Review: Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

nobody-moveIn Nobody Move Denis Johnson embraces classic noir in all its violence, bleakness and black humour. It’s a slender, sparse hardboiled tale about a triumvirate of hard-on-their-luck, morally bankrupt people — gambler Jimmy Luntz, debt collector Gambol and gorgeous divorcée Anita — whose stories all interlock as they struggle for survival.

With dialogue as sharp as Elmore Leonard’s and littered with characters the grandmaster would be proud of, Nobody Move won’t convert non-noir acolytes — this is a fairly traditional tale in the style of Westlake, MacDonald and Thompson — it’s a searing example of the genre, and so far removed from anything else I’ve read by Johnson. Train Dreams was a tiny masterpiece; Jesus’ Son and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a potent smattering of tales. Next on my list, the novel: Tree Of Smoke.

ISBN: 9780312429614
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 196
Published: 27th April 2010
Country of Publication: US

Review: The Rip by Mark Brandi

9780733641121.jpgI’m convinced that under the hood of Mark Brandi’s novels thrums a noir engine.

Wimmera and The Rip —  both intoxicating, unsettling masterpieces — feature characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration, induced perhaps by events outside their control, but perpetuated by their own actions. One bad choice begets another in the hopes to solve or rectify the first. It starts as a gradual slide, then progresses into a nosedive from which there is no return. To use Otto Penzler’s words: the protagonists of Wimmera and The Rip are “entangled in the web of their own doom.”

We’re attracted to such stories because its human nature to ruminate on the bad decisions people make, and avow to avoid walking that same path. We witness their mistakes so we don’t have to make them ourselves.

Or so we hope.

With sparse, yet beautiful prose, Mark Brandi portrays destitution and addiction with neither voyeurism or judgement; instead he paints a devastating portrait of two people (and a dog) running the long marathon of struggle and survival on the streets of Melbourne. But on the streets, interpersonal relationships are just as likely to open you up to salvation as damnation. Which is precisely the case when Anton — our narrator’s companion — welcomes Steve into their lives.

Sure, Steve’s got an apartment they can crash in, and he’s got access to drugs; but there’s something wrong with the guy. Prone to fits of violence, not to mention the strong smell — like vinegar, but stronger — wafting from behind his padlocked door. Staying in this apartment, with a temperamental stranger for a flatmate, and Anton forced back into a life of crime to maintain the creature comforts of their new home, is a gamble; if it doesn’t pay off, the consequences are catastrophic. But when the alternative is life back on the streets, maybe it’s worth it; maybe it’s acceptable to close your eyes to the incongruities of the apartment, and Steve’s violent tendencies, and just accept and enjoy the daily hit that briefly whitewashes reality. When you can’t afford your next meal, can you really afford to take the moral high ground?

This is a story of real life: of human frailties and violence. It is chilling and completely credible as it speeds towards a dark inevitability. It is an incredible step forward for a writer of commanding gifts, who seems poised on the threshold of even greater accomplishment.

ISBN: 9780733641121
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Available: 26th February 2019

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

9780571335664Prepare to be played like a violin as Laura Lippman wrings suspense out of every possible aspect of her revitalisation of the classic noir tale of the sexy stranger passing through town.

During a beach vacation with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Polly Costello — just one of the names readers will soon learn to identify her as — gets up and walks away; out of the sun, and apparently, out of their lives. Gregg is apoplectic, but not as shocked by her abandonment as every other husband might be; Polly is, after all, he reasons, a wildcat he picked up in a bar four years ago. So while he’s stuck playing single dad, Polly starts a new life, which is merely a phase in her long-term plan. She gets a job as the waitress at the High-Ho during the peak of the summer season; so, too, does the mysterious, attractive stranger she met on her first day on the lam. Only they didn’t meet by accident; Adam Bosk has been watching Polly for some time, and at first, his job as chef at the High-Ho is merely a cover story to stay close to her. But their chemistry is undeniable, and they quickly become lovers, both with secrets that could not only end their relationship, but cost their lives.

It’s not murder that makes Sunburn thrum; it’s deception, and the consequences of secrets, and the lengths people will go to in order to keep them sacrosanct. Lippman, who plots more conscientiously than anyone else in the field, digs deep into her characters, then deeper, into past and present until all is revealed, right up until the shocking climactic confrontation.

This is a gripping, wrenching, brilliant piece of noir, and quite possibly the best novel super-scribe Laura Lippman has penned. Sunburn will delight long-time fans and make the author new ones.

 

ISBN: 9780571335664
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 1-Mar-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Sins of the Father by Lawrence Block

9780752834528

Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, The Sins of the Father, is exactly what I want from a crime novel. It’s spare and lean, and propulsive. No gimmicks, stripped of anything even remotely superfluous. The mystery, which seems open and shut, is of course anything but, and quickly unravels into something more menacing. And as a series-starter, it prevails, brilliantly and unequivocally. It tells the reader: this is Matt Scudder; get used to the name. He’s stickin’ around awhile.

The Sins of the Father sees Scudder hired by a distraught father to investigate the recent stabbing murder of his estranged daughter. Not to solve it, because the apparent killer — his daughter’s gay male roommate — has already been arrested, and self-inflicted his own punishment, by hanging himself in his cell. No, the girl’s father merely wants to understand why anyone would want to kill his daughter, and what circumstances lead to her murder?

The Scudder novels always have two protagonists: the man himself, naturally, and New York City. The two are inseparable, like Batman and Gotham City, and Superman and Metropolis. And mid-1970’s New York is a hell of a place, rife with strange and dangerous characters and corner-street bars. Scudder’s NYC isn’t a place I’d necessarily want to visit, but I’m always more than happy to witness through his eyes. With token brusqueness and larconic wit, he delves into the lives of the murdered woman and her roomate, untangling sordid lives, where no one is innocent, even if they’re not necessarily guilty of the crime being investigated.

The Sins of the Father is brilliant. The plot hums along without a wasted sentence, and despite its confined length, Block still allows snippets of Scudder’s personality and foibles to shine through. It’s going to floor you with ingenuity; it’s not breaking any moulds, it doesn’t redefine the genre: it’s just a really, really well written crime novel. Which is par for the course, obviously; we’re talking about Lawrence Block, here.

ISBN: 9780752834528
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 6-Jul-2000
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner

9781786890634

A spare, propulsive, ever-intensifying noir novella by the creator of Mad Men.

With Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner has written a superior, haunting thriller about obsession and parental love, laced with moral ambiguity, with a sobering ending that lands like a gut-punch.

Almost entirely void of dialogue, Weiner’s sparse expository style works thanks to razor-sharp sentences and characterisations. We’re introduced to Mark and Karen — set up by mutual friends — who marry and quickly find themselves expecting a baby, Heather, who — when she enters their lives — becomes the centre of their universe. It would seem the perfect life, the Breakstone’s the idyllic family living in an apartment building west of Park Avenue, with barely a hint of menace in the text. That is, until Weiner introduces Robert ‘Bobby’ Klasky, born into poverty and violence ten years after Mark and Karen’s first date, whose emotional corruption results in a spree of crimes that escalate in seriousness as he gets older. From then on, the reader knows: at some point Klasky and the Breakstone will cross paths, and the repercussions will be catastrophic. But events don’t necessarily play out as you’ll expect.

Heather, The Totality is a superb read-in-one-session book that exposes the harsh realities of love, and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.

ISBN: 9781786890634
Format: Hardback  (214mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 144
Imprint: Canongate Books Ltd
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley

cambodia-noir-9781925368222_hr.jpgTake your time with Cambodia Noir. Savour it. Although the journey is dark, it is truly unforgettable.

The great Otto Penzler – distinguished editor of mystery fiction in the United States, and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City – once said of noir: “[It] is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with.” For the characters who populate these tales, there is no happy ending. These people spend their lives stitching themselves up inside their own body bag. Their demise is entirely their own doing; they are trapped in a fate of their own construction, a prisoner of inevitability.

The spiral of once-great war photographer Will Keller, the protagonist in Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, began years ago. An inauspicious photograph taken in Kabul inspired his relocation to lawless, drug-soaked Cambodia, where he spends his days floating from one score to the next, taking any job that pays, while he fills his nights with sex, drugs, booze, and brawling. Keller’s terminal, and he knows it; he just doesn’t care, pushed far beyond the point of no return. But his spiral toward oblivion is interrupted by Kara Saito, a beautiful young woman who begs Will to help find her sister, who disappeared during a stint as an intern at the local paper. Unfortunately for Keller, there’s a world of bad things June could gave gotten mixed up in. The Phnom Penh underworld is in uproar after a huge drug bust; a local reporter has been murdered in a political hit; and the government and opposition are locked in a standoff that could throw the country into chaos at any moment. Keller’s best clue is June’s diary: a disturbing collection of experiences, memories, and dreams, reflecting a young woman at once repelled and fascinated by the chaos of Cambodia. But is there any truth to the young woman’s words?

Cambodia Noir is propulsive and electric. It’s classic noir revitalized in a setting rarely explored in the genre. Nick Seeley uses the skills honed as a reporter, and submerges the reader in the sights and smells of Phnom Penh, celebrating Cambodia’s culture and its idiosyncrasies even as he shines the spotlight on its dark underbelly. It’s a novel that is thematically weighted, with an ending that begs for discussion. You won’t read a finer contemporary noir novel than this.

Cambodia Noir is a novel that impacts. Make sure you feels its resonances.

ISBN: 9781925368222
Format: Paperback
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Australia
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Publish Date: 1-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

Honky Tonk Samurai.jpgConsidering the sum of its parts, I expected to enjoy Honky Tonk Samurai more than I did. Which isn’t a comment on its ingredients; just that, this is a novel that thrives on the chemistry between its protagonists: Hap, a former 60s activist and self-proclaimed white trash rebel, and Leonard, a tough black, gay Vietnam vet. And while I appreciated this private eye “odd couple” and their crude humour, their wit eventually wore a little thin. Whereas Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III keep me chucking until the final pages of their escapades, come the end of Honky Honk Samurai I found Hap and Leonard’s exchanges grating.

If you’ve read the previous eight novels in this series, this’ll be a must-read. It’s simply not a novel tuned into my sensibilities. And that’s absolutely okay. Maybe I’m just a meat-and-potatoes kind of crime reader, and Honky Tonk Samurai just adds a little more spice than I’m accustomed to. It may well be your flavour!

 

ISBN: 9781444787214
Format: Paperback  (234mm x 166mm x 26mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Mulholland Books
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 11-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Black EyedIn 2008, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville told an interviewer “I took the pseudonym [of Benjamin Black] to indicate that the venture was not an elaborate, post-modernist, literary joke. It is straightforward. I simply discovered I had this facility for cheap fiction.”

Cheap fiction? Huh.

I prefer Raymond Chandler’s view: “Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that [the detective story] is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.”

You tell him, Ray.

I try my very best to separate authors from their creations. That’s the purpose of storytelling, after all: to explore alternate personalities and perspectives. A story about an inherently racist protagonist does not mean its writer shares those views. A character that spouts political ideologies in stark contrast of my own isn’t indicative the author feels the same. And if the author does, well, the astute ones shroud their true beliefs, and don’t allow external stimuli to influence their work, or their readers’ opinions of it.

After hearing Banville’s public degradation of my beloved genre, I stayed away from his Benjamin Black novels, despite favorable reviews. This is a crowded genre: I don’t need much of an excuse to overlook an author’s work. But when Banville was appointed by Raymond Chandler’s estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel, I knew I’d break my promise. I’m still unsure why. Contemporary attempts to reinvigorate legendary characters have had mixed results in my mind. I enjoyed, but never loved, the John Gardner and Raymond Benson James Bond novels; appreciated Jeffery Deaver’s effort; and thought William Boyd’s recent SOLO was laudable, but lacked the panache of Fleming’s prose and plotting. Same goes for the latest installments in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series; good novels, entertaining, but they never match the original works.

But Chandler is the crème de la crème – – and Marlowe is the iconic hardboiled detective. Some authors might buckle under the strain of such an undertaking, and rightly so. Adapting Chandler’s prose; capturing Marlowe’s voice; these are novels that have been studied religiously for decades now. Readers of Banville / Black’s novel THE BLACK EYED BLONDE (a title left to waste by Chandler) will be scouring the text for inaccuracies. I certainly was. And when I was done – – a mere three days after reading its opening page – – I was left satisfied, impressed by the author’s resuscitation of Marlowe’s world, but pondering whether it was needed in the first place. After all, Chandler’s novels have proven they’ll resonate forever.

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE begins with a woman, naturally. Clare Cavendish wanders into Marlowe’s office with a job for him. Her ex-lover is missing, and she wants him found. This begs the obvious question: why. But Marlowe is blinded by her beauty and accepts the job. The pace is plodding in the first 100 pages – – almost as though Banville / Black was finding his way into Marlowe’s world, desperately seeking traction and a hook to propel the narrative forward – – but when he finds his mojo, events spiral rapidly: murder, mayhem and torture abound as the plot snakes its way to a perfunctory conclusion. This is an absorbing rather than thrilling read; it’s not adrenaline spikes that will keep the pages turning, rather a complete immersion in 1950’s Los Angeles. Whatever my gripes about Banville / Black’s commentary on the genre, one cannot argue he’s a literary master and stylist.

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE is an unessential entry in the Chandler canon. This is not doing the novel a disservice. Banville / Black has proven himself a capable impressionist – – and enticed me to check out his Quirke novels – – but this is a perpetuation of a character who doesn’t need a revival to remain relevant. Banville / Black doesn’t offer us anything we haven’t seen before – – imagine the uproar if he had! – – but because of these constraints, THE BLACK EYED BLONDE reads like an echo. There’s no doubt it possess resonances of Chandler’s brilliance, but plenty of other contemporary hardboiled fiction has done the same, without exploiting the Marlowe name.