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, September 28, 2013

King's "Joyland" is a Whodunit With Vivid Characters and a Solid Mystery

By Stephen King
288 pages
( Hard Case Crime; First Edition June 4, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1781162646
ISBN-13: 978-1781162644

Stephen King is not primarily known as a mystery writer. 

According to his website, Stephen King.com, only a handful of the 45 novels he has written deal with crime (Dolores Claiborne, Misery, The Colorado Kid, etc.) and one of those is his prison drama, The Green Mile, which is less a mystery than a study of human good and evil with a supernatural twist.

Nonetheless, when King writes a whodunit, he writes a good one. And his latest, Joyland, released as a Hard Case Crime imprint in June, is one of his best.

Stephen King, known for his horror stories, is a dab hand with whodunits, too!

The novel is told from the point of view of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a summer job at Joyland, a beachfront North Carolina amusement park that has seen better days. 

There is no Madeleine's sweet scent to spark the story, no "best of times" or "worst of times:" The narrative unfolds with Jones as a much older man, reminiscing in the first person about events  that occurred many years before. He plunges directly into his story without any artifice, the way a stranger might during an impromptu conversation in a small town coffee shop.

The reader quickly learns Jones is a down-and-out scholar at a New England college who needs summer employment to continue his education. He answers a help-wanted ad he spots in a magazine and wins the job as a "dog's body" -- literally at times -- who keep's the place going.

Hanging over Devin's head is the depressing fact that he is being dumped by his girlfriend, Wendy. The break-up leaves him morose and mildly suicidal, with a tendency to sit in his boarding house bedroom listening to doleful tunes such as "The End" by Jim Morrison. As Devin puts it himself a little more than a dozen pages into the book:

"I was a twenty-one year-old virgin with literary aspirations. I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford with a good radio, occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart."

"Sweet, huh?"

At Joyland, Jones quickly becomes a favorite among most of the park's staff and customers -- particularly after he heroically saves the life of a little girl choking on a piece of hot dog and gives CPR to a long-time park staffer who is dying from an incapacitating heart attack.

The only supernatural element of the story is revealed during Devin's first visit to the park: Joyland is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young woman whose throat was slashed by a mysterious attacker  in the "horror house," a creepy ride that is often used as a make-out spot by Joyland's teenaged patrons. 

Despite the fact that the killer appears with his victim on at least two pictures that were taken by the park's photographers on the day of the murder, he left no other clues and the crime remains unsolved four years later.

As the summer winds on, Devin makes a number of friends who will end up playing a significant role in the story: he is taken under the wing of the park's elderly owner; another senior staffer becomes his protector and shows him the ropes; he becomes close to two college-age kids who also have been hired to work at the park, Erin and Tom; his landlady fills him in on local lore and the town librarian gives him information about the mysterious murder; finally, Devin develops a relationship with a crippled boy and mother, Mike and Annie, that will change his life -- and help him resolve his depression over his romantic breakup.

All the characters are deftly sketched and portrayed with a vivid and loving touch. Even relatively minor figures get King's undivided attention.

Part of the book's charm is that it leaves the reader with the sense that he or she actually knows these people. It seems strange to say but even though Joyland is only 288 pages long, it seems longer; King manages to pack more than a summer's worth of action into less than 300 pages, yet readers will finish the book wishing for more.

In addition, King makes good use of the amusement park and midway slang he puts in his characters' mouths.  Some of this argot is legit, taken directly from reference works about carny lingo. Quite a bit of it was simply invited by King, himself. Whether real or facsimile, all of his terminology is served up in a way that lets the reader know what it means, and it adds layers of verisimilitude to his story and believability to his characters.

Much of Joyland deals with Devin's recovery from his derailed first romance and his relationship with his workmates and the crippled child, Mike. But the engine that keeps the novel moving forward is the "whodunit" -- the grisly murder that occurred in the amusement park's "horror house." Devin becomes obsessed by a gruesome desire to see the slain girl's ghost and figure out who killed her; Erin is disturbed by the crime and its supposedly supernatural twist; Surprisingly, even Tom -- the most skeptical and hard-headed of the young trio -- is shocked and changed forever by the killing and its apparent connection to the otherworldly.

By the final pages, Devin gathers enough clues to unmask the villain. The solution to the mystery is not one of those cheapies where key facts are withheld until the bad guy is revealed: King arranges all the evidence as if challenging his readers to identify the culprit. But Joyland is not one of those novels where unmasking the villain is a critical part of the fun.

Instead, the novel is like a trip through the park's chamber of horrors: in Joyland, you will find that just enjoying the ride provides a bigger thrill than you'd get from winning a cheesy prize at one of the park's concession stands. And trust me: you, like Devin Jones, will find the experience haunting.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Shaky "Shakedown" from James Ellroy

By James Ellroy
413 KB, 66 pages
Byliner Inc. , Oct. 1, 2012
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

It was "The Wonder" that sucked me into the twisted universe created by L.A.-based crime novelist James Ellroy.

I began reading Ellroy's stuff when I picked up a copy of Clandestine in the early 1980s, not long after it was first released. I loved that book so much I read it again years later just to recapture my original rush of pleasure.

In Clandestine, LAPD Patrolman Freddy Underhill and his lover, assistant District Attorney Lorna Weinberg, are both well-drawn and believable and the other characters in the novel are equally vivid and unique. The plot is complex, the dialog tight and well-written. The novel has a refreshing moral complexity, playing hard against the question of whether a person can do good by violating his or her own moral code and the law.

Best of all, the entire novel turns on "The Wonder," the epiphanic sense of amazement that sometimes occurs when you unexpectedly learn somebody else's deepest, darkest secret. Protagonist Underhill first uses the term while describing how he bonded with his partner, the doomed patrol officer Wacky Walker:

"With Wacky it was poetry, wonder and golf; with me it was women, wonder and golf.  'Wonder' meant the same thing to both of us: the job, the streets, the people, and the mutable ethos of we who had to deal daily with drunks, hopheads, gunsels, weinie-waggers, hookers, reefer smokers, burglars and the unnamed lonely detritus of the human race."

The search for that electric moment of knowing, as raw and intimate as breaking into a stranger's house to rifle through the drawers and cabinets, looking for whatever might be hidden there, was why I had become a reporter. The "Wonder" was what it was all about.

I found myself an Ellroy fan, much as I already was a Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard fan, and began eagerly looking for each new book he published.

James Ellroy: Many hits, but a series of recent misses. . . 

Unfortunately, Ellroy began to lose his grip on me in 1995, about the time he wrote American Tabloid, the first of his "Underworld U.S.A." books. Ironically, what I most admired about his earlier works, including the so-called "L.A. Quartet" consisting of Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, was their structure and tight writing; Ellroy rarely wasted a word in those earlier novels, which were constructed as straightforward third-person narratives told from the point of view of an omniscient fly-on-the-wall. 

The new books, on the other hand, were more stylized, with passages of bebop language inserted here and there, high-flying hophead riffs in which Ellroy's exaggerated writing and feverish, drug-addled pace tried to capture the edgy undercurrent of the 1960s.  A lot of the new stuff seemed to me to be a waste of time -- a use of overwrought prose to disguise the fact that Ellroy was running out of story, of fresh new things to say.

I made it through American Tabloid but when I finished, I asked myself why I had bothered. I got two thirds of the way through The Cold Six Thousand before I put it aside, bored by the way its hyperbolic style overpowered its thin content. I got a copy of Blood's a Rover for a Christmas present the year it came out, but never even opened it.

I didn't like the change in Ellroy's material much, but I accepted it; after all, a writer has to write, even if he has run out of things to say.

Then a few weeks ago, I got a message from Amazon booming a short story by Ellroy called Shakedown that was being offered as a Byliner Original, a collection of terse tales published by Byliner.com. I could give Ellroy another chance for a measly $1.99.

I figured, "why not?"

As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute and two to take him."

Shakedown purports to be the recollections of sleazy private eye Fred Otash, a real-life Los Angeles character who appeared in two of Ellroy's "Underworld U.S.A." books and reportedly served as the model for Jake Gittes in the movie, "Chinatown."

Otash, who conveniently died in 1992 (dead men file no libel suits!), was a one-time LA cop who set up his own bent detective agency to feed hot celebrity gossip and scandal to the cheesy rags like Confidential that sprouted from the soil of the Southland after World War Two like fungus following a summertime rainstorm in Los Angeles. 

The story in Shakedown is that since his death, Otash has been hunkered down in purgatory, suffering vengeful indignities visited on him by those he pilloried in his gossip rag items before his death. That comes to a substantial amount of vengeful indignities because Otash threw dirt on a lot of L.A. society types and movie industry figures.

"Purgatory is shitsville," Otash tells us. "You're stuck with the body you had on earth when you died. You eat nothing but coach-class airplane food. There's no booze, no jazzy intrigue, no women. My earthly victims visit my cell unpredictably. They remind me of my misdeeds and jab me in the ass with red-hot pokers."

Ellroy -- yes, the author himself appears in the tale -- has contracted with Otash beyond the void to buy his memoirs. Based on the raw material alone, this sounds like a promising if unlikely set-up for an actual full-length novel. 

But Ellroy doesn't really develop any of this material. Instead, he strings together a number of loosely related episodes into a jumbled patchwork that substitutes for a coherent narrative, laced with jive passages like:

"I laffed, I roared, I howled. My gut bounced and banged the table. Ellroy wrote a check and dropped it on my plate. Ten G's -- va-va-va-voom!"

It seems to me that Ellroy had enough material in the 66 pages assembled here to actually write a book. All he had to do was pad the stuff out and give it some sort of narrative flow -- one of the back-plots that drives his other novels for example: for example, an attempt to blackmail a fictional starlet or studio head that takes a bad turn and forces Otash to actually uncover a murderer.  

Such a plot device wouldn't force Ellroy to rehab his bad-boy private eye very much and would actually give the story the coherence it lacks as a short subject.

Unfortunately, it appears that Ellroy took the easy route, scraping together a pile of raw notes trimmed out of his "Underworld U.S.A." series and kludging it into a "novella" offered strictly for laughs -- and an opportunity to see how many dopes would plunk down two bucks on an obvious scam.

Much as I hate to admit it, I was one of those dopes. Thinking back, I wonder why I went for it.

It's the only "Wonder" that I managed to eke out of Shakedown.

(Next week: Joyland, Stephen King's new thriller. . .)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

An Espionage Novel in Which the Bad Guys Are All On The Home Team

By John Le Carré
592 KB
320 pages
( Viking Adult; First Edition edition, May 7, 2013)
ISBN: 0670014893

John Le Carré, the creator of a long and illustrious string of spy novels that exemplify the "paranoid" school of thriller, plunges further into the darkness of paranoia in his latest novel, A Delicate Truth. But unlike the fantasies of truthers, birthers and other whack jobs who think they are besieged by a global cabal of high-level schemers, Le Carré's conspiracy is as believable as a document released by Wikileaks and as frightening as the fact that the world's most powerful military machine once invaded a tin-pot dictatorship in Iraq based solely on falsehoods.

In earlier books like Smiley's People, The Man Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Le Carré conjured a world with two distinct sides: us and them. The protagonist might run afoul of corrupt individuals on his own team -- as George Smiley did in Tinker, Tailor, for example -- but they were invariably turncoats working for "the other side:" the Soviets, Chinese, East Germans, Czech Internal Security, whatever.

In his new, post-Cold War formulation, the bad guys are worse than you could imagine -- and there is no other side. The evil they do is as functionaries of the protagonist's own government -- and for the benefit of shadowy corporate shot-callers whose patriotic interest is solely the content of the national treasury.

Spy novelist John Le Carré turns his attention to mercenary
spy services in "A Delicate Truth"

The plot is sordid and anything but simple: A Delicate Truth, is the counterpart to the official lie that has been used to cover up an intelligence catastrophe that occurred on the British colony of Gibraltar during the Gordon Brown era. A team of British special ops soldiers has been assigned to work with a U.S. intelligence-for-hire corporation whose personnel -- like most mercenaries -- are thugs, goons and flim-flam artists. Together they are to snatch a terrorist who is supposedly temporarily sheltering on the island to conclude an arms deal.

The delicate truth is that the terrorist is not on the island and never has been. The entire scenario was cooked up as a money-making scam by the suede shoe artists who run the U.S. intelligence corporation. The "extraordinary rendition" that is planned puts innocent people at risk -- and two of them end up dead as a result.

Overseeing this misadventure is Kitt Probyn, a past-his-prime Foreign Office deskie who has no operational experience whatsoever. While Probyn believes he has been tapped to monitor the op and issue the go, no-go order, he is actually there as window dressing because the British military would not commit combat troops to a "rendition" operation that is not putatively under the control of the foreign office.

The operation -- which was predicated on falsehoods and intelligence as fraudulent as the stockpiled WMD used to justify the invasion of Iraq -- goes horribly awry in a fashion that Probyn only learns about long after the fact. To keep him busy and quiet, he is given a luxury posting in the Caribbean and later knighted for exemplary service to the crown.

Meanwhile, Toby Bell, the private secretary for a governmental minister who is one of the originators of the plot, stumbles across traces of the Gibraltar operation by surreptitiously tape recording a meeting between the minister, Probyn and a mysterious arms lobbyist named Jay Crispin. He saves the recording and when he tries to raise the issue with his foreign office mentor, he is warned off. Despite this, the clues he gleaned from the recording haunt him for years afterward.

Eventually Probyn, now retired and living in a small community in Wales, accidentally runs into the commander of the British unit that worked the Gibraltar operation and begins to learn what actually happened. But just when he and the soldier are supposed to meet to memorialize their recollections, the soldier disappears. Probyn receives a call from a psychiatrist at a clinic that treats shell-shocked vets telling him the man is mentally ill and has been committed.  Unsatisfied, the retired foreign office bureaucrat makes contact with Bell.

Together the two push forward, looking for evidence of what has happened. At every turn they are sabotaged, either by government personnel or members of the American black ops team. For its last quarter, the story rips past at a furious pace, leading to a bleak and disturbing climax which, while not unexpected, is nicely set up by everything that has gone before.

The story is vintage Le Carré with characters whose personalities are so clearly portrayed you can almost visualize them in your mind's eye (I, for example, quickly settled on the British actor Bill Nighy as Kitt Probyn's doppleganger; if Nighy does not get the part in any film made from the novel, the casting director should be sacked!)

The plot, given the recent history of botched intelligence operations, the use of mercenaries and gun thugs as an adjunct to official military force, and the reliance on mendacity by governmental policy makers, seems like something you might read about in your morning paper.

It would be easy for Le Carré to rest on his laurels and continue to crank out old school spy thrillers set in the Europe of the 1970s and 1980s.  No doubt the stories would be as well-written as his classics, and quite as entertaining to read. There is little question they would keep the author's bank accounts topped up nicely and please a large number of his long-time fans.

But it is equally clear the author would find this safe route unsatisfying. He is mad as hell about what his country's government -- and that of the United States -- is up to, and revolted by the greasy corruption of the private spy enterprises that have popped up around the world to facilitate it.

Writing about the fraudulent secret courts that ostensibly "oversee" our increasingly privately-run, for-profit spy services in the Guardian newspaper last June, Le Carré  said, "Does anyone remember how we got dragged into the Iraq war – apart obviously from the dodgy dossier composed with the complicity of MI6? We went to war on the strength of information supplied by two ingenious fabricators."

"Yet, when it came to the vote in parliament, what was being whispered to the doubters in the corridors? Let me guess: 'If you'd seen the papers I've seen' – spoken with menace and conviction, and no doubt a hint of honest fear – 'you'd know which door to go through!' "

In fact, these are almost exactly the words recently used by U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently when President Obama and his minions were hell-bent on bombing the Syrians to punish Bashar al-Assad for allegedly gassing his country's rebels. The key evidence was -- and still is -- entirely classified and unavailable to the U.S. citizens who will have to pay $1.5 million for each of the missiles to be used and provide the live bodies for combat when the bombing inevitably proves inadequate, but Feinstein and Pelosi insisted that "if we could see what they had seen," we would willingly join the rush to war.

Who knows where that secret evidence Pelosi and Feinstein claim to have seen came from, how it was obtained or what it actually shows? No matter, they told us. "Trust us -- steps are being taken by those in a position to know."

This is precisely the sort of official mendaciousness Le Carré warns us about in his latest novel. His  readers are the better for his caveat.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bosch and Chu run into Departmental Politics Re-investigating an Impossible Cold Case

The Drop
(A Harry Bosch Novel)

By Michael Connelly
789 KB, 401 pages
ISBN: 1409134288
Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (November 28, 2011)

This story is set immediately prior to the last Connelly book, The Black Box.  When I picked it up, I mistakenly thought it was a new Harry Bosch novel, but it turns out I was the victim of Amazon's habit of inundating readers with ads for books by authors they have enjoyed in the past.

No matter, though: I don't regret having spent the money on The Drop because it is a solid thriller even if it is more than a year old.

The Drop is not Michael Connelly's newest thriller, but it's a winner nonetheless

In summary, when the solution to a cold case reached by two other L.A.P.D. detectives turns out to be impossible (DNA points to an ostensible perp with a felony sex crimes history, but the suspect would have been eight years old at the time the crime was committed), Bosch and his partner, David Chu, are assigned to take a second look at the evidence. Somebody appears to have messed up, but it isn't clear whether the misidentification is a one-off, or whether it will effect scores of other cases.

Before our two sleuths can really get started, Bosch gets dragged off the case to investigate the death of an L.A. city councilmember's son.

As the second case unfolds, Bosch runs into corrupt politics, a long-standing feud with the councilman, a pattern of police brutality and the continuing effect of all these past events in the present day. Someone high in city government is apparently pulling strings, and it is up to Bosch to avoid getting tangled up in them.

This is another good Bosch thriller with a close eye for police procedure, nicely drawn characters, a pair of compelling mysteries and plenty of time out for Bosch to interact with his teenage daughter, a peach of a character. The questions facing readers are: can our cold case expert sort out these two deaths without being sacrificed to the power structure? Can Bosch get the evidence needed to take a serial killer with 37 victims off the street? Will Chu, in a fit of pique, sabotage one of the cases to spite his new partner? and can the cops convince a sex crime victim who has, himself, become a predatory criminal, to help them close a long-standing mystery?

The drop isn't quite up to the standard Connelly managed in The Black Box, but it is still a solid thriller. If Connelly's latest was your first serving of Detective Bosch and you, like me, enjoyed the book, now is as good a time as any to catch up with the earlier novels in this series.