About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dragons and Hornets and Fire, Oh My!

The Millennium Trilogy
By Steig Larsson
Hardcover:  465 pp., 503 pp., 563 pp.
Publisher: Alfred Knopf
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) (ISBN: 0307269752)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009) (ISBN: 0307269981)
(Read during August 2012)

I received all three Millennium books as presents and ended up taking them to The Friends of the Library when I gave up on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 40 pages in.

I just couldn’t believe that a novel this clunky and flat could be so popular, or that it could conceivably form the basis for not just one runaway hit movie, but a runaway hit movie that had almost immediately been remade as a second runaway hit that gained an even wider audience!

Then I got sucked in by things I read about the books and was surprised to learn how Larson's live-in and co-author, Eva Gabrielsson, got screwed out of any of the vast quantities of money the trilogy earned. So I ended up checking all three books out of the library (I just love irony) and ripped through them one after another during a week or so of intense page-turning.

After two tries at reading the darn trilogy, I am here to say that it is not a classic like Crime and Punishment.  In fact, it isn't even a really first-rate thriller like The Big Sleep or L.A. Confidential.

Nonetheless, there is something about Larsson's trio of overwritten, under-characterized novels that keeps attracting readers. But more about that below. . .

The story(s) in brief: super computer hacker Lisbeth Salander teams up with investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist to (1) solve a decades-old disappearance in a remote part of Northern Sweden. 

In the process the pair (2) uncover a serial murder case dating back a generation, (3) expose a crooked billionaire after siphoning off most of his ill-gotten gains into a Swiss bank account, and (4) clear Blomkvist’s reputation, thus saving his investigative news magazine, a shoestring operation edited  by his sometime lover.

And that all happens in just the first book!

In succeeding installments the duo ferret out links between the Swedish intelligence services and a corrupt former KGB man, decimates the leadership of a motorcycle gang, unmasks a crooked publisher's conflicts of interest, eliminates another serial killer and exposes corruption in the Swedish government and the country’s conservatorship laws.

Delivering a first-rate novel with such an intricate plot would be quite an accomplishment even for a masterful author.  Sure as hell, Larsson falls considerably short of the mark.

The mechanics of his plotting are clunky and the plot is so full of holes you could use it to grate Parmesan.  Most of the characters are one-dimensional, including Blomkvist, the trilogy’s putative central male figure and the one man in Salander’s world who isn't a brutal, assaultive, murderous son-of-a-bitch.

The entire thing needs serious editing and about half the characters who weave in and out of the interlinked stories could easily have been trimmed out.

One of my pet peeves is the way the trilogy handles Salander’s expertise in computer hacking, phone tapping, bugging and other types of electronic spying. I dislike books that raise technical procedures just to gloss over them because the author is too lazy to actually research how they work. 

(You may criticise Tom Clancy for his "Popular Mechanics" style of exposition, but at least he gives the impression he actually knows how the gadgets he includes operate. Larsson apparently doesn't; when Salander or her friends tap a phone or hack a computer, it is as if they had waved a magic wand.)

If the flat characters weren't bad enough, the narrative is undermined by leaden prose like this passage, in which Blomkvist licks his wounds after being convicted of criminal libel for a bungled story about a crooked billionaire:

"What hurt most was the humiliation. He [Blomkvist] had held all the trumps and yet he had lost to a semi-gangster in an Armani suit. A despicable stock market speculator. A yuppie with a celebrity lawyer who sneered his way through the whole trial."

Where to begin? The contract bridge metaphor ("he had held all the trumps") that goes nowhere? The use of the archaic slur "yuppie?" The flaccid compound word, "semi-gangster?" The gratuitous product placement of "Armani suit?"

But that isn’t to say that I hated the books. I didn’t.

To me, what has garnered the Trilogy such a vast number of fans is Lisbeth Salander, herself. Salander is not only the most interesting character in the Trilogy, but one of the most fascinating in recent crime fiction. 

As a character, she has integrity: the violent antipathy she has toward most men holds up consistently through the book, and her actions – though often insane – are perfectly in keeping with the personality and back story with which Larsson has burdened her.

What's more, Salander is one of the few terse characters in these three novels. Her bluntness saves her from the excessive verbiage, aimless metaphors and turgid dialog many of the other characters spout. For example, after she has magically peered inside the billionaire's hard drive and learned his financial secrets, she tells Blomkvist: 

"Wennerstrom is a gangster . . . He works with everybody from the Russian Mafia to the Colombian drug cartels."

No discursive explanations. No existential angst. No tortured attempt at wisecracks. Just a simple, straightforward, on-point declaration -- the kind most readers want in thrillers.

Besides the remarkable Lisbeth Salander, the books have a paranoid subtext that appeals to me: in the world of the Millennium Trilogy, institutions are corrupt or corruptible, authority figures are mostly evil or as thick-headed as a triceratops, and the only thing standing between citizens and the unchecked power of corporate and government officials are individuals like Salander with unshakable ethics.

But given the multiple failings of the trilogy, Salander's personality and the stridently anti-capitalist undercurrent of the books aren't enough to make the Trilogy really good. 

I’d give Dragon Tattoo three nooses because it works better than the other two books in the trilogy. And I would give the other books two nooses each; Fault my math if you will, but to me, the whole package is worth two and a half nooses.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Burned" by Second-Rate Carl Hiaasen

By Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Vintage (June 30, 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375700684
ISBN-13: 978-0375700682
Read between Oct. 31 and Nov. 10

In Powder Burn, a Carl Hiaasen thriller that was originally released at the height of Southern Florida's “Miami Vice” drug revolution in the 1980s, Chris Meadows is an architect who enjoys building things. 

He does, anyway, until the day he watches in horror as a former lover and her little girl are accidentally killed by a Cuban hit man chasing a car full of cocaine dealers.  At that point, Meadows decides that it’s time to do a little demo work – on the hit man’s organization and boss.

What follows, however, is nearly 300 pages of “vacation reading” in the worst sense of the term: this revenge-fueled thriller only holds together if your brain goes on vacation for entire chapters at a time.

Powder Burn is one of Hiaasen’s earlier books, apparently written before he had the confidence to unleash the outrageous sense of humor that brought us such memorable characters as Skink, the former Florida governor who now lives in the glades and subsists on roadkill, or Chemo, the scarred killer who loses a hand to a barracuda and has his stump fitted with a weed-whacker. 

There are moments of humor in Powder Burn, but they are few and far between.

Instead, what Hiaasen and his co-author give us is a rather unremarkable suspense novel that turns on a series of  unbelievable coincidences. If your basic Hiaasen is like Elmore Leonard on laughing gas, Powder Burn is more like Dutch on one of those days when he mails it in (Stay Cool, Road Dogs, Djibouti, etc.).  It is readable, but it isn’t the sort of party a Hiaasen yarn normally offers.

The characters are uniformly flat: they include such tired standbys as the apparently bent Cuban-American narc, his by-the-book white-bread partner and a battalion of muy estupido drug henchmen who seem as faded and familiar as the d├ęcor in a Motel 6. Meadows’ current squeeze Terry – an unlikely combination of bush pilot and fashion plate – serves as the sole Smurfette character.  She plays such a marginal role in the action that she doesn’t even get to be decently menaced by the bad guys.

Meadows, the hero of the piece, and his nemesis, Jose Bermudez, a billionaire banker who schemes to split the drug business with his elderly Colombian counterpart, then eventually nudge the Colombian aside, have the worst failing characters in a Hiaasen novel can have: they are boring.

We know the banker is evil, not because he does things that are particularly evil, but because Hiaasen tells us he is; we know Meadows is heroic because . . . well, because he does a lot of really stupid things but survives anyway. Only a hero could get away with being such a doofus.  

The one really original character in the entire novel is Meadows’ occasional chess partner, Arthur Krim, and in him you can see traces of the kind of interesting and amusing people that populate Hiaasen’s later – and much better -- tales.

If you are out of good Hiaasen – which I was when I picked this up – by all means give Powder Burn a look.  Sure, it has an idiot plot, but the pace is rapid enough that you don’t notice the gaping holes until you are done. In the meantime, it’s a readable enough time-waster, all things considered. 

But first-rate Hiaasen can be extraordinary, while there are lots of other hacks out there that can write just as good a thriller as Powder Burn. So why not give your hard-earned money to one of them instead of the guy who is slumming? Rewarding the slacker would be the biggest burn of all.

Personally, I rate Powder Burn only three out of a possible five nooses.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gone . . . But Unforgettable!

By Gillian Flynn
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Crown; First Edition June 5, 2012
ISBN-10: 030758836X
ISBN-13: 978-0307588364
Read from October 12 to 15, 2012

Nick Dunne has a problem:  his wife, Amy, apparently the victim of foul play, has disappeared on their fifth anniversary.  Making things worse, it looks like she’s been murdered and Nick has no alibi.

This is the set up to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, as slick a little thriller as you are likely to run across.  Is Amy dead? Did Nick kill her? All the clues seem to point that way, but still. . . By the last of its 419 pages, Nick and the reader have gone through more changes than a runway model in a Paris fashion show.

I finished “Gone Girl” at 4:30 a.m. on October 15 after a rare all-night reading session. That gives you some idea of how much I liked it. The book is very well plotted, has good character development and as as many twists as a backroad in Missouri, the place where the action takes place.

As a bonus, it has an ending that, while not completely unexpected, still manages to give you a mild surprise.

If you are the type of reader who wants to see justice done in a whodunit, Gone Girl is probably not your cup of tea. If you, like me, don't mind seeing bad people get away with bad things, check it out. I rate it four out of five nooses: