In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead

My man, James Lee Burke. It’s been over a year since I read you, which is too long, considering I’m only on the sixth Dave Robicheaux book out of eighteen. After this one, I may speed things up because you did some amazing work here. I have Dixie City Jam sitting next to my bed, but I’m building quite a backlog of  paperbacks, so it may have to wait.

I’m going to digress and talk about my problems. Skip the next few paragraphs if you’re not interested. Here’s the problem: I seem to be suffering from a horrible case of the recency effect. If it’s happening now, I like it. Is that normal?

I’m reading this book thinking that it’s not only the greatest JLB book I’ve read, but maybe the greatest American crime novel I’ve read. Additionally, I think I may like Burke more than Grafton and Hillerman and Francis. What’s wrong with me? It has to be that I feel this way about the book because it’s in my hands, now. I just don’t trust myself to seriously rank a book while I’m reading it.

Okay, enough with that. Wow, I loved this book though.

Burke’s hero is a dark and brooding crime fighter working for the New Iberia (Loiusiana) sheriff’s department. This book is similar to the first five in the series because Robicheaux gets suspended from the department for a period of time. He doesn’t seem to be able to get through any book without some sort of beef with authority.


It was different though because of how surreal and mystical it was. In the past I’ve quoted passages where Burke describes Robicheaux’s demons in colorful and sordid ways (here and here). Nothing like that stuck out here, but there was an ongoing fantastical dialogue between Robicheaux and a dead Confederate general that was comparable in it’s strangeness. These conversations were visions that Robicheaux was having and it took a little while to get used to them, but eventually I started looking forward to them. They added a lot of color and worked well to build the suspense.

The suspense was intense. The final chapters, with the malevolence and danger and emotion, were incredible. But as evil as the bad guys were, the good guys (and women) were caring and compassionate. Hopefully good people Elrod Sykes and Rosie Gomez show up in future books.

I also need to note in future books how much Robicheaux reaches into his childhood. In this one, he witnessed a murder as a teen-ager that came back to visit him in current day (I think he was 57 in this book). I’ve already looked ahead to the next one and it seems like there’s something comparable. Grafton does this a little, but not necessarily with the main character. She brings up stuff from the past to add to the current story. I’m getting more used to the tactic.

Long live the American detective novel!


V is for Vengeance

This latest install of Grafton’s alphabet series is the first I’ve read in real time. By that I mean I read it right after it came out. I pre-ordered it at Amazon and banged through it over Thanksgiving weekend. I’m all caught up with Grafton now… just waiting around for the next one.

This felt like the longest and most rambling of any of her books. I say rambling because Grafton uses the perspective of three related parties along with the normal first person account by Millhone. This all happens simultaneously, unlike the last book, which dredged up a murder from twenty years ago. I like this a lot better.

It was difficult to put this one down. Really difficult. Grafton went in some new directions this time around. It was the first time I recall a scene with Millhone that was not told in the first person. It was fun to get a different perspective of Millhone from someone else. It also had the longest and most involved non-Millhone romance storyline that I recall.

Great book.

I have to believe that most of Grafton’s fans are women, say 75% maybe. Actually, that may be low. If you read through her Facebook comments, her hardcore fans are probably 99% women. I may be one of very few males who has read A through V in order. That makes me feel special.

Well, not really. But I’ll tell you this, I feel like I’ve made some strides since noticing how few books I read by female authors. Fully eight of the 29 books I’ve read so far this year were by female authors. How about that? I’m all about expanding horizons, pushing through boundaries, and great pizza, to name a few things.

Hopefully she is full blast on W right now. I’d preorder it if I could. What’s she going to call it? I can’t think of any obvious crime-related words that start with W.

One thing is for sure, she isn’t selling the film rights any time soon. Check out this interview at the 5:10 point. She says:

I worked in Hollywood for fifteen years. I hate those people. Most of the ones I met were just as nice, they were educated, they were gracious. They would savage your work.

That’s beautiful. It’s a great interview. Among other things, she discusses the book previous to this one and lists some of her favorite authors. I wonder how long this video will be up because it’s from Border’s Media. Hopefully they don’t blow it up along with everything else because of their bankruptcy. Heck, if you go to you get redirected to Barnes and Noble.

She’s been on a two year cycle for books so I guess I’ll have to wait until 2013. Too bad.


The Moving Target

I said I was going to read this book after catching up on Grafton’s alphabet series. This book is credited by Sue Grafton as being highly influential to her work. She even uses Macdonald’s fictional California town of Santa Theresa as the setting for her books (it’s really Santa Barbara). That’s a serious tribute.

Macdonald’s main character is a private detective name Lew Archer. Much like Kinsey Millhone, he roams southern California solving mysteries. I’ve already read a set of his short stories so I knew what I was getting into.

This was a fine book by an interesting author. Macdonald is one of our greatest crime writers, too bad he’s a University of Michigan grad. That won’t stop me from reading his books. I’ll grab The Drowning Pool, his second Lew Archer book, the next time I’m at Open Books.

Archer was just as surly and prone to violence as he was in the group of short stories I read. He was a little funnier than I expected though; very quick with the quip, like this moment when he was tailing a suspect at night:

The truck highballed along as if it was safe on rails. I let it get out of sight, switched my lights again, and tried to feel like a new man driving a different car.

That was back when cars had fog lamps. It was published in 1949, although with cars and telephones, it doesn’t feel too dated.

The story is about a millionaire gone missing and Archer is hired by the wife to track him down. There was plenty of family carnage in the back story and no shortage of odd characters. I lost my place in the story a few times. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and my concentration often waned, so I’ll chock it up to that. I never lost interest though. The lineup of brutal gangsters, seedy lawyers, shady women, and friendly enemies kept me alert and tuned-in. Great stuff.


U is for Undertow

I’m all caught up with the alphabet series. I’m going to celebrate somehow. I think I’ll read one of the books that influenced Grafton the most, The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald. That should hold me over until the November release of V is for Vengeance. Smart, very smart.

I was initially skeptical about the subject of U. The mystery is a crime that happened 20 years earlier so Grafton leaves the first person for large chunks of the book, narrating a second story from multiple perspectives two decades previous. It also revisits the back story of her childhood and unearths a few secrets that Kinsey finds disturbing and hopeful.

It all works well and I was sucked in again. Here’s why: Grafton just says interesting and cool stuff. She uses the thoughtful musings of the deeply-etched main character Kinsey Millhone; just one of many reasons to read these books.

For example, this is Kinsey explaining her process of review and reflection on the case at hand:

I had a lot of ground to cover, consigning everything I’d learned to note cards, one item per card, which reduced the facts to their simplest form. It’s our nature to condense and collate, bundling related elements for ease of storage in the back of our brains. Since we lack the capacity to capture every detail, we cull what we can, blocking the bits we don’t like and admitting those that match our notions of what’s going on. While efficient, the practice leaves us vulnerable to blind spots. Under stress, memory becomes even less reliable. Over time we sort and discard what seems irrelevant to make room for additional incoming data. In the end, it’s a wonder we remember anything at all. What we manage to preserve is subject to misinterpretation. An event might appear to be generated by the one before it, when the order is actually coincidental. Two occurrences may be linked even when widely separated by time and place. My strategy of committing facts to cards allowed me to arrange and rearrange them, looking for the overall shape of a case. I was convinced a pattern would emerge, but I reminded myself that just because I wished a story were true didn’t mean that it was. (page 225)

That’s a beautiful insight into classic 3×5 note taking techniques for any purpose. Oh, and we have cool. Here is Kinsey’s recipe for helping a cancer survivor pack on some weight:

I’d introduced Stacey to junk food, which he’d never eaten in his life. Thereafter, I tagged along with him as he went from McDonald’s to Wendy’s to Arby’s to Jack in the Box. My crowning achievement was introducing him to the In-N-Out burger. His appetite increased, he regained some of the weight he’d lost during his cancer treatment, and his enthusiasm for life returned. Doctors were still scratching their heads. (page 264)

Her “crowning achievement.” That’s funny. Californians, they’re nutty. Sit tight and I’ll have my thoughts on the aforementioned book by Ross Macdonald shortly.


Maximum Bob

I said the other day while watching Killshot that I was inspired to read some Elmore Leonard, so here we are. Actually, it could be the other way around, or not. It doesn’t matter which inspired which, they were both good.

I’m starting to get a feel for the Elmore Leonard formula after only a few short instances. One thing that he often seems to have is a strong yet vulnerable heroine. In this book, Kathy Diaz Baker is a tough parole officer with two really rough parolees, both of whom were sent away by a crooked judge nicknamed Maximum Bob. It turns into a twisted circle because the judge wants to sleep with non-receptive Kathy, and one of Kathy’s parolees wants to kill the judge. All sorts of shenanigans ensue.

During the shenanigans, Kathy falls for a local detective and it evolves into a tasteful little affair (this is the vulnerable part of Kathy). Kathy character reminds me a little of Jennifer Lopez’s character in Out of Sight, another great Elmore Leonard book and movie. Man I loved that movie. I’m going to watch that again soon.

It all takes place in Palm Beach county Florida. In certain ways, even besides the South Florida angle, it’s a little like a Carl Hiaasen novel, but a little darker and not as much hilarity. I like both.


The relationship that Kathy has with the cop comes to an abrupt halt when one of her parolees kills him. It was an emotional part of the book and the way Leonard drew out the drama by interspersing two scenes during the killing was masterful. I was engrossed, mad, sad, you name it.

Superb story. I’ll be reading more Leonard in the coming years, and maybe grabbing a few of the movies on Netflix.


The Green Ripper

This was the second reread of 2011 and I have a feeling that I’ll do a few more. I made a visit to the Brown Elephant in Oak Park and walked out with this paperback along with ones by Alistair Maclean (Athabasca) and Len Deighton (SS-GB). These are books that I only marginally enjoyed as a kid, but my tastes have changed considerably since then and I’m expecting to get a little more enjoyment out of them this time around now that I’m all growed up.

I’m off to a great start because the The Green Ripper was a heckuva lot better than I remember.


The most distinct memory I have of this book was this feeling: There’s a gun and dead body on the front cover, but the only action is a gunfight that takes place in the second-to-last chapter.

That encapsulates what a little idiot I was. What was I expecting? Did I just want a 300 page shootout? What I got was a short but intense shootout at the end that took place over about a chapter (of a total of 15 chapters). I vividly recall McGee referring to the day of carnage and revenge as his “John Wayne day.” As a kid, I loved John Wayne movies so that made the book worthwhile back then.

This time, I didn’t struggle through the buildup like I did as a kid. I relished MacDonald’s McGee, who is a classic, hardcore, private investigator living on a houseboat called The Busted Flush in South Florida. McGee’s cohort is his buddy and resident genius Meyer, who hangs around to talk sense into McGee and occasionally provide some comic relief. This is the kind of classic crime novel that I love and I’ll be reading all of the Travis McGee novels. However, I don’t know if I’ll be reading them order. I’ve read a few and I don’t seem to recall it being that important to read them in order. I’ll have to do a little research on that.

Finally, as I do with many of the crime novels, I like to pick out a thought or a rant by the main character that embodies their take on the world. Here are McGee’s thoughts on a middle-aged guy (Herm) whom McGee thought died from over exherting himself:

… In the meanwhile, poor Herm had succumbed to the age of the jock. The mystique of pushing yourself past your limits. The age of shin splints, sprung knees, and new hernias. An office-softened body in its middle years needs a long, long time to come around. Until a man can walk seven miles in two hours without blowing like a porpoise, without sweating gallons, without bumping his heart past 120, it is asinine to start jogging. Except for a few dreadful lapses which have not really gone on too long, I have stayed in shape all my life. Being in shape means knowing your body, how it feels, how it responds to this and to that, and when to stop. You develop a sixth sense about when to stop. It is not mysticism. It is brute labor, boring and demanding. Violent exercise is for children and knowledgeable jocks. Not for insurance adjustors and sales managers. They do not need to be in the shape they want to be, and could not sustain it if they could get there. Walking briskly no less than six hours a week will do it for them. The McGee System for earnest office people. I can push myself considerably further because I sense when I’m getting too close to the place where something is going to pop, rip, or split.

Ah, the soliloquy of the crime noire hero. It’s a thing of beauty. I’m glad to welcome back Travis McGee after about 30 years. I’m looking forward to more.


The Name is Archer

I consume a fair amount of crime novels, but I’ve never read any Ross Macdonald. I happened in to this book because I was at a friend’s house and he just handed it to me. I started it within a few days, which I rarely do, but I was between works of fiction and didn’t feel like working down my backlog, so I launched into it.

This book is gritty, hardboiled detective fiction in short story format, published in 1955. It’s a great introduction to Ross Macdonald and his main character Lew Archer, a California private detective.

To give you an idea, in the story Gone Girl, Archer walks into a bar to inquire about the whereabouts of a woman. He’s greeted by a piano-playing barman who talks in rhymes. Unsurprisingly, Archer replies with a rhyme of his own:

Where did she lam, Sam, or don’t you give a damn?

That’s what I’m talking about, quirky, strange, with pretty spare prose, but great stories. So great in fact, that I’m going to read all of the Lew Archer novels in order starting with The Moving Target, which MacDonald wrote in 1949. It was also made into a movie with Paul Newman, entitled Harper. I just purchased the book on the Kindle (pleasantly surprised that Vintage has these in digital format).

I’ve rooted around a little and it appears that Sue Grafton was highly influenced by Ross Macdonald. That, my friends, is some serious validation for Macdonald because Grafton is one of my favorite writers (not that Macdonald needs any validation, but from my perspective…). I’ll have more about this link to Grafton after I’ve read The Moving Target.

I liked all the stories in The Name is Archer. They are dark and violent and mostly have surprise endings. There is also plenty of dry humor, like this passage from the story entitled The Suicide:

On the way to the diner, she caught the eye of every man on the train who wasn’t asleep. Even some of the sleeping ones stirred, as if her passing had induced a dream. I censored my personal dream. She was too young for me, too innocent. I told myself that my interest was strictly paternal.

I’m going to like this stuff a lot. I can tell.


A Stained White Radiance

I’ve read one James Lee Burke novel per year for the last four years. I’m planning on reading a few more this year because I have the next three stacked up in a pile in paperback form (his early stuff was not on the Kindle the last time I checked). They’re going to be easy to grab and blast through. I love Burke’s writing and his main character is great fun.


At a certain point, I thought that the main character, Dave Robicheaux, had achieved a little bit of stability. But in the last few pages, he announces that he’s taking an indefinite leave from the New Iberia (Louisiana) sheriff’s office. We were so close to getting through a whole book without him leaving some law enforcement agency (reference my comments on his last book).

Once again, I’m joking. Burke sticks to the formula and I like it. Robicheaux gets embroiled in another sordid affair with some thugs who come dangerously close to hurting his family. His adopted daughter is growing up and he’s remarried to a childhood sweetheart, who has some sort of disease. The bait shop is thriving and he has a few emotional moments with Batist, the guy who runs the shop. I kind of wish Batist figured into things a little more, I have a feeling he will in the future.

In my take on the last book, I quoted an awesome description of some of the demons inside Robicheaux. I’ll continue that trend. Early on Robicheaux has this thought about a potential victim:

I wanted to write it all off and leave Weldon to his false pride and private army of demons, whatever they were, and not spend time trying to help somebody who didn’t want any interference in his life. But if other people had had the same attitude toward me, I had to remind myself, I would be dead, in a mental institution, or putting together enough change and crumpled one-dollar bills in a sunrise bar to buy a double shot of Beam, with a frosted schooner of Jax on the side, in the vain hope that somehow that  shuddering rush of heat and amber light through my body would finally cook into ashes every snake and centipede writhing inside me. (Page 17, paperback version)

The guy has demons for sure but did not drink at all this book. He attended a couple of AA meetings and seems to have things under control. Great stuff once again. The next one is queued up. I’ll do better than one Burke this year for sure.


Starvation Lake

Every time I read a Chicago Tribune article by Julia Keller I remind myself to read her more often. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading the Trib regularly so I usually end up catching up with her articles on the net after I actually read the Trib in paper form (although the new iPhone app may change this). I happened to read the Tribune a few Sundays ago and Keller made mention of Bryan Gruley.

Gruley is a 1979 grad from ND who lives in Chicago and writes about a fictional town in northern lower Michigan (one of my favorite places on earth). So yeah, I bought this book that day.

I’m looking forward to reading about his main character, Gus Carpenter, for a long time. Hopefully Gruley feels like churning out these books for a while. This Gus character is pretty cool. He edits a small town newspaper after a fall from grace at a big Detroit newspaper. And he loves hockey. Hockey is a huge part of this book, which is cool with me.


Gruley didn’t shy away from heavy topics in this debut. After about halfway through you could sense we had a pedophilia/pornography issue on our hands (if I had one complaint, Gruley dragged out the “secret” a little too long).

I like the small town setting, I like the main character, I like the potential romantic interest for the main character, and it was a good crime novel. Book two is out and it’s subtitled “A Starvation Lake Mystery.” That’s what I like, a series. I’m on it.


Tourist Season

My sister gave me this book in paperback form. I forgot what paper smells like because I’ve been reading only Kindle books for the last few months. It smells nice. Brings back a lot of memories. Ahh, I remember the days of paperbacks and phones that use a stylus and wireless protocol B. Seems like yesterday.

That’s me trying to be funny. Oh to be as witty as Hiaasen. I find just about every word that comes out of his mouth (or off his pen) funny. Some humor just clicks with me and Hiaasen effortlessly touches every nerve I have that translates to laughs.

This book had me laughing a lot. The brunt of Hiaasen’s jokes this time around were:

  • Real estate developers and snowbirds
  • Parents of beauty pageant contestants
  • Terrorists who name causes after days in months
  • Dishonest members of the media and government
  • College football fans, including ND fans

So yeah, he spreads it around a lot. It’s harsh, condescending satire that is very satisfying. And as I’ve said before, he retains some elements of a thriller/crime novel so it’s still exciting and interesting in that respect. I also said before that I would read his golf book next. Well, I just ordered it.

One interesting aspect is that much of the book revolves around a fictional Orange Bowl game where Notre Dame is playing Nebraska for the National Championship. Which is funny because this book was published in 1986, when Notre Dame was a far cry from playing in anything close to a National Championship (Gerry Faust just left, Lou Holtz’s first year). Funny in a sick, twisted way I guess. Which is classic Hiaasen.