Thursday, July 1, 2021

Spring's Favorite Reads


I’m out of the business of talking about which books are “best.” There is too much personal taste involved, and the comparison isn’t even apples to oranges. Depending on the books, it could be steak to pork chops or even eastern North Carolina barbecue versus western North Carolina barbecue. (Didn’t know there was a difference? Heathen.) With that in mind, what follows are the books I enjoyed reading the most in the three months just ended.


Dodge City, Tom Clavin. Rolls the history of Dodge City as a cow town into biographies of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, with several entertaining digressions. This was a re-read for me, and well worth the time. Clavin has an engaging style, and the stories are fascinating, even more so because they’re true. If you have an interest in this period and these men, you’ll enjoy this.


Under the Bright Lights, Daniel Woodrell. The first book of the Bayou Trilogy and more of a straight-up crime story than his later works. All of the elements that made Woodrell Woodrell are here, though in a less fully developed form than you’ll see in Winter’s Bone. Few writers are as evocative and economical at the same time.


Blood Relatives, Ed McBain. An 87th Precinct novel from the 70s. I’ve written so much about McBain it’s hard to find something new, but it’s often overlooked how well he shows the changes in society over time without aging his characters at the sane rate. Steve Carella probably hasn’t aged five years in the twenty years between this book and Cop Hater, yet technology and society are contemporary to the year in which the story takes place and it’s never jarring.


Among the Shadows, Bruce Robert Coffin. First book of the John Byron series. Tightly plotted procedural with lots of inside stuff on investigations and how police departments run them. Or don’t, sometimes. Outstanding characters are well defined and delineated, with a dry wit that suits each cop, which makes sense: Coffin is a retired cop and knows this stuff cold. Lucky us, he has the writing chops to be able to tell the story in such an entertaining and enlightening manner. I’ll be back for the rest of the series.


The Ways of the Dead, Neely Tucker. Book 1 of the Sully Carter series. A journalist himself, Tucker knows his way around a newsroom as well as one would expect. What sets him apart is an ability to tell things straight without grinding any axes. Based on a true story that is at least as engrossing as any fictional account, Tucker adds a few ornaments to make The Ways of the Dead unique. Too often plot twists are too convoluted to withstand scrutiny; the big one left me gobsmacked until I thought back and saw how everything made sense. The next book in the series is already queued up to be read.


Every City is Every Other City, John McFetridge. His first book in quite a while, and worth the wait. Low-key humor, engaging characters, and two radically different parallel plot lines all fit together. Gordon Stewart is a film location scout/manager and part time private eye who starts out doing a favor for a friend, finds a body, and gets involved in a case way bigger than he can handle. If you’re looking for a book where you can reasonably think “This could happen” on just about every page, with plenty of opportunities for “I’m glad it’s not happening to me,” then this is the book for you.


Swag, Elmore Leonard. Not his best—he spends too much time having drinks with the “career ladies”—but the opening, closing, and writing are first-rate Leonard, which means at least as good as anyone else, ever.


Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy. This completes my sequential re-read of the Underworld USA trilogy. There isn’t much more I can write about Ellroy and his work than I have already. Suffice to say he is the most unique writer I have encountered, and I gain something every time I read him. Next year I’ll begin his current series with Perfidia. There’s no rule that says I can only read Ellroy once a year; I do have one that says I must read him every year.


Trouble is My Business, Raymond Chandler. Four of Chandler’s best “long stories” (as he referred to them): “Trouble is My Business,” “Finger Man,” “Goldfish,” and “Red Wind.” I’ve soured on Chandler over the past few years. He spends a little too much time on description in his novels, sometimes reaches too hard in his efforts to be clever, and I’ve read each novel so often I know what’s coming. (It didn’t help that I read his letters a while back and learned what an asshole he was.) I almost skipped him when his turn came up in the rotation, but I reached back for these stories and was glad I did. The shorter format keeps him from rambling, and these are all pretty close to perfect.

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