This is not the James Lee Burke novel for the uninitiated. It’s complicated, obtuse, and mystical. I’m deep in the series, reading them in order, and I generally liked this one. I found my mind wandering at times, but there were several riveting passages.
What? Huh? Cool! Those were some of my mixed reactions to this dark, modern day, Irish crime novel by a guy named Ken Bruen. It’s book number one in the Jack Taylor series. I always start with book number one, if I can help it, as you probably know by now.
Sue Grafton is one my favorite writers. I also like the occasional book about books, which led to Kinsey and Me. This is Sue Grafton’s discussion of her main character, Kinsey Milhone, combined with a bunch of short stories. Since I’m not a lover of the short story, the highlights of this book for me centered around Grafton talking about her relationship with her main character.
This is the third installment of the Easy Rawlins Mysteries by Walter Mosely, written in 1992, and it reaffirms why I’m reading these. It’s fresh, dark, and original stuff that puts Mosely squarely in the class with all the crime/mystery writers I read.
Kinsey is the best. Any modern, tough, but caring female character stands on the shoulders of Kinsey Milhone. That’s my view, and I’m sticking by it. Luckily, you’ll probably never see her in film, so you won’t get a sexed up and more vulnerable Kinsey that Hollywood would surely desire. Grafton is not selling the rights to Kinsey to anyone.
I’ve started to pile up Elmore Leonard paperbacks because they’re so reliable. Leonard employs this tactic of having multiple main characters. This book was an ensemble of quirky and interesting men and women, each of whom you got to know very well. Maybe one character got a little extra time, but barely.
Easy Rawlins (Ezekiel to you) is just a guy in LA trying to make a better life for himself in Watts during the 1950s. He “came across” $10,000 in the first book and invested it in a few rental properties. He’s making a decent living. That cain’t last though.
I really want to go to New Orleans. I’ve been through it a few times, but haven’t really explored things. James Lee Burke, through the observations of his main character Dave Robicheaux, paints a picture of New Orleans that is at times unflattering, but ultimately makes it appear to be a great place to visit.
I love American crime novels. I especially love American crime novels set in Southern California. It’s a whole sub-genre with giants like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Sue Grafton as examples. I recently added Walter Mosley and his character Easy Rawlins to my mix. I just finished the first of five (or so) and it’s stellar stuff.
Rawlins is different from Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Kinsey Milhone because he didn’t start out in law enforcement. He’s just a man building airplanes at a Los Angeles manufacturing plant in 1948 who gets fired and takes an odd job for a gangster so he can pay his mortgage. One thing leads to another and he starts embracing this investigator stuff.
The back story is that he’s a WWII vet from Houston who came to LA to avoid a spot of trouble. It’s not that he committed a crime in Houston per se, but his crowd was getting a little rough so he came to LA to start fresh. It was looking like a great call too: decent job, small house, plenty of places to party. But then his boss pushes him a little too hard and he stands his ground and gets canned.
The plot twists and turns through a stack of LA bad guys and crooked politicians. Good action, intrigue, and character development. Oh, and the woman, in the blue dress – she’s a devil from a few different angles.
Rawlins is a great character: humorless, straightforward, and insightful. There are some deep explorations of race and class from Rawlins, like this:
Talking with Mr. Todd Carter was a strange experience. I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man’s office, talking to him like we were best friends – even closer. I could tell that he didn’t have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr. Todd Carter was so rich that he didn’t even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn’t even recognize our difference showed that he didn’t care one damn about me. But I didn’t have the time to worry about it. I just watched him move his lips about lost love until, finally, I began to see him as some strange being. Like a baby who grows to man-size and terrorizes his poor parents with his strength and stupidity.
Man that was cool. See what I’m saying; humorless, straightforward, and insightful.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
Rawlins also has a somewhat non-standard sense of private investigator morality that I found refreshing (finally, someone kept some dirty money!). I can’t wait to see where Mosley takes this guy. The problem is, I’m generating quite a backlog with all of this serialized stuff, so I may not get to Rawlins again until the end of the year. That’s a good problem to have though, I think.
Thanks to authors like Ross MacDonald, I think I’ll always read American detective novels. It’s just what I do. MacDonald’s character Lew Archer is quickly becoming one of my favorite fictional characters because of his keen observations, sense of humor, and taste in alcohol.
Archer seems to spend a lot of time in bars looking for information and MacDonald loves to add a little color by describing the place and the inhabitants (pg 76):
The place was built on two levels, so that the bar commanded a view of the dining-room. It was nearly two o’clock. The bar was doing a rush-hour business before the curfew knelled. I found an empty stool, ordered a Guinness stout for energy, and looked around me.
I love Guinness. MacDonald followed this with the introduction to some of the key characters. I didn’t recognize how important this character survey was at the time, but I learned my lesson.
Archer’s humor tends to the wry side. Here’s him recounting a trip to an opulent mansion looking for a black limousine (pg 99):
I climbed into my car, closing the door very gently so as not to start an avalanche of money. The loop in the drive took me past the garages. They contained an Austin, a jeep, and a white roadster, but no black limousine.
Hah, “an avalanche of money,” that’s funny stuff. I cracked a smile.
Or what about when he snuck up on a guy from a clump of trees (pg 109).
Reavis glanced at me, the color mounting floridly in his face. “Archer?”
I said: “The name is Leatherstocking.”
I’m rolling on the floor at this point. Not only does MacDonald toss in humor, but he pays tribute to one of America’s greatest writers. It’s really inventive.
The villains aren’t funny though.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
This book contained a somewhat out-of-place scene with an evil doctor who uses high pressure water torture on his subjects (plenty of “drowning pool” references). Sue Grafton was highly influenced by MacDonald but I don’t think she’s ever created a villain so bizarre. If memory serves, neither has Burke or Hillerman, two of my other favorite authors. I’ll start paying more attention. Archer ends up escaping from this water torture chamber by filling it up until the door bursts open from the pressure. Then he gets washed out and kills the doctor. It was kind of James Bond-like. Interesting tactic by MacDonald. I’m okay with it.
This is book two with Archer and I’m ready to stay with it for the whole series. Both books were made into movies with Paul Newman, although they changed Archer’s name to Harper. I need to check those out. I’m reading almost all serialized fiction right now. I’m starting the Easy Rawlins series and have a Smiley and Samson novel queued up. Then there’s Game of Thrones book four and probably another Robicheaux adventure. I just don’t feel like branching out. I’m busy at work and throwing in some occasional non-fiction, so I’m not going to be adventurous with my fiction.