Sunday, January 17, 2016

The List

I bought a bunch of books from Soho Press in December, because they promised a free copy of Mick Herron's novella The List with my order.  The books I paid for are uneven in quality, but The List delivers.

Herron likes to write about the losers in intelligence work.  He is best known for his Slough House trilogy, wherein he discusses the pathetic existence of those who've messed up spectacularly but whom "it'd be impolitic to sack."  They eke out a living doing mindless back office work that sometimes actually results in something.  Even Herron's stand-alones reference one or more of the Slow Horses, as they're known, and this one is no exception.  In The List, the sort-of protagonist John Bachelor - you can't really call him a Hero, or even an Anti-Hero - misses an obvious signal with one of the assets he babysits, and sets in motion a small, inconsequential chain of events that sends another character to Slough House, where he with the infamous Jackson Lamb.  The story is so short, and there isn't a lot more than this but it has a nifty trajectory and ends, well, it won't take you long to read and find out.

The story doesn't move fast, and there isn't much action, but the writing is economical, and the precise description and careful language bring John le Carré to mind.  As does the way Herron somehow manages to keep the Cold War relevant, even in the 21st c.  There is a palpable sense that the Park, as MI5 is referred to given its location in Regent's Park, is not so much coasting on earlier laurels, as it is perpetually teetering on the brink of disastrous failure.  Somehow the modern world, with all its technology and vague but every now and then very real global threats, is more difficult for intelligence operatives to navigate than the previous bilateral one.  Herron sums this up beautifully when he notes that Bachelor, who "worked for the secret service in an era where half the population aired its private life on the web . . .  wasn't sure the Cold War had been preferable, but it had been more dignified."  JlC would approve.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Buddha's Money

Buddha's Money (1998, Bantam, this edition 2005, Soho Crime), the third installment in the Sueño and Bascom series from Martin Limón, reads like it was written to get a movie deal.  There are exotic and dramatic settings, beautiful and dangerous women, lost treasure, children in peril, chase scenes, and lots and lots of fights.  There are even dangerous beasties and fighting monks, and at times, the whole things has a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon vibe.  (I know, completely different country - except not entirely, as you'll find if you read this story.)  Extremely fast-paced, with lots of twists at the end, and more history than one might expect, Buddha's Money is entertaining but not deeply thoughtful.  Action - not contemplative investigation - drives this plot.  

That sounds like more of a criticism than it is.  This story has a lot to commend it, but it moves so fast into hard-to-imagine territory that it loses investigative nuance in all the dust-'em-ups.  Our Heroes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, are cops with the Eighth Army's Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Korea, in the early 1970s.  There's definitely a later-day Vietnam vibe in all of Limón's stories set here.  The red-light district is referred to as the ville, a number of the characters are Vietnam veterans with the psychic scars to prove it, and there is a sense of Americans running the show and not a damn thing any local can do about except make money off of dumb GIs in ways both legal and not.  

As the story opens, Our Heroes are called to intervene in the mugging of a Buddhist nun in the red-light district Itaewon.  They are quickly drawn into the kidnapping of an adopted girl from her hot-mess-of-an-American-vet father and her former-hooker/thief Korean mother (no angels, either one), which leads to the complex story of a missing rare antique that just about everyone in Korea wants a piece of - and are willing to double-cross or kill to get it.  There is a long history to the missing antiquity, and whoever gets it will have the path to untold riches as well as a legitimate claim to the long-defunct Dragon Throne in China.  

So you've got your Buddhist monks, your Mongolians, and some ancestrally-royal Chinese, all looking for this thing, and willing to kill or worse to obtain it.  Sueño and Bascom are enlisted by the parents of the kidnapped girl, but quickly get involved with a mysterious and beautiful antiques dealer, some nasty Mongolians, and a sweet little nun.  S and B drive all over Korea following leads, meeting beautiful ladies, and beating up pretty much anyone who gets in their way.  These two must be ironmen or something, they get their lights punched out almost every day (and give as good as they get), and somehow survive to keep going to the next rendezvous.  They also drive like maniacs, swim underwater for seemingly endless minutes, row boats across the sea, and drink heavily when the opportunity presents itself.   

I'm not going to attempt to say more about the story than this, because it would take too long and I'd probably miss a key piece.  But in the movie, a younger Jimmy Smits would play Sueño and if I can go x-generational, I'd cast Matt Damon as Bascom.

Image result for young jimmy smits

What do I like about these stories?  I like Limón's obvious command of place.  He writes vividly of both the gritty red-light district, where neon shimmers in the ever-present rain, and the green fields and mist-shrouded ricky islands away from the Korean capital.  The only setting that doesn't really come alive is Eighth Army HQ, which remains, perhaps intentionally, bland and even opaque.  Maybe that is because none of the action take place here.  Limón's writing is clean and does not distract either, although I can't quite decide if the story is being told by narrator Sueño in real-time, or after the fact.  And I do take issue with repeated descriptive tropes like bubbling saliva, little nuns, and sparkling neon.  There is also a lot of damp, and puddles, and fat raindrops, but it is monsoon season, so this works.  

I also like Our Heroes.  Ernie is a psychopath:  violence and policing provide the high that heroin did for him in Vietnam.  But that bad-boy aura is magnetic for the ladies:  he attracts them all, from hookers to nuns.  George is the good cop but emotionally vulnerable - army life provides a kind of family for this Cali-Mex orphan.  He is also the more thoughtful of the two, having learned some Korean and made an effort to understand the local history and culture.  And that's what keeps this story from becoming just a series of fights.  

Finally, I appreciate the background.  The only way you can possibly follow this story is because George takes the time to explain the historical background to you.  I feel like I may just possibly have learned something about Korea, even if it is history-lite.  George does this in manageable bites so not overly pedantic, but you have the sense that his partner really could not care less and is just interested in the next creep he can demolish or lady he can conquer with his ginseng gum.  

These guys are smart, and in their way, they care about the local population.  So I wish they didn't have to beat confessions out of their subjects, or the next plot-point out for the reader.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The White Whale, redux!

Last weekend we participated in what I hope is becoming an annual ritual:  the Moby Dick Marathon (MDM) at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  Loyal readers may recall that I read Moby Dick in 2014, spurred on by my husband and son who had both recently taken the plunge, er, voyage.  The following January I signed up to read in the MDM, and we all enjoyed it so much that Peter joined me in reading this year, and Isabel participated in the Kid's Marathon (reading an abridged version, natch). This was the 20th anniversary of the MDM, so there was a lot of media interest and general excitement about the whole affair.  You can read it about in the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and even hear a story about it on WBUR.*

But anniversaries aside, here's how it works every year.  Moby Dick is read, start to finish, stem to stern, spout to tail as it were, over the course of 25 hours on a cold weekend in January.  It was the New Year when Ishmael and Queequeg set out on their odyssey, from New Bedford, and it was from here also that Melville himself set out on his own whaling adventure aboard the Acushnet.  So, we begin at the beginning.  Someone famous always gets to read the first chapter or two.  (This year, it was Nathaniel Philbrick, author of many books including In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the vessel upon which fate some of the tale of MD is based.  And, conveniently, of which a major motion picture is about to open at a theater near you.)

Anyway, the opening chapters are read in a spectacular three-story gallery that contains a huge scale model of a whaleship that you can clamber about in (the Lagoda), and harpoons and prints and maps and general whaling stuff.  It is a bit distracting, but there is a big crowd because, well, call me Ishmael!  One of the most famous opening lines in all of English-language literature!  When the story moves to the Seaman's Bethel across the street, so move we, to attend the service described in the novel, complete with choral-society performed hymn and fierce sermon about - who else - Jonah.

After the action in the story leaves the Bethel, the reading continued this year in a spanking new fourth-floor gallery at the Wattles Jacobs Education Center back at the Museum, with a broad view of the gray, blustery port.  Peter and I took our cue, and read most eloquently from chapter 11, about Ishmael and Queequeg basically getting to know each other by having a smoke and sharing a bed.  I think they were running behind at that point, as we felt our time was cut just a wee bit short.  But the important thing is that we acquitted ourselves with aplomb, tripping over nary a word and letting Melville's rich phrasing roll off our lips like the great shroud of the sea . . . .

Here's me and Petey getting ready to read.

Others would read chapters in Mandarin, Hebrew, Dutch, French, and Portuguese and probably some others that I've forgotten now.  You could even attend a full reading of an abridged version in Portuguese, should you choose.

We Laskins set a course for Cambridge after our reading, given other social commitments, but the event continued into the next afternoon, when the MB Whaling Museum president would read the final chapter "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."  Last year, I read toward the end, so we stuck around for the dramatic finis.  It is pretty awesome.

Before all of this started, the Kid's Marathon took place.  About 50 youngsters took turns reading chapters from the Great Starts edition, and they were live-streamed to Iceland where it was being read simultaneously - it was some joint project about ocean conservation, which MD is often used to support.  Given our early spot in the main marathon, the organizers gave Izzy the final chapter, which she read with some brio and great poise.  You can see a video of her reading on my facebook page, and if Bill ever gets his act together, there is a video of me and Peter, as well.

The great thing about the MDM is that it is celebrating a big, gnarly, breathtaking, weird, and generally fabulous NOVEL - a book!  Who gets excited about old, wordy books anymore?  The young man standing next to me at the Bethel, underlining something in an already-dog-eared and bookmarked and heavily hand-annotated paperback copy.  And the others toting around the heavy volume that we have.  And the e-readers.  And so on.  There is also a loyal and devoted set of volunteers who make the whole thing happen ("Everyone who works here is an older lady" said Isabel.  I explained the concept of the docent to her.)  But the audience, and participants, are just everyday people like us.  Some students, some older people, some families, some singles, all united around one story.  They sit respectfully, or recline on the floor, books or e-readers in laps, luxuriating in the splendidly complicated language (no one-thousand-most-common-words here), chuckling together at the humor, and silently enduring the final hours of the chase, as Ahab gives into his madness and ends up, well, perhaps you should read it to find out.  Or you can join us next year for MDM21, because we have nailed our doubloon to the mast and plan to be there.  I desperately hope to get to read the chowder chapter ("Clam or cod?") someday.

ADDENDUM:  holy cow, I forgot about DICK.  If you've read Moby Dick, or maybe even just thought about it, or really if you just like words and humor, you should get DICK the Game and play it with your friends.  It takes words and phrases from MD, and asks you to complete modern-day sentences with them.  It is snorting, pee-in-your-pants funny.

*If you look very closely at the photo that accompanies this story, perhaps click on it to see a larger version, you will see Bill scratching his head way back in the corner of the Bethel.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2015, we hardly knew ye

Given the deafening silence here on Crime Pays for the past month plus, you would be forgiven for thinking I haven't been reading anything.  I have, really!  Things just got away, and maintaining the reviews here generates its own little pressure that of course compounds when not fulfilled.  And I'm not one for resolutions or turnarounds just because it is January for chrissakes.  Still, I would like to maintain this record, so I'm going to offer some capsules here of recent reads, and then start fresh.

Wolf Hall (2009, Henry Holt, this edition 2015, Macmillan), what?  That's not mystery, that's history, you are saying rhymingly to yourself.  True, we know how it ends.  But we don't really know how it was lived.  There is plenty written on Henry VIII and his crowd:  those he got along with, those he didn't, and those who, like Thomas Cromwell, he just kept close because they were too useful.  Cromwell's reputation is not exactly warm and fuzzy but Hilary Mantel presents him as a pretty complex character, and combined with Mark Rylance's fantastically nuanced portrayal in the televised version, you can't help but find him compelling.  

  "'Thomas Cromwell?' people say.  'That is an ingenious man.  Do you know he has the whole of the New Testament by heart?'  He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair.  H is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that has ensnared you for for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make.  With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep.  He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate.  Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk.  Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit."  (84)

Who wouldn't want this guy on their side?

What I liked best was the world Mantel created:  deeply described interiors and gardens and art and clothing and street scenes and meals.  It helped that I had the meticulously detailed PBS version in my mind's eye, but even without that Cromwell seems to pay as close attention to the running of his household as he does to Henry's fortunes.  This brief review can't do this novel justice and I'm probably the only person I know who hasn't read it.  But if you are among that group, don't wait!

As presented in Wolf Hall,  Cromwell is a thoughtful and often deeply caring individual, even if simultaneously as ruthless and ambitious as history has painted him.  Early 20th c. investigator Ian Rutledge is about as far as you can get from the latter, but certainly lines up as equally thoughtful and similarly aware of his place in some grand historical trajectory.  World War I veteran Rutledge is up to his usual solid, serious investigative tactics in Hunting Shadows (2014, William Morrow) but his ghostly sidekick Hamish is increasingly diminished.  Charles Todd has Scotland Yard send Rutledge to Cambridgeshire this time, to investigate two murders that are apparently unrelated, except for the fact that they were both committed by the same kind of military-issue rifle that was issued to soldiers in France during the Great War.  There are some good threads here about the war, including discussion of the isolating role of sniper, as well as sympathetic portraits of several men, in addition to Rutledge, who struggle to live with the emotional legacy of the war.  Hamish tags along as usual but doesn't play the same role as in earlier stories.  Here we see Rutledge grappling with his PTSD in a real and visceral flashback, during which he hides in a church, knowing that it is coming and desperately seeking a private place to temporarily fall apart.  The dreams come less frequently for him now, it seems, and Hamish seems content to just ride around in the back seat occasionally commenting.  The resolution of these murders - for of course, they are connected, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that - is tricky and will require your attention to follow.  In fact, the story kind of putts along for quite some time before all of a sudden getting complicated.  Stick with it, it is an interesting resolution, but still feels like the story didn't know where it was going, and then all of a sudden the author(s) said "I know!  Let's make so-and-so do such-and-such and be related to . . . ."

I don't necessarily believe in signposts pointing to the solution from the beginning, but I don't like an ending that is so surprising it feels tacked on.

Everyone needs a good read for the holidays, and I did dip back into The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries to revisit the Holiday Bogie, one of my favorite, if very short stories in this collection.  But what I really enjoyed was Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, part of Stephanie Barron's imaginative series of Jane Austen mysteries.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Here, JA is the "investigator" although mostly she just does what Jane Austen did best:  observe, comment, and resolve issues.  Barron has apparently done an enormous amount of research into Austen's life and times - the sources are, it would appear, abundant and rich - and with this eighth entry into the series, easily creates Jane and her family's world.  From her ebullient mother to priggish brother and ghastly sister-in-law, Jane's family are both represented and skewered, perhaps a bit more energetically than we might find in Emma or Pride and Prejudice, but enjoyably so all the same.  This story is much your standard country-house murder.  Jane and family are invited for part of the holidays to a great house, and shortly afterwards, a murder occurs - then another one!  Jane, not quite a busybody but adept at overhearing and picking up signs and interpreting, has a hand in the investigation into the deaths almost as soon as they happen.

Of course what was really lovely about this was the description of Christmas in a Regency-era British great house.   From bowls of flaming punch to a massive yule log to a splendid hunt and Twelfth Night ball, everything an Anglophile could want is here and I reveled in it.  The book also takes place in 1814-15, which is a rather fabulous time for lavish holidays, just the same period in which Boston Ballet's Nutcracker is set, and kind of around Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.  So my holiday season was basically a stage-snowy whirl of wintry Christmas confection (even if if was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve).

Of course, if you live in the 21st c. and are at all human and thoughtful, you might also think about what it took to create and maintain that lifestyle, the toll on the lives of workers and farmers and basically everyone who didn't benefit from inherited wealth or riches earned off the backs of others. Yes, these are the kinds of questions Downton Abbey raises now.  Applied to our era, this is why, as was noted online today in a discussion of ridiculously expensive restaurants, Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls.  We simply can't live that way, no matter how much we want to.  Even if we win the Powerball (est. jackpot at this writing:  $1.3 BIllion, that's a B).

I've been far too lax on this blog in recent months, both in content and quantity.  Here's hoping I can raise the bar back to previous levels in 2016.  Happy new year!