Monday, September 22, 2014

Matthew Scudder Takes a Walk Among the Tombstones

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

For the last thirty years or so, I've been reading Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series which, for me at least, is hands down the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done. I mean no disrespect to authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom I admire greatly. But their body of work is relatively small by comparison. Block, on the other hand, created a fantastic character right out of the box, put him in a great, gritty setting, surrounded him with an excellent supporting cast, and then only continued to get better and better, book after book.

I normally read one about every four months or so, working my way back through the series in order. But I'd only just worked my way back to the beginning of the series when, suddenly, the release of the movie based on A Walk Among the Tombstones was imminent. I've been reading at a much quicker pace over the last couple of months so that I'd be caught up by Friday when the movie opens at a theater near me, as they say.

I confess that I have serious reservations about the whole idea of making a movie from this series. I've studiously avoided seeing the film adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Jeff Bridges played Scudder and in which the plot was transferred to L.A., which as any fan of the series could tell you is beyond sacrilegious to the power of about ten. After spending so much time with these books, I have my own very fixed ideas about all the characters, Scudder in particular, and about the setting. And I don't want any movie, no matter how brilliant the people involved, screwing them up.

That said, I'm probably going to see the movie adaptation of this one, assuming that the early reviews are good. I like Liam Neeson, and he's probably about as close to my idea of Scudder physically as any actor could be. Plus, the movie is set in New York and, from what I've read is faithful to the setting. Finally, of course, Mr. Block himself seems genuinely enthused about the film and I trust that he wouldn't lead me down a wrong path. But still...

As this book opens, a drug dealer's wife is kidnapped, brutally raped and tortured, then killed and returned to the drug dealer in pieces. The drug dealer is actually a fairly nice guy as drug dealers go, which is to say that he's way up high in the food chain and is not personally peddling crack to small school children. The dealer's brother knows Matt Scudder from AA, and Matt agrees to investigate the case and try to determine who the guilty parties might be.

Scudder doggedly pursues the case, as he usually does, doing research and interviewing people who might be able to shed light on the situation. He discovers that the drug dealer's wife was not the first victim of these killers and doubtless won't be the last. But will he be able to close the net around them before they claim another victim? And what will happen if he does?

The tension mounts throughout the story, leading to a great climax. But, as always, the character development is key to these stories. The street kid, TJ, who first appeared in the last book, A Ticket to the Boneyard plays a larger role here, as does Matt's main squeeze, Elaine Mardell. Fans of the series know that Elaine is a high-end prostitute that Matt first met back in the days when he was still on the job as a cop. But the relationship has reached something of a critical juncture, and the tension involved in that subplot is almost as great as that in the main plot.

As ever, it's a great ride; I can only hope that the movie comes even close to doing it justice. Wish me luck...

Dostoyevsky, You So Crazy!

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madness...This is madness, I tell you!

Or worse, it's philosophy, some sound, some twisted in counterintuitive logic.

In the first part of Notes for Underground the narration reads like the journal of a rambling genius or psychopath. It's difficult to decide. This section had my mind wandering in a whirl of amazement, boredom and confusion. If the entire book went on this way, as slim as it is, I doubt I would've finished it, or if I had, you'd not see a four star rating up there.

The second part of Notes... takes a standard, first person storytelling approach and felt more in the style of Crime and Punishment, only perhaps more personal. Perhaps too personal for my tastes, because I had the misfortune of hating the narrator. He is a coward, a coward who yearns to be courageous, but in all the wrong ways. He wishes to strike down those that have wronged him, but after listening to his self-absorption, imagined slights, and impossibly high and complicated morals, I myself wished to strike him down with a solid backhand, one I hope would wake him up to his own idiocy. Likely it would only get me added to his hate list.

Did you notice what happened there? I felt the urge to hit a fictional character. Well played, Dostoevsky, well played. That is the writer's genius, to craft a character I felt was real enough to touch. I don't know what he looks like other than being a small man, but I know the man's inner self, and that is knowing more about a man than anything I could glean from the outside. Ah, if only all characters were created equally well...

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Not About a Killer Mailman? What?!

The Postman Always Rings TwiceThe Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don't you love it when something you've heard about for ages turns out to be really good, but in a delightfully different way than expected? ...What do you mean, "no"? Go to hell!

I've been laboring under the misapprehension that this was a play about a killer mail carrier. Maybe that's because I grew up in a time when the phrase "going postal" was coined. (In a sidebar: Isn't it great how the English language is still evolving to incorporate new words and phrases?!) My mother had just recently joined the ranks of those crazy bastards and as the years progressed her bouts with pms turned our house into the Rumble in the Jungle once a month, so I readily expected her to go fully postal. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. It turns out the title is just allegorical!

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a taut noir about a drifter who thinks he's the sharpest knife in the draw. He snatches up a job in one of those highwayside nothings that you can still find out there in the California desert near the Arizona border. The drifter latches on to the wife of the goodly Greek gas station/diner owner. The wife hasn't realized her western dreams. The drifter is always looking for some easy scratch. A plot is hatched and nothing goes as you think it will.

That's the beauty of this aging novel: the surprises it still holds after all these years. After all the pulp crime dramas churned out for decade upon decade now, The Postman Always Ring Twice can still ring yer bell, toots.

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