Tuesday, April 24, 2018

8. The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair Maclean

I found the worst cover ever for this book
This is sort-of the first real Alistair Maclean book I've read.  I say "sort-of" because I have read his first book HMS Ulysses and it was really good.  However, it is pretty much autobiographical.  I grabbed The Way to Dusty Death at the used bookshop/goldmine I discovered in the hospital here. 

I have avoided Maclean's books simply because they were too popular.  This is not just elitist snobbery on my part (though that is a factor), but generally massive mainstream sellers in any genre tend to be the most dumbed down of that genre with bad writing (cough cough Kathy Reichs cough Jeffrey Deaver cough and on and on).  What surprised me about this book was how shoddy it all was.  I don't know what period of his career it took place or what was going on then, but this book feels like it was cranked out overnight and not edited at all.  There is just a lot of really awkward language and scenes where you actually can't quite tell what is going on.  The plot is also badly constructed and when the reveal happens, it's super lame and not thoroughly explained.  Despite all that, the initial setup is quite gripping and there is some minor masculine heroic behaviour that is satisfying (although the protagonist is a total machine and fundamentally superior to everyone around so that there is little suspense once you figure that out).

The story starts out in medias res with the flaming wreckage of an ugly Grand Prix crash.  The protagonist is the best driver who was thrown from his car and watches in a daze the burning body of the guy he just knocked off the road.  We learn quickly that his brother died a month ago and that he has become reckless and may even be drinking (this is a big deal in Gran Prix driving, I guess).  The first chapter portrays him as a total wreck, but there are weird little tells, such as him washing his mouth out with whiskey in his hotel room later then spitting it out.  Soon after, he is seen spying on the team owner and the mechanic while they check out his car and you realize that there is a greater game afoot. (This scene is one where I didn't even realize he was supposed to be hiding at first because of the weird way it was written so though the other two characters knew he was in the room.)  This part is cool and you definitely want to find out what's going on. 

If you have read my reviews, you know my taste and that I am very patient with certain kinds of clichés and silliness in men's action fiction.  Look, I get chills watching the trailer for The Equalizer 2.  I'm an easy mark.  I gotta say, I was really not impressed with Maclean with this book.  Desmond Bagley crushes him.  Yes, he has a similarily macho simplicity, but his characters make sense and they get really challenged, plus he writes well, clearly with punch.  Maybe this was on the lower end of Maclean's massive output.  They are easy to read, so I will give him another try.

Monday, April 16, 2018

7. Hit List by Lawrence Block

I had actually read Hit List many years (decades, actually) ago as well as its predecessor Hit Man.  That was back when we were way into Richard Stark/Donald Westlake and one of my fellow Stark fans discovered the Keller books.  Block was a close friend of Westlake.  They played in a regular poker group and discussed and shared writing ideas.  You can see it in the style of Hit List, though very hard to tell how much of that is just that both of them were deep New Yorkers from that time period.  Much of Hit List's style comes from the very New York City quirks of Keller.  I'm rambling but my point here is that there may be a tendency to feel that Hit List derives a bit from Westlake's Dortmunder/Parker novels but given that I haven't read anything else by Block, I suspect that is not fair and that Westlake probably was influenced just as much by Block's style.  Block may have actually been a better seller than Westlake in his lifetime.

Keller is a professional hit man who behaves and thinks about his job the way a garbageman or accountant might think about his.  He is concerned about doing his job correctly and some elements of it are unpleasant but there are various ways to deal with them to help you get by.  He has a broker/boss named Dot who lives upstate and finds him jobs.  Hit List begins like a series of short stories, with each assignment being a story.  As it moves forward, we begin to see longer narrative arcs: his relationship with Dot, his relationship with a few civilians and the possibility of another hitman who is eliminating other hit men to limit the competition.  There is also underneath it a very slight shadow of Keller struggling with his conscience, especially when Dot pressures him to eliminate any "loose ends" which may include a woman he had been seing.

It's all very banal and normalized.  Keller collects stamps.  He frets about taking first class and enjoys local cuisine.  Each assignment has an interesting wrinkle, some of which are quite enjoyable to read in a dark way.

I suspect that part of the charm of Hit List is lost today, when assassination and killing have been portrayed in such over-the-top cartoony ways in popular media.  When Hit List was published in 2000, we still didn't have headshot ballets like John Wick 2.  Despite its impact being somewhat lessened, I would classify the two Keller books as a must-read for anybody interested in the hit man genre and an enjoyable read for fans of crime in general.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

6. The President's Plane is Missing by Robert J. Serling

I had to go the emergency room because of a "mallet finger" I got playing basketball.  It was an extremely negative experience except that I discovered the Montreal General has a book shop in the lobby.  It's called the Book Nook and was filled with paperback and hardcover anglo fiction from the 60s, 70s and 80s.  It was quite exciting but because of the terrible emergency room service, I couldn't check it out despite being stuck at the hospital for 8 hours (you can't leave the room or you'll miss your appointment that you have no idea when will come).  However, I did have a follow-up appointment with the doctor at the hospital and I made it a point to come in early to look for books.

Well the haul wasn't mind-blowing but it was still a good vein with potential for the future.  The most exciting find was a first American edition hardcover of Jack Carter and the Law by Ted Lewis (the U.S title for Jack Carter's Law), the prequel to Get Carter.  Very psyched about that find.

The President's Plane is Missing has about the most boring cover ever (although I do like the fading letters).  The story itself is not boring, but the cover does represent well its straightness.  This is a very mainstream (for the time) political thriller.  Despite it being slightly vanilla, it is actually quite a gripping and suspenseful story and I stayed up an hour past my bedtime to finish it.  It has a cast of characters most of which are focused around a small newswire bureau in Washington.  The president is like the best president ever, but he is tired.  He is embarking on a much needed week long vacation where he has made special requests to not be disturbed.  This extends to his time on Air Force One, where he makes plans to spend the flight reading in the back room.  The flight takes off fine and once in the air is flying smoothly.  Ground Control calls to tell them that there is a storm ahead of them.  The pilot requests permission to fly above it and permission is granted.  Shortly after, the plane simply disappears from the radar.

The rest of the book is about trying to figure out what happened, while following the political repercussions.  The weak and henpecked vice-president is the protagonist in this storyline.  His character is unrealistically insecure and you know he is going to cause trouble in some way or other.  I won't say anything more because it honestly was quite gripping the story behind everything is solid and well thought-out. 

Ah cool, I see they made a TV movie out of this!  And it got some decent reviews.  To the internet!

Monday, March 05, 2018

5. Paper Money by Ken Follet

Picked up this workmanlike paperback in decent condition at Chainon.  It's Ken Follett's first book and was originally published under another name (and didn't sell very well).  I found it to be quite enjoyable and fun to read.  The milieu is the highs and lows of wealthy financiers and cockney hoodlums in London in the 70s, with the reporters of a daily newspaper in between.  Several storylines including a financial deal, a heist, policy announcements, blackmail and so on quickly and efficiently converge together by the end.  The portrayal of the milieu and the characters, especially the villians (term used in the book by the villains themselves) is rich.  It came at a good time as I am once again struggling to read steadily. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

4. Fool's Puzzle by Earlene Fowler

Picked this up at Chainon just because it is getting so hard to find paperbacks that I can actually carry around with me.  I was hoping for a decent mystery from the 90s along the lines of Sue Grafton and that's what I got.  It's a bit more weighted towards long-term narratives and romance than I had wanted, but was overall quite decent.  It all takes place in a central california town that was once very rural but slowly being transformed by LA money.  The heroine is recently widowed and works at the local art center.  There really is nothing about her situation that would lead to investigating, except her own dogged personality.  When she discovers one of the artist's body just after seeing her irresponsible niece flee the scene, she gets involved.  The temporary police of chief is always on her ass for getting in the investigation but of course that tension hides an underlying spark between them...

I see now that this is the first book in a long series and though Benni Harper is the name on the series, I suspect the appeal is as much about all the other characters in the town, who are richly portrayed.  I could see how people could get into this but it's not enough of my style to continue it.

One interesting thing is the sexual politics.  They have changed a lot even from 1994, or at least my perception of them has.  I believe that Fowler intended to portray the budding romance between the chief and Benni Harper as an appealling love connection.  It just rings really odd today.  The chief is a total dick at first, always yelling at her and just really not nice or respectful. I think that part was a bit of a trope where the gruff guy and pissed-off lady actually have lots of sexual tension.  Okay, but he still was really quite jerky.  But the real weird thing was how he crossed tons of borders that I don't think would be considered at all romantic today.  He puts her in jail.  He grabs her and kisses her.  He stays overnight at her house twice against her will and takes her car keys away.  He braids her hair against her will (he is of course an expert french braider because he had 3 younger sisters).  At the end, when they decide to start a relationship, it just feels not really well-earned on his part.  It's like just by dint of being super aggressive all the time, she decides he is worthy of being her first love since her husband died 9 months ago (!). 

I do like these paperbacks from the 90s that I can just beat to hell and not have to worry about preserving. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

3. Branded Woman by Wade Miller

Holy shit, I had already read this book and completely forgot.  Yikes.  I am losing it for real now.  Interesting that my read in 2009 was much more enthusiastic than in 2018.  I did enjoy it, but it lacked the intensity of The Big Guy and tended to meander.

Here is my original review.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2. The Death Wish by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

I would cross some serious moral lines
to get my hands on this copy
I finally got my hands on some Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, thanks of course to Dark Carnival, who had two double-volumes of hers by Stark House.  Part of the challenge with her work, aside from being one more forgotten woman genre author, is that it is not clear what her actual last name is and thus what letter of the alphabet under which she should be filed.  It was H at Dark Carnival and one of the recommendation quotes at the back refers to her as "Mrs. Holding" so I will check their first but will continue to look under S as well.  One never knows.

Here is a much better review and appreciation of Holding.

I was not disappointed.  It was not entirely what I expected, though what I expected is hard to say as I tried to keep an open mind.  The story takes place in a small wealthy town somewhere in the Northeast, limited to a very small group of neighbours: a super wealthy family, a wealthy but striving couple of whom the jealous older wife holds all the money and a bohemian couple.  A young friend of the wealthy family comes to stay and starts to have an affair with the artist husband of the bohemian couple, who is painted very clearly as a self-indulgent lazy ass.  His wife drowns.  Trouble ensues.

The protagonist/investigator is a unique character.  He is the young, attractive, athletic and independently wealthy nephew of the rich couple who has come for a weekend visit.  He is almost Randian in his self-awareness (though not in a dickish way).  He prides himself on a kind of Platonic approach to life where he asks questions and trusts his own judgement.  It feels very proxy-ish and I kept wondering how much Holding was project her own fantasies on this very masculine character.

She is similar to Millar in her unsparing look at her characters without being as mean as Highsmith (you can see where my unconscious expectations seep in when reading a new female thriller writer).  She seems to really like all the characters and kind of feel sorry for them.  There are some strange notions of love and romance here, particularly in the way the nephew seems to idealize the young women who comes off as a complete nightmare.  There is also a very good twist that I suspected was coming but it caught me off guard.

I really enjoyed this book and it left me with many questions about Holding and her work.  I will be reading more in the hope for enjoyment and answers.