A Spectacle of Corruption

This is the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, which I read a few years ago. I said then, and I’ll say it again, I will continue reading Liss. But I didn’t think it would be three years. This book continues the adventures of Benjamin Weaver, a private detective in 18th Century London. Ahh, I do like historical fiction and I’m starting to love period pieces.

This book is set in 1720’s London, about 30 years after King James II was dethroned. I did a little rooting around in Wikipedia and came up with a few things. King James II was the last Catholic to be king (1688). There was much “upheaval” in England at this time. Protestants and Catholics didn’t trust each other. France and England didn’t trust each other. Whigs and Tories didn’t trust each other. And underlying all of this was the chance that the Pretender (the son of King James II), was trying to plot the overthrow of the government from his base in France.

To put this in perspective, the time frame was about 100 years after the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth. King James II was part of the Stuart line of royalty. The Stuart line included Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed for trying to kill Queen Elizabeth, her father’s first cousin. Be sure not to confuse Mary, Queen of Scots, with Mary I of England (“Bloody Mary”), who re-established Catholicism in England, which was eventually reversed by her half sister, Queen Elizabeth. Thanks Wikipedia for taking this full cycle. Where would I be without you. So yeah, there was a lot of intrigue and treachery happening, which provides a great backdrop for some solid historical fiction.

Benjamin Weaver is a great character and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. Supposedly it’s due out later this year. This according to the bio at David Liss’ official website. Who, upon further reading of his website, appears to have a particularly, and admitted, liberal view when it comes to “unregulated and overly-exuberant markets.” In fact, he engaged in a little war of words with the NYT over the facts in his latest novel, The Whiskey Rebels, released in late 2008. This is interesting to me because Alexander Hamilton factors into this novel and I really need to learn more about Hamilton, especially since I just finished John Adams, an arch rival of Hamilton’s. I think I need to read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.

Wow, I’m glad I did this rooting around. It really opened my mind to a few other books that I can’t wait to read.

So yeah, this is a great book. Weaver is wrongly accused of murder so he sets out to clear his name. During that process, he masquerades as a wealthy tobacco trader from Jamaica and runs in social and political circles that a Jewish private detective wouldn’t normally be accepted in. Throw in a murderous villain and a crooked politician who Weaver has to team with, then mix in a few love interests, and you have a ton of good fun.


The Hunters

This is the third book in Griffin’s Presidential Agent series. A series which is fast becoming one of my top fiction reading experiences. I think the stuff is genius.

I really like the way Griffin humanizes his characters. He gives them quirks and cool traits that add to their personalities and add a lot to the story. But what sets him apart is the pure volume of characters in which he does this. I lose count of all of the antagonists, protagonists, and supporting characters for which Griffin opens this window into their psyche. He does it sometimes through his standard narration written in choppy, cryptic prose. His main tool, though, is to use the thoughts of the characters themselves, which he puts in italics. The thoughts read like a standard conversation at times, it’s just that it’s a conversation going on in the heads of the characters and not being verbalized. I don’t see this method used that often by any of my other favorite thriller writers, but Griffin employs it extensively.

I think he employs this method because it’s the only way he can throw first person style thoughtfulness into his narration. He can’t take the first person perspective throughout because these books are so big and Bournesque. If he took the main character’s perspective instead of that of a narrator, he would lose a lot because the main character can’t be all over the globe at the same time. But by going into first person mode every so often, you get great character insights. This way, the reader can get a little more emotionally involved and really refine who they like and dislike.

In the end, these books get me involved in the characters like Grafton and Hillerman do, but they capture some of that international intrigue and thrill left out of a crime novel. It’s a good mix.


One Shot

When you’re reading a book in the middle of a series, you know the hero isn’t going to die. This takes away some of the anxiety you feel when the hero embarks on the “attack on the fortress,” against impossible odds of course. Which is not a good thing because it also takes away some of the excitement of the book. However, series writers usually align their main characters with friends, family, cohorts, and colleagues who fall in harm’s way, thereby putting someone you care about in peril, which restores some of the excitement.

Child is expert at this. He often has Reacher finishing up the book with an “attack on the fortress” and Reacher rarely goes in alone. He’s usually accompanied by at least one highly attractive female and one person with some military or law enforcement experience. It’s always pretty implausible, but who cares. I don’t care how formulaic Child gets with this stuff, he always manages to throw in enough twists and coolness that each book seems fresh and fun.

My wife and I differ on our fiction choices; my tastes are more accepting of a slower paced mystery-style thriller, whereas Gail prefers something that runs at breakneck speed. However, we meet at Lee Child and both like the series. They’re good stories and Reacher, the main character, is outrageous. Who can’t love a guy who lives completely off the grid and only travels with the clothes on his back (which he replaces occasionally and washes almost nightly)?

Chock up another great one. The popular fiction I’ve read this year has been great. Shortly I’m going to sit down and review my year in books. Maybe I’ll do that on Christmas Day, seems like a great Christmas Day kind of thing to do.


P is for Peril

I’m getting close to catching up with Grafton’s alphabet mystery things. They’re just frickin’ reliable and I can bank on some great fun. I would love to know how Grafton feels about her predecessors like Raymond Chandler. In certain ways she pays homage by creating a hard-boiled, lonesome, private detective embroiled in smartly woven crime novels that highlight greed, corruption, and other human frailties. But she also pokes fun a little and makes things lighter. This book made me think of some similarities and differences.

One method to deepen the persona of said private detective is to build a relationship with coffee, cigarettes, or some other sort of vice. For example, in The Long Goodbye Chandler often had Marlowe making coffee. Real good coffee. I seem to recall rich descriptions of a simple cup and it was easy for me to picture Marlowe hunched over a cup of coffee, reading the LA Times, sorting through the next steps in solving whatever mystery was unfolding.

In much the same way, Grafton has Millhone eating McDonald’s all the time. Junk food, it’s another vice. But it allows Grafton to throw in some humor. Early on, Millhone has this run-in with breakfast.

I stopped off at McDonald’s and ordered coffee and a couple of Egg McMuffins. I needed the comfort of junk food as well as the nourishment, if that’s what you want to call it. I munched while I drove, eating with such eagerness I bit my own index finger.

It’s easy to picture a Millhone eating in her car while she’s ruminating on the details of the case. Grafton’s methods always keep it a little lighter, but I think it’s just as effective for character development and it strikes the right chords with me for the most part. I don’t think Millhone is supposed to be as dark as Marlowe, and she isn’t.

But both Millhone and Marlowe are alike in that both of them shun the societal norms of marriage, kids, and settling down. Recall that passage I talked about where Marlowe goes on a tirade against any other life but the one he is living. Take a read, I excerpted it in The Long Goodbye post. Millhone has a moment kind of like that when she goes to interview someone for her case. She’s interviewing a woman at the woman’s home, where there’s a handful of screaming, rambunctious kids. The screaming is so loud that Millhone can’t concentrate on the conversation. She thinks:

I tried to concentrate on what Blanche was saying, but all I could think about was that even at my age, a tubal ligation probably wasn’t out of the question.

So, much like Chandler, Grafton crafts Millhone in a manner that you never have to worry about her giving up this detective thing. Maybe we’re wrong though, who knows, maybe at “Z,” Millhone will have a husband and a kid and just ride off into the sunset. Something to look forward to I guess. That would certainly close out Millhone.

Hillerman died a few months ago and I feel like he never closed out his characters. But I may be wrong because I didn’t read the last few with that thought in mind because I didn’t realize how close to death he was. I’ll reread them all when I retire.


The Shape Shifter

I’m about a year behind on Tony Hillerman. My reading has really bogged down as of late. I’ve been busy at work and I’ve been consumed with uploading all my digital photos to flickr. I was unmotivated, so it was a no-brainer to bang through a short Hillerman that has been sitting around for awhile.

It was another great effort – crime fiction in a particular setting that I gobble up. Besides the mystery, Hillerman always tosses in some cultural surprises. He is clearly infatuated with the belief systems of all peoples and cultures. In this book the main character, a retired Navajo Tribal Policeman named Joe Leaphorn, uses his knowledge of the Hmong deity to befriend a potential enemy.


Let me back up a bit. The bad guy is a Vietnam vet and he has a Hmong servant named Tommy Vang whom he met while serving in Asia. At first you sense that Vang is an evildoer with special, far east killing skills. In the end it’s clear that Vang is an innocent who was taken advantage of for most of his life. The way Hillerman builds the rapport between Leaphorn and Vang after the two meet in a potentially contentious situation is pure genius.

Leaphorn uses a combination of kindness, firmness, and understanding (Leaphorn majored in some sort of anthropology) to break down the barriers between the two cultures and it really worked well. The slow, methodical, question and answer session between the two men as they make their way towards a potentially violent conflict with a third party is very rewarding for the reader.

The conversation was about their individual belief systems, basically their religions, and how they’re different but the same. It was about listening rather than telling – two adults from opposite ends of the world finding a common thread in a topic that few agree on, and the result was trust. In the end, they team up and emerge alive.

I need Hillerman to keep churning these out but he seems to be slowing down (no new hardcover in 2007). It’s difficult to explain why they’re so great. The cultural commentary, the human drama, or the seedy crimes on the reservation. It’s all good. Maybe I’ll just read crime dramas all year, screw it.


Heaven’s Prisoners

This is book two of Burke’s crime novel series. I wasn’t so sure that I was completely sold on Burke when I read The Neon Rain last year, but when I reflected on it at the end of the year it was clear that I was going to press forward with the series.

This is more crime noir than just crime. The main character, Dave Robicheaux, is a dark and self-destructive alcoholic ex-cop. But he doesn’t sit in a dark room and brood, he actually has someone who loves him and a relatively stress free life (he runs a bait shop about an hour away from New Orleans). Stress gets added though in short order when he and his wife see a plane go down in the bayou while they’re out relaxing. They are lake people so they slap on the diving gear and manage to save a young girl from certain death. But the other stuff they see in the submerged plane leads Robicheaux back into the world of law enforcement, and puts him and his family in grave danger.


Burke throws tension into his writing more than any of the crime writers I read. Every time Robicheaux leaves his house I think someone is going to come in and kill his family. And that’s what happens. About a quarter of the way through the book, Robicheaux steps out in the middle of the night to clear his head and two hoods break down his front door and blow his wife away. This sends him on another bender, described by Burke in searing detail. I was shocked by the alcoholic binge in the first book, and this one was just as bone jarring.

So Robicheaux seeks vengeance. While doing so, he reforms a drugged-out hooker and takes care of the young girl he rescued from the plane. The violence carried out between Robicheaux and the bad guys is strongly in contrast with the loving relationship between Robicheaux and the women in his life. It’s a vengeance story and a love story. Burke plays both almost to the extreme. Sometimes it’s an absurd extreme and it’s almost too much to cover in 274 pages.

I can’t wait to read the next one, mostly to see if they pick the storyline up with the ex-hooker and the young girl. Plus, how does Burke weave this guy’s life into crime dramas? He was a cop in book one, then quit. In book two he was an ex-cop that got deputized then quit again, so what’s next? Does he go private?

Like I said, pretty extreme. But good stuff.


The Hostage

Just last month I was voicing my frustration with the international intrigue/espionage thriller. Let me be clear, W.E.B. Griffin is an exception to that rant. His Charley Castillo books have sucked me in. They blaze at a breakneck pace and are chock full of great characters.

Underlying the multitude of characters is the constant clash of politics versus progress, of bureaucratic protocol versus cooperation. But Charley Castillo gets around it because he’s working directly for the President, which doesn’t always guarantee him the cooperation of the CIA, FBI, NSA, or State Department, but makes for a ton of fun. This book is jam-packed with dialog and the best parts are when characters from different agencies engage in macho verbal battles highlighting natural turf wars – wars that I’m guessing are pretty darn accurate based on Griffin’s cred as an insider. In fact, there is more oral sparring than gunfights, resulting in a very intelligent thriller.

The bottom line for me, and this Presidential Agent series of books, is that Griffin has developed a huge amount of interesting characters that I like. Let me give you some examples. Castillo’s boss will go to bat for him no matter what; he’s the type of boss you always want. Fernando, Castillo’s civilian brother, regularly gets dragged into government operations and is constantly giving his brother a hard time. The marine that shuttles Castillo around in Argentina has a freaky amount of knowledge of Argentinean history and won’t stop calling Castillo “sir,” despite Castillo’s pleading. Heck, Castillo has even befriended an international criminal from Russia, now living in Argentina, who shares much needed information with Castillo that Castillo can’t get through normal channels, in return for certain favors of course. This is just a cool group of people. Then there’s Castillo’s love interest, and her obnoxious brother, both of whom add more twists. The list goes on, and on, and on…

I’ve read two of them and they are near-perfect thrillers. I’m ready for the next one.


O is for Outlaw

Grafton just has the mystery/crime novel wired in at this point (this point being 1999, when the book was published). Just trust me. Start at “A” and bang through ’em. You may have to give them time, but once you get into them, they never disappoint.

The enjoyment level disparity between a mystery/crime thriller and an international intrigue/espionage thriller has never been greater for me. It seems like so long ago when I used to buy the new Tom Clancy in hardcover the day it came out. Those days are long gone and I’ve really turned my attention the last few years to the crime novel.

I noticed a few newish things happening with main character Kinsey Millhone. First of all, Kinsey’s love for McDonald’s is bordering on an obsession. I think there were three occasions in this book where Kinsey had a QP (Quarter Pounder) with cheese, fries, and a Coke. This is somewhat odd to me because I would think the Santa Theresa (Santa Barbara) dweller would have more of a love for In-n-Out Burger. But keep in mind that this book is set in 1986, so maybe they didn’t have those back then.

Also newish is Kinsey’s interest in weight training. I’m betting that Grafton herself just discovered weights and probably decided to write it into this book. If you look on Grafton’s website you can see from the office photo tour that she has a serious weight room with plenty of machines specifically sized for women. This dynamic of author and main character mimicking one another is really fascinating to me.

Finally, each novel appears to be showing a more profane Kinsey and slightly more graphic violence. Kinsey is freer with the f-bomb and really getting in touch with her edgy side. And (PLOT KILLER) in the end the villain actually gets decapitated in a bizarre incident with front-loader.

This novel has Kinsey working on her own behalf by following up on the shooting of her ex-husband. The mystery is solid and the action is tight. The woman is a master of her craft. A master I tell you.


The Enemy

I did some air travel earlier this month so I grabbed another Lee Child paperback on my way out the door. All of Child’s books have the same main character (Reacher) and I’m reading them in order. You can read about my last Child experience here.

As you may know, I like to travel with pop-fiction paperbacks like those written by Child, but I also grabbed this because I needed some release from the Barack Obama book that I started mid-June. The Obama book is good, but it’s like work, so I needed some trash fiction to offset it.

Man, it really ended up being a slow reading month. I got about half way through the Obama book and I barely finished this Reacher book before the self-imposed June 30 deadline (for the timestamp on this post). Reading books has taken a back seat to work and summer lately, each of which has diverted my attention from sitting down with a good book.

The Enemy was a departure for Child. It’s set back in time during the early 1990s when Reacher was still an MP. I was expecting just another modern-day thriller. Instead, I got a military thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was also a relatively touching side story about Reacher’s dying mother and how Reacher and his brother dealt with it. If you don’t know, Reacher’s brother dies in the very first Reacher book, so this was another curveball.

Child may have some darn good artistic reasons for throwing this out-of-sequence novel at me and I feel bad that I didn’t embrace it. I’m not sure if it was my fault or his fault. I needed something mindless and I just wanted this book to be the “next” story in Reacher’s life. It wasn’t. I got bored. It took forever to read.

I remember when Hillerman broke from his normal genre and wrote Finding Moon. That turned out to be one of my favorites books of all time. Was Finding Moon more compelling than The Enemy? Or did I just read it during a particularly relaxed and focused time? I don’t know. But I do know that I should pay attention to things like this when assessing how much I like a book.

Well, in conclusion, I’m blaming Child for my lack of enjoyment of this book. It was my least favorite Reacher book yet. The evil-doer didn’t give me a particular feeling of trepidation, the mystery felt like a failed attempt at plausibility, and I got this story confused with a back-story from a previous book that featured Reacher recounting a past case. I only recommend this book if you are reading the whole series and are just as neurotic as me when it comes to sticking to the plan.


The Neon Rain

This is the start of another crime/thriller series with one main character, a genre that is my most reliable source of pop fiction. I start at book one and follow the character through each novel in succession. It’s probably my number one outlet for non-organized, brainless, leisure time. If I have a break, and it’s not long enough to think about what I should I do next, I just crack open a book like this.

The main character in this series is a New Orleans homicide detective named Dave Robicheaux and so far he is the main character in 16 books. In this book, Robicheaux is investigating the murder of a prostitute and stumbles upon a shady network of arms dealers and drug traffickers. He gets embroiled in their world and has to end up kicking some ass to extract himself from it.

It’s quite dramatic and over the top. A little too much so, that’s why I say the jury is still out on this series. Robicheaux encounters just about every possible bad guy in this book; a dirty cop that happens to be his partner, a retired general that still thinks he’s fighting a war, a Columbian drug lord, a Mafia kingpin, an ex-marine killer, an ex-CIA killer. You name it. At the same time, he falls in love with a woman he meets while escaping from two dirty cops (other than his partner), his brother gets shot in the head, and he revisits his alcoholism by going on a bender to end all benders. Wow.

It’s a good story though, but I didn’t read it under the best of circumstances. It took me a few weeks to read because I’ve been really busy lately. When this happens, I get confused and lost sometimes. I didn’t give the book much of a chance. But I will read the next few and decide if I’m going to press onward with the series.

The thing that will keep me in the series, in the short term at least, is that it has a lot of New Orleans character. This is important to me in the same way that Hillerman’s novels reflect the character of the Navajo reservation and Grafton’s novels capture the spirit of California’s central coast. I like the way Burke describes Robicheaux’s meals, all of which have a New Orleans flare. Descriptions of food always stick with me. Burke takes you to Cafe du Monde, out for oysters, and to a shack for a po’ boy sandwich, among other things. He paints New Orleans as a unique and beautiful place, albeit somewhat troubled and riddled with corruption. But it is Robicheaux’s home, and through his first person descriptions you get a feeling for the beauty and peace of the city.