Monday, May 13, 2013

Did Anyone Get the License On That Car?

Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow 

Reviewed by Kemper
4 out 5 stars on top of Christmas trees.

As a little girl Victoria McQueen has a magical talent for finding things.  While riding her bike and focusing on what she’s looking for, Vic can conjure up an old wooden bridge that she can cross and be at the spot where the lost object is.  Vic mainly uses her powers to distract herself from the constant fighting of her parents, and she eventually meets an eccentric librarian named Maggie with her own supernatural power who explains that Vic is tapping into imagination itself and plowing tunnels through it.

 Maggie also warns Vic about Charlie Manx, another person with special talents who kidnaps children and takes them to a place called Christmasland in his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with plates that read NOS4A2.  (Or Nosferatu for those of you, like me, who can’t stand not being able to figure out a personalized plate.)

Vic eventually runs across Charlie during her travels, and the encounter doesn’t go well for either of them.  Years later, Vic’s adult life has been a steady descent into what seems like madness, but she’s trying to finally repair her relationship with her son when Charlie returns. 

It’s probably inevitable that Joe Hill will be compared to his father Stephen King whether it’s fair or not, but the concept and characters seem very much like old school King to me.  However, it’s hard to see how Hill could possibly not be influenced by the old man, and in this case, that makes for a tense and fascinating horror novel. 

The villains really stood out in this one.  Charlie Manx isn’t really a vampire, but he exists in a way by sucking the life out of children.  However, since he legitimately sees himself as saving kids from worse fates and providing them with an eternity of fun, it makes him more interesting than just a monster who gets his jollies by murdering kids.  Charlie’s sidekick, Bing Partridge, is a simpleton who is terrifying in his role as the Gasmask Man that wants to help Mr. Manx to earn himself a permanent place in Christmasland.

But it’s Vic McQueen that really made me love this story.  As a bright kid with a knack for art, it’s painful to see how her ability and meeting Charlie Manx seriously screws her up life.  Hill has created a believable and damaged woman who writes and illustrates kid’s books, but also has tattoos and a drinking problem. Vic is a graduate of the Lisbeth Salander Charm School, and she’ll hit you in the face with the wrench she’s using to fix a motorcycle if you give her any grief.

The book has a couple of problems.  At almost 700 pages, Joe Hill apparently inherited King’s penchant for writing big books.  While the action does move along at a pretty swift pace it still seems like it could have been tightened up.  (In Hill’s defense, his stuff moves much faster than his dad.  If King would have done this story, it probably would have been 1200+ pages.)  There’s also some plot inconsistencies.  

However, none of my minor gripes prevented me from thoroughly enjoying this very creepy action horror novel with a memorable main character.

One more note, I listened to the audible version of this, and it was narrated by Kate Mulgrew who gave an absolutely incredible reading of it with multiple character voices.  It was especially fun because of Vic’s foul mouth which made it sound like Captain Janeway was cursing people like a drunken sailor.  Engage, you bastards!

A Farewell to Spenser

Posted by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

Forty years ago, in The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker introduced his first and most popular protagonist, Spenser, a tough, witty Boston P.I. Sixkill is the fortieth and last entry in the series (at least the last written by Parker himself), and the series, like its lead character, has had its ups and downs.

The early books were terrific. Spenser was a very engaging character and his early cases were often complex and thought-provoking in addition to being a helluva lot of fun. Later, though, Parker began to coast and wrote a number of books that did not live up to the promise of the early novels and that were often little more than an excuse for Spenser and his sidekicks to exchange snappy dialogue for three hundred pages or so.

In particular, the series seemed to wander off the track when Spenser, who had enjoyed relationships with a number of women in the early books, settled down into a monogamous relationship with Susan Silverman, a Harvard-educated psychologist. Increasingly, the relationship between Spenser and Susan became as much of a focal point of the books as the crime or other mystery that Spenser was investigating at the time. And, to be honest, reading about the two of them became extremely tiresome in a pretty big hurry.

As someone who has read the entire series, I really would have hoped that Parker’s Spenser would go out on a high note, in a book that recalled the glory days of the series. Sadly, though, Sixkill is not such a book. In fairness to Parker, though, I assume that he did not expect to die suddenly at his desk without having the opportunity to give Spenser a proper sendoff.

That is not to say that Sixkill is a bad book. Like most of the later entries in the series, it’s a fun read, and certainly a quick one. Spenser’s long-time sidekick, Hawk, is traveling somewhere in Asia and so, unfortunately, is MIA for this last book. Unhappily, Susan Silverman is not traveling in Asia or anywhere else, and so a fair amount of the book consists of Spenser and Susan having world-class sex and telling each other how wonderful they are. (This, in spite of the fact that Spenser is a veteran of the Korean War, which would mean that he’s pushing eighty by the time he gets to this adventure.)

The case itself is patterned after the scandalous 1921 murder trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. At the time, Arbuckle was a huge Hollywood sensation, and in this case, the term refers both to his popularity and to his size. “Fatty,” as one might gather, was not a small man. The victim, a young starlet, died after partying with Arbuckle and others over several days in a San Francisco hotel room. Though there was little evidence to support the charge, the more sensational newspaper accounts insisted that Arbuckle had raped the woman and, in the process of doing so, had squashed her. In the end, Arbuckle was tried and acquitted, but his reputation was ruined.

In Sixkill, a huge movie star named Jumbo Nelson (again, “huge” in both senses of the word), invites a young woman names Dawn Lopata up to his hotel room. She dies there after having sex with Jumbo. Though the evidence is far from clear, many in the media insist that Nelson, a particularly unappealing character in person, is guilty of murder and should be tried and put away.

Such an outcome would be very bad, both for Jumbo and for the studio and others who have a great deal riding on his career. They would not like to see him prosecuted. Captain Martin Quirk of the Boston P.D. is in charge of the case and isn’t sure that the evidence supports arresting Jumbo. But the public is demanding Nelson’s head on a platter and Quirk apparently feels that he’s not in a position to stand in front of the oncoming train. He’d prefer that Spenser do so. (One might think that the job of the Police Department in this or any other case, would be to pursue justice irrespective of what the larger public might want. But if that were the case, there would be no book, so never mind.)

Spenser takes the case and, as is his habit, he will pursue it to the end, no matter where it takes him and no matter the danger. The real fun of the book lies in the character of Zebulon Sixkill, a Cree Indian who, when the book opens, is serving as Jumbo Nelson’s bodyguard. Sixkill is a behemoth and, naturally, has never been bested by any mortal man. When Spenser annoys Jumbo, Jumbo orders Sixkill to get rid of Spenser. As any reader would expect, Spenser, of course, mops up the floor with Sixkill.

Jumbo fires Sixkill for this gross incompetence and Spenser takes him on as a substitute Hawk, teaching him the ways of the world. The character is one of Parker’s best inventions, smart and funny and a joy to watch in action. It would have been nice to see him appear in later books.

Unhappily, that won’t be the case, at least not for this reader. And as much as I have enjoyed this series through the years, it’s really sad to imagine that there will never again be a fresh Spenser adventure. Susan Silverman, I can happily do without. But Spenser, Hawk, Rita Fiore, Belson, Quirk and all the other characters who have populated these books have become part of my crime fiction universe and I will sorely miss them. The Parker Estate has commissioned Ace Atkins to continue the series, and while I greatly admire Atkins’ own books, I have never liked the idea of another author taking over a series that I really enjoyed once the original writer has gone to Crime Fiction Heaven. So in the future, I will content myself with re-reading the best books of this series and for me, that will suffice.

R.I.P., Mr. Parker, and thanks for all the great books.