don't bother, his name's Joshua Mohr and he'll table-dance for you at the bargain price of $16 (less if you don't mind doing business with soulless dream-killing conglomerates).

I hated Rabbit Angstrom because I felt too close to being him. I envied Falconer because I wanted to be more like him. Bob Coffen, in this book? I'd've pantsed him at every opportunity. Treated him as his noxiously virile, annoyingly macho neighbor Schumann treats him. Can't help it, doughy indeterminate blobs make me itchy under the balls and I need to victimize them. I'm a guy, sue me.

So why would I read a book told from his PoV, and give it more than a single grudging star? Well, back up there at the top of my review, I mentioned García Márquez. There's magic in here that I can't resist, there's an absurd brio to Bob's cluelessness and amorphousness, that calls to a corner of my sense of humor. It's the same corner where my ill-tempered glee at the plights of the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie lives. In fact, this is much like a Buñuel script made for HBO. Softer edges, more marshmallowy feel-goodness, but just as many quirked eyebrows and cut eyes. Bjorn the illusionist/marriage counselor is proof enough of that, but add in Bjorn's penchant for, well, punitive mesmerism (poor Schumann!) and his multiply unfaithful pansexual wife....

Okay, all that sounds like a rave. Why not four stars? Because I detest Bob's bologna-on-Wonder-bread acceptance of his grim ball-busting wife's Rightness and her power to determine what it is he should be. I am no supporter of heterosexual marriage, not a shock to regular readers. It's a giant mistake to pin your hopes for happiness on a being of a different species from your own. But to supinely accept her authority, as he does from beginning to end, goes against every single fiber in my being, whether in fiction or in fact. There goes a half-star. Another half-star for the workplace scenes, which I found tedious in the extreme and so far as I could tell made no difference to the plot. The last quarter comes off because the ending, while amusing, while magical, did nothing to resolve the basic conflict of Bob versus "Robert," the created, foisted-on-him identities from work or wife.

Those are my issues, then, one strictly personal and two rooted in the author's choices within the text. But on balance, unless there is some gigantic rock of resistance in you to the underdog-finds-happiness story, this telling of it will repay your eyeblinks.