Monday, May 31, 2010

Rant: A Reader’s Guide to Blurbs

Not long ago I was reading a highly-touted crime novel. I hated it. Hated the characters. Hated the plot. Especially hated the writing. The cover art was no great shakes. Even the paper it was printed on began to get on my wick.

When I finally pulled the ripcord, I turned to the ending to see if it was as bad as I had it figured. (It wasn’t. It was worse.) Then I flipped to the back cover to scan the names of the authors who had blurbed it. And put every last one of them on notice. Several had written books I’d enjoyed; seeing their names on the back of this one made me wonder what they were thinking. At least one author whose books never really appealed to me is now that much farther away from my to-be-read pile.

An outsized reaction? Maybe. It’s not every day that I loathe a book so intently that I question the judgment of anyone who expresses vaguely positive thoughts about it. Still, it got me thinking about blurbs.

I speak as a reader. A fairly serious one. I know that blurbs are a necessary evil. I am well aware that they are not always to be taken at face value, that some measure of logrolling is involved. There are equations at play here to which I am not privy. At her blog, Christa Faust has a great post about the difficulties of coming up with something appropriate to say when you genuinely love a book.

I have never bought a book because of blurbs, but they do have influence. If a favorite author likes another’s work enough to recommend it, the scales have shifted slightly in its favor. And, as I’ve recently learned, if I violently disagree with that favorite author, I will remember it.

There is a short list of writers whose name on the front of a book means I’m guaranteed to read it while their name on the back is meaningless, because they blurb everything. They even wax rhapsodic on the Chinese takeout menus left by my mailbox. (Chang’s brings a ferocious energy to the plate, serving up an experience that will linger in your mind as it does in your colon. Chow mein that is bold, rare and true.)

It has to be difficult, soliciting publishable praise from your peers. It’s no doubt equally tough to give it. Blurbing is a chance for authors to promote themselves as well as another, to build their own brands. But it’s worth bearing in mind that these opportunities can also backfire.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Book: The Big Bang, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (2010)

Spillane began this book in the mid-1960s. Collins, a Spillane friend and collaborator, finished it. Billed as “the lost Mike Hammer sixties novel,” it’s set then. But it’s here now, and it kicks ass.

Hammer’s back in New York after a Florida sojourn to rest up from a botched Mob hit when he happens onto some punks savaging a decent kid. Hammer intervenes, so naturally a few of the punks wind up dead. (Not known for half-measures, our Mike.) He’s prepared to write it off as a good deed, but he has some questions about why the hoods chose this particular target. Answering them puts Hammer between an old enemy and a new player on the drug scene, both vying for a monumental shipment – the big bang of the title – that will sate the hunger on the streets.

There are two words I was hoping to avoid when talking up this book, but I can’t think of improvements. One is seamless; the two authors tell the tale in a single cohesive voice. The other is vintage. The Big Bang recaptures Spillane at his peak. The lightning pace. The sense of New York as an open sewer. The swift, brutal violence. The women unable to resist Hammer’s Neanderthal charm, Hammer picking and choosing their company knowing he has the luscious Velda to go home to. I had a pretty good idea early on who was behind it all, but there’s a clear sense that Hammer does, too. Then the ending blindsides you and ups the ante considerably. The Big Bang is a blast.

At The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce interviews Collins on how this book came to be, as well as his many other projects.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book: Old Dogs, by Donna Moore (2010)

I have not, as yet, been to Glasgow. I’ve got to wonder about the place now, though, having read Old Dogs. The arrival of the titular bejeweled Shih Tzu statues at a local museum is enough to turn the burg upside down.

An Italian Contessa and her sister – actually ex-hookers turned grifters – decide to boost the heavenly hounds. But first they’ll have to contend with their crooked, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is retainer. And their most recent fleecing victim, who has stalked them to Scotland in a psychotic rage. Plus there’s the competition, including two dimwit thugs and a devout Buddhist named Kyle.

Oh, yeah. And the statues might be fakes.

That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, but whenever one starts to wobble Donna finds a way to keep it aloft, all the way to the crackerjack ending. Her descriptions help enormously. A local fence has “a face like a blind cobbler’s thumb.” One of the aspiring hoodlums is so ugly that “he couldn’t get his hole in a barrel of fannies.” (That might lose something in the translation. You see, Americans ... in the UK, a fanny ... ah, to hell with it. I’ll let Keith explain.)

Busted Flush Press will be bringing out the book Stateside shortly. I won a copy of the UK edition when my name was pulled out one of Donna’s many boots in a contest at her always lively blog. Rosemarie snagged it as soon as it arrived. I’ll give her the last word: “I was laughing out loud so much that other people on the bus were staring at me. And this is the bus that goes past the methadone clinic. When you can get that crowd’s attention first thing in the morning, it means something.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie: Le Professionel (1981)

One of Ennio Morricone’s most famous compositions is Chi Mai. I’ve listened to it for years without seeing Le Professionel, the film for which it was composed. (The same music turned up as the title theme for a BBC series about David Lloyd George, but Le Professionel used it first.) Then I learned that the film was an early writing credit for Jacques Audiard, who made this year’s brilliant A Prophet. To the top of the queue it went.

I was in love before this title sequence was over. But don’t expect vintage fromage. Something much stranger is at work here.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, of the easy, insincere smile and the face that hangs on his skull like a poorly-sized Mission: Impossible mask, plays a French secret agent sent to assassinate an African despot. But the situation on the ground is, how you say, fluid, and the French government not only calls off the hit but offers up Belmondo to stay in the dictator’s good graces. After years in captivity, Belmondo escapes and alerts his former superiors that he’s going to complete his assignment – and on French soil.

Think of it as The Bourne Identity without the amnesia. Or, considering the incompetence and rampant political incorrectness on display, a po-faced OSS 117 movie. But it’s also about a disgruntled intelligence operative having fun at his agency’s expense, so maybe it’s Hopscotch with a body count.

Le Professionel is also a demented parody of star vehicles. Belmondo is not just, as they say, the guy men want to be and women want to be with. He is infallible, outthinking, outplaying and outlasting all comers. He is somehow always one step ahead and forever looking over his adversary’s shoulder.

It’s a sign of how nuts the movie is that we’re tipped to Belmondo’s unfettered awesomeness by a racist wheelchair-bound crank. There’s an edge of unpredictability throughout, along with healthy deposits of sleaze. (Exhibit A: the interrogation that wandered in from an Ilsa movie.) The Foley work is a bit heavy; when Belmondo punches a guy it sounds like a Fiat sideswiping a cow. A rough-and-tumble high-speed pursuit through the streets of Paris teases us with a car carrier that’s never a factor, in clear violation of everything Chekhov taught us about car chases.

The writing is sharp – I loved Belmondo’s manipulation of the press as a way out of a jam – and darkly comic, paying off in an ending so cynical that only the French could get away with it. And, of course, there’s Morricone’s music. The perfect thing if you’re after a different, wider-lapelled kind of spy movie.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes (U.S. 2010)

Argentina’s El secreto de sus ojos was a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the last Academy Awards. It’s only a surprise until you see the movie. Then the accolade makes perfect sense.

Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín), the Argentine equivalent of a D.A.’s investigator, retires and decides to write a novel about the case that has haunted him for 25 years: the rape and murder of a young newly-married woman. A culprit was identified, even apprehended, but fate and politics intervened. The story weaves back and forth in time as Espósito pursues the matter in 1974 and then follows up with the principals a quarter-century later, including his former boss (Soledad Villamil) whom he has always loved from afar.

Co-writer/director Juan José Campanella made an offbeat noir with Denis Leary called Love Walked In and has worked in U.S. television, especially the various iterations of Law & Order. Secret has been compared to an episode of the show “on steroids,” and personally I think that’s a good thing. An epic episode, spanning decades, digging into the lives of the investigators, ultimately revealing it’s more about them than the case they’re on.

The movie creates a beautifully lived-in world, filled with the sharply affectionate bickering of friends, the nuanced tyrannies among co-workers. A great scene in which Espósito’s drunken crony explains how you catch a man who has gone to ground is followed by a dazzling set piece at a soccer stadium. It helps enormously to have Darín, easily one of the world’s best and most charismatic actors, at the heart of the enterprise. (Have you seen El Aura yet? Why not?)

And then there’s the ending, which about made my own heart swell and burst. Not because of the emotional content, although there’s no denying its power. No, it was because of the way we’d gotten there.

I’ve finally realized that I respond to craft more than art. Art is a personal vision. Craft is expert workmanship. To put it in another, completely specious manner: whose needs are put first, the creator’s or the audience’s? (Blame David Mamet’s Theatre for this train of thought. Mamet writes non-fiction as if it’s meant to be carved on stone tablets, but the central thesis of his new book – the only metric that matters is getting the audience to ask “What happens next?” – is sound and true.)

I am most moved, however, when craft is elevated into art. When attention to detail is the personal statement. When all the essential work has been done but the toil is never visible, only the result. In the closing moments of Secret so many elements pay off in unexpected ways that I was touched and then absurdly grateful. It’s a beautiful film, and a deeply satisfying one.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book: Infamous, by Ace Atkins (2010)

Back in January, I raved about Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins. Since then, I’ve devoured the Busted Flush Press reissue of his debut Crossroad Blues. Infamous is my third Atkins book of the year – and 2010 ain’t half over yet.

Ex-bootlegger and small-time bank robber George Kelly never wanted to be known as ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. In 1933, largely at the urging of his wife Kathryn, he kidnapped Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel for what was then the largest ransom in U.S. history. Infamous recounts the crime and its aftermath as the Kellys go on the lam, pursued by federal agents led by former Texas Ranger Gus T. Jones and some of George’s old running buddies eager for a cut of the score.

Atkins effortlessly evokes the exhausted spirit of the Depression with telling details. Too often when I read historical fiction I’m reminded of a scene in The Simpsons sending up Alec Baldwin’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross, when a self-help guru boasts, “You see this watch? It’s jammed with so many jewels the hands can’t move.” Authors are so determined to pack in as much of their research as possible that the story never takes off.

Not Atkins. He sets the scene beautifully, then steps back and gives his rich cast of characters run of the joint. Jones, trying to blend his old school approach to law enforcement with J. Edgar Hoover’s new methods. Kelly, a basically good-natured big ape beleaguered by his reputation. And above all Kathryn, the movie-besotted Lady Macbeth desperate to escape her hardscrabble upbringing. (“You could be anyone in a movie house and dream as big as you wanted without feeling like a sap.”) Other famous faces pop up en route, including one that’s a lovely nod to Crossroad Blues.

Late in the action a character asks, “What’s the matter with some company in this coldhearted world?” You’ll find no better no company than Infamous, the best novel I’ve read so far this year.

Here’s the highest compliment I can pay it: only every other time I picked up the book did I hear the title the way the Three Amigos say it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Book: Cemetery Road, by Gar Anthony Haywood (2010)

Los Angeles, 1979. Three young men torch $140,000 that they stole and go their separate ways. Decades later, one of them is murdered in an apparent drug deal gone bad. Another, now a political force, isn’t inclined to ask questions about the death. But Errol ‘Handy’ White is. Of the three, Handy ran the farthest but forgot the least. He thinks the misdeeds of the past are wreaking havoc in the present. And he won’t rest until he’s put paid to his sins and those of friends living and dead.

Haywood weaves together the tale of the young Handy, quick to offense and brimming with plans, with that of the weary contemporary one. The resulting voice is spare yet freighted with regret and hard-won wisdom. (“Right about the time he hits his middle forties, a man starts giving thought to dying well.”) Handy’s a memorable character, a tinkerer with a mission “to save imperfect but salvageable objects from a premature, and therefore wasteful, death.” Cemetery Road is a short, powerful crime novel in which the worst crimes take their time revealing themselves.

I’ve added Haywood’s blog to the roll. It’s well worth reading.