Archive for November, 2010

Mayhem, Murder, And Malice

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Andrew Vachss writes like this. Short, choppy sentences. Lean thoughts. No fat. He writes like people talk. Don’t look for flowing phrases. You won’t find them. Why should you? Who the hell talks like that anyway? His words are spat out. Like phlegm. Except they stick to your soul. They burn your heart. They make your joints ache. If you’re looking for beauty, you’ve looking at the wrong author. If you like prose with a punch to the kidney, he’s your man. But be warned. Internal bleeding is likely.

As Vachss might say, all that philosophical crap in the opening paragraph is simply a long winded introduction to his 1993 novel, SHELLA. Shella is a girl’s name. A tough girl. Are there any other kind in Vachss’s novels? This girl is as tough as they come. But she’s never quite gotten over the sexual abuse her father put her through. Who does? She’s into stripping in clubs, running the old badger game, dominatrix duty, and eventually a whole lot worse. Guess what though? The novel’s not really about her. Well, not really. It’s about the guy who’s looking for her. And what he might or might not do when he finds her.

His name…well, you’re never quite sure what his name is. One guy he works for calls him Ghost. Maybe because he seems to be one. He’s actually the narrator of the story as well as the protagonist. And he’s a piece of work. He kills people. For a living. No knives, guns, poison or other tricky stuff. He uses his hands. Mostly, he breaks their necks. He’s very good at it. He’s had a lot of practice. And in this novel he gets a lot more.

The plot of SHELLA is pretty simple. Ghost has just gotten out of the slammer and he’s looking for his old partner, Shella. They had a lucrative set-up until something went wrong and he took the fall. Initially, you think he’s looking for her because he really wants to be with her again. But as the pages fly by, you’re not quite sure of his motive. Maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe he’s got a score to settle. She never came to his trial. She never visited him in lock-up. She never wrote him in the pen. But he’s determined to find her. And that determination leaves a pretty bloody wake.

Ghost is not maniacal. Just practical. He does what he does because he’s good at it. It’s not all his fault. He had a misspent youth. Reform schools. Work farms. Run-ins with a child rapist he beat to death with batteries rolled up in a sock. He learned to defend himself by erasing whatever was bothering him. That’s a skill some people were willing to pay well for. Ghost had another thing going for him. He looked like a regular guy. Not big. Not small. Not short. Not tall. Not fat. Not thin. Just a guy. The kind of guy nobody ever gives a second look to. Being a non-entity can come in handy. Especially in Ghost’s line of work.

Eventually, as a quid pro quo to helping him find Shella, Ghost agrees to do a job for a guy. A job that lands him in the middle of an exceptionally sordid white supremacist group. Vachss does a particularly good job of making the group members seem even more reprehensible than the hookers, pimps, gangsters, and crooks who populate the pages around them. Even though it takes you a while to get past the books early depravity and brutality, by the time you’ve spent even a few chapters with these racist yahoos, you’re pulling for Ghost to dispatch the lot of them with extreme prejudice.

It’s not a plot spoiler to tell you that Ghost eventually finds Shella. Though their reunion is not what you assume it will be. There’s still a hard-edged surprise or two waiting. And like the best of noir novels, it’s laid out lean, dry, unsympathetically. Yet it still brings a bit of sadness to your soul.

The Fiction Fortune Hunter suggests you rummage through the used book stores and online purveyors and find a copy of SHELLA to curl up with. It’s vintage Vachss. Hard. Heavy. But not heartless.

The Raven At West Point

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

From what you assume is his deathbed, a retired detective recounts his last case. As he does so, visions swirl around him. Visions of loved ones, confidantes, crooks and more. He is determined to put on paper the events of the last few months of the year, 1830. Events that mark a most curious and compelling case. Made even more so by the involvement of one of history’s most macabre authors, Edgar Allen Poe.

That’s the setup for a thoroughly engrossing novel entitled The Pale Blue Eye. It’s the tale of Augustus Landor, former New York City constable, widowed, suffering from consumption, now living in a cottage near the Hudson River, and assuming that his career is over. Until a Lieutenant from West Point arrives at his door with a summons from the institution’s superintendent. Landor accompanies the officer back to the fortress a few miles from his home and a Gothic mystery begins.

It seems a tragedy has occurred. A young cadet has apparently hanged himself. Which, in itself, is a woeful, not to mention potentially embarrassing predicament for the citadel of soldiery. But unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. There’s also the fact that extreme insult has been added to injury. Someone has seen fit to carve the heart from the cadaver.

Landor is pressed into service by the academy’s headmaster and his subordinate. His task is to find the fiend who would do such a thing, before word of the dastardly deed reaches the outside world. As you might expect in a story of this sort, the hanging and desecration is just the beginning. More cadets will soon find the feel of the noose, and the indignity of the knife.

But what you might not expect, and what takes this novel out of the realm of the ordinary, is the young cadet who Landor chooses to assist him in his investigations. He is none other than the once and future Edgar Allen Poe. It’s true that the man, whom many consider to be the world’s most illustrious mystery, horror, crime, science fiction writer, was in fact a cadet at West Point. And this fact is used to entertaining effect as The Pale Blue Eye’s author, Louis Bayard, unspools a fiction that could fit nicely into Poe’s own list of terror tales.

Yes, bodies begin to pile up. Hearts continue to disappear. Suspects begin to emerge. Like the post’s physician, a clinical yet secretive man. The head authoritarian, who appears to be wound tighter than an overworked watch. Various cadets, an epileptic spinster, her batty mother, a scullery maid who enjoys frequent dalliances, and perhaps, even Poe himself.

Bayard does a masterful job of bringing the character of young cadet Poe to the page. He emerges as awkward an outsider as he probably actually was. An aspiring free spirited poet who finds himself in the most regimented of environments. But is he also a murderer? Keep turning the pages to find out.

The author captures the speech and cadences of the period without making anything sound stilted or dated. You actually believe it’s autumn near the end of 1830, and you’re just as compelled by the crime fighting devices used then as any you might find on CSI today. Though to Bayard’s credit, there’s more literature than science that leads to this story’s conclusion. And in the best tradition, the ending is both surprising and ordained from the outset.

The Pale Blue Eye was published in 2006. It’s probably still around in paperback or hardcover in some bookstores or online. Seek it out. The 400 plus pages will keep you coming back for more. Like the best of The Fiction Fortune Hunter’s recommendations, it’s unforgettable.

Literary Spontaneous Combustion

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Much has been written about Norman Mailer. He is certainly one of the most famous authors of the last century. And while his prodigious writing talent is the source of most of that fame, his innate ability as a self-promoter and a publicity magnate bear a large percentage of the responsibility for his fame as well. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-founder of The Village Voice. Harvard and Sorbonne alum. Persevering pugilist. Bad film director. Unpredictable chat show guest. His life seemed to be made for the television medium he grew up and grew old with.

Mailer and his contemporaries, such as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and more, are given credit for innovating what came to be known as narrative nonfiction, or the new journalism. And certainly Mailer’s works, like The Executioner’s Song and The Armies of the Night are fascinating examples of truth scaling literary heights.

But I’d like to focus this post on Norman Mailer’s big bang fiction beginning. In 1948, Rinehart and Company published The Naked And The Dead. A big, meaty, page-turning and thought provoking novel of World War II. It was immediately met with a fusillade of praise. Time magazine called it “the best novel yet about World War II.” Newsweek said it was “brutal, agonizing, astonishingly thoughtful.” The Providence Journal hailed it as “the most important novel since Moby Dick.” The Naked And The Dead, along with James Jone’s From Here To Eternity and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, tower above the infinite number of novels that sprang from that conflict. But Mailer, who was only twenty-four when he penned his masterpiece, seems to this writer, to have best captured all the savagery, heroism, boredom, bravery, cowardice and terrible coincidence that were part and parcel of that gigantic struggle.

The author tells his tale by focusing mostly on one platoon engaged in the battle for the possession of the Japanese-held island of Anopopei in the South Pacific. Through the troopship taking them ashore to the rain-soaked days and nights in pup tents (continually being blown away) to the final mission undertaken to provide recon for the larger invading force, Mailer weaves a tapestry of men engaged in human endeavor no human should be forced to endure. Cutting back and forth between the men on the island and their lives prior to the war, we live with this cross-section of Americans that have since become rather stilted stereotypes in lesser hands. But with Mailer at the helm, their fears, desires, their longing for home and a safer place is mesmerizing. So too is the bigger picture that they are part of, as the author parallels one squad’s struggle with the battalion commander’s intricate offensive that must be achieved at any cost. And always looming overhead, for officer and enlisted man alike, is the constant need to come to grips with why they have to be where they are, and whether they’re really making any difference at all.

Not unlike Orson Welles, who created a sensation in his youth with his film, Citizen Kane, a young Mailer wrote the great book about the great war. And while subsequent efforts in his long and storied life garnered fame and recognition for him as well as his works, none ever eclipsed the power of The Naked And The Dead. The Fiction Fortune Hunter suggests you find the time to read it. It was a modern classic in its day. Now its an historical one.