Thursday, May 1, 2014

April's Best Reads

April was a good month for reading. Max Hastings’s Inferno, which took up so much of March, set the bar high. Other writers were up to it.

Inferno: The World atWar 1939-1945, Max Hastings. The Second World War is too large a topic to be handled in detail in a single volume; Hastings acknowledges as much in the foreword. He then proceeds to provide more than a military history, echoing the best elements of Cornelius Ryan’s brilliant work (The Longest Day, The Last Battle, A Bridge Too Far). With insights gathered from generals, politicians, soldiers, and civilians, Hastings has written a masterful history that not only touches on all aspects of the war, but provides incentive to look for more detail on matter one might not have been aware of before. A fluid and eminently readable writer, Hastings spares no one with his criticism—though not without taking conditions into mind—and praises where earned—again, not unconditionally—providing adequate evidence for either. I’d intended to read this in chunks, mixing in fiction along the way, and found I couldn’t put it down. Highest recommendation.

Jimmy Bench Press, Charlie Stella. The darkest of the Godfather’s oeuvre, and I’ve now read them all. Shows the most overt influence of George V. Higgins in both the dialog-driven story and the darkness of the plot, which resolves itself in the only way it could, never giving away too much. Cheapskates may still be my favorite Stella for the humor with which it handles the mob; this is just as good. Brilliant storytelling that never draws attention to itself.

Colt, Jude Hardin. Maybe even better than Pocket 47, the original, and still my favorite, Nicholas Colt story. Colt is approached during the annual drunk he uses to commemorate the anniversary of the death of his wife, daughter and band, by a young man who wants him to find his biological father. Colt passes out, the kid disappears, and very little goes as expected afterward. Just when Hardin makes you worry he’s about to have jumped the shark, he reels things in with a satisfying and believable ending.

The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, Les Edgerton. Imagine Les Edgerton’s writing. Dark, despairing noir. Habitual criminals. Rapists. This is nothing like that. The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping has a plot John Dortmunder would have trouble negotiating, and Edgerton milks it for all it’s worth. Not for the faint of heart, the crime that really sets the story off involved kidnapping a gangster—no, I can’t do it. I don’t want to spoil even that much. Suffice to say kidnapping, sexual fetishes, forced amputation, Tourette’s Syndrome, certain death, and one-way tickets to Skagway AK are all played for laughs, and he pulls it off. You may find the book takes a little time to catch its rhythm; the beginning is good, but feels at time like he’s trying too hard. Stay with it. Big fun. My daughter described the movie Ted as “Really funny and wildly inappropriate.” It’s like that.

Miami Blues, Charles Willeford. Another of those writers I decided I’d better get to before I missed my chance. (I have a recurring nightmare I’ll be in a horrible accident and the EMT ready to plug me into a bag of blood will pause when his partner asks, “Have you ever read [insert name of author I really should have read by now]? I say no and the EMT says to his partner, “Fuck him. Let him die.” At least now Willeford can’t kill me.) I saw the movie twenty years ago—Fred Ward was born to play Hoke Moseley—and thought this would be a good place to start. It was. Willeford is everything I’d heard he would be. Written so the eye pulls itself across the page, the characters, story, dialog, and setting come together to create a story greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts were impressive themselves. Funnier than I expected, too.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré. I’d read a few lesser known le Carré’s before. After seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few months ago (the Gary Oldman movie version), I decided to get into the books that made his name, and started here, pretty much at the beginning. le Carré is a master, worthy of his praise. I’m not so old I remember the state of the world in the early 60s, but that’s okay: I get it now. Propelled through a dreary landscape by top-notch, understated writing, until it comes to an inevitable and oddly satisfying ending TSWCIFTC is the kind of novel almost never written today: a thriller that leaves you thinking about human nature when the book ends. It’s time to start working my way through his oeuvre in detail. (Side note: I read the 50th anniversary edition, with a foreword by the author. It’s worth getting just for that.) (Bonus side note: I haven’t seen the movie; I know Richard Burton starred. Imagining Alec Leamus’s lines spoken by Burton works very well, indeed.)


Mike Dennis said...

I have to agree on JIMMY BENCH PRESS. It was an outstanding example of gritty crime fiction from the point of view of a street level guy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As much as I like MIAMI BLUE, I like the next two even better NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD and SIDESWIPE.

Dana King said...

Thank you, Patti. I write these end-of month posts for three reasons:

1. To give some attention to a writer who is still looking to enlarge his niche of public attention, such as Jude in April.
2. To help readers (such as me) who have been meaning to read a better-known writer a place to start (as with Willeford and MIAMI BLUES).
3. (Because I'm not that altruistic.) In the hope that someone will see I've started with a new writers, and will give a suggestion on where to go next, as you have. Picking MIAMI BLUES as a place to start for Willeford was a no-brainer, like THE MALTESE FALCON for hammett or DEVIL WITH A BLUE DRESS for Walter Mosely. What to read next, now that he's got you hoked? That another good question.

Thanks for the suggestions. Adding them to the list for next time Willeford comes up on the rotation.