It has been quiet around here for a while, mainly because I have been busy reading James Ellroy and Flannery O'Connor. They're two very demanding, but very different, writers who've taken up a lot of my time and energy. (Especially Ellroy. I've been plugging away at Blood's a Rover for a while now, and I'm not sure I'm getting anywhere.)
Nevertheless, I found time to read the next story in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction. I've read Harlan Ellison's "Soft Monkey" before, but I'm not sure where. I vividly remember it, and I remember it's preface about scientists who found that orangutans who are greiving the loss of a child will cling to a soft doll, and treat it as if it were alive.
The preface wouldn't be all that problematic if the main character of "Soft Monkey" weren't a mentally ill, homeless black woman. I don't attribute any racist intent to Ellison, but there's a rather long, disturbing history of comparing black people to apes that he should have been aware of or acknowledged. The only racist thoughts are in the characters who are trying to kill Annie, the protagonist, a woman who has had a psychotic break after losing an infant child. Annie is targeted for death after witnessing a mob hit, but there's something about this story that still kind of rubs me the wrong way. I'm not sure what it's getting at. I suspect Ellison was trying to get at the bond between mother and child and animal and beast, but I think he might have found a better way to get at it.
Private-eye novels usually either go one of two ways; gritty, dirt-under-the-nails realism, or more comic, pulpy fare. One can make that Mickey Spillane mixed the two types of stories, but, it’s not at all clear Spillane knew when he was being comical, and either way, the results of his efforts may be the best argument one can think of for not trying to mix the two types of stories. However, Mark Coggins’ latest August Riordan novel, The Big Wake Up (Bleak House, 2009) successfully mixes plot elements that would fit more comfortably between the battered pages of a comic or pulp magazine with the modern hard boiled PI story. The result is a fast paced, entertaining read.
The plot of The Big Wake Up is ridiculous. It involves rival factions from Argentina searching for the embalmed corpse of Evita Peron, which was, through a series of rather unbelievable occurrences, supposedly spirited away to the San Francisco Bay area and interred under a false name. Apparently, whoever possesses Evita’s corpse will wield unlimited power over the easily impressed proles of Argentina or something. Needless to say, August Riordan is brought in by one of the factions to find the corpse, under false pretenses, of course. He quickly realizes something is up when he is trying to get his client’s daughter in bed, and a gang of thugs burst into his apartment, led by a woman named Isis, who commands an army of identical looking black men and has a fetish for embalming people alive.
So, yes, The Big Wake Up, is ridiculous, but it’s a well done sort of ridiculous. Coggins is pretty skilled at taking the reader for a ride, and the book zips along like a Maserati down the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite the over-the-top nature of the tale, Coggins still keeps it grounded. Actions have consequences. People die, and Riordan doesn’t make it out emotionally unscathed. No doubt because the book is part of a series, Coggins makes an effort at verisimilitude and blends it well with the overall story. The result is a book that is satisfying on more than one level.
Bad Karma (Five Star, 2009), Dave Zeltserman’s follow up to Bad Thoughts, finds the author trying to take a path less traveled in PI novels, as well as produce work that might be less off putting to the casual reader than his man-out-of prison novels, Small Crimes and Pariah, and the yet-to be-published Killer. Zeltserman will probably make his mark on the world of hard boiled fiction with the man-out-of-prison works. Small Crimes was excellent, and Pariah, while it will never replace Catcher in the Rye on high school freshman English reading lists, will stand the test of time.
One cannot, however, fault a working writer for trying to find a commercial outlet, which is what Zeltserman is trying to do with his Bill Shannon novels, by mixing your standard hard-boiled ex-cop PI with a dash of the supernatural. It’s not full on Twilight, with vampires and werewolves, but there is a healthy dose of new-age phenomenon, like lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. It is refreshing to see a PI character turning to meditation instead of the bottle after a traumatic experience, but readers’ mileage may vary depending on their tolerance for hippy-dippy talk (not to mention discussion of the relative merits of the Red Sox versus the Yankees).
Still, while Bad Karma is not as good as Zeltserman’s non-series work, there is still a solid PI story at its center. Shannon has relocated to Denver and reconciled with Susan, his ex-wife, when he is hired to investigate the brutal beating death of a couple college students. He also agrees to help a desperate mother try to rescue her daughter from a local cult. True to form, both cases dovetail in the end, and Shannon ends up uncovering a larger conspiracy, and when it comes to problem solving Shannon isn’t exactly a pacifist, his penchant for meditation notwithstanding, so there’s plenty here for fans of the genre.
Dave Zeltserman's excellent novel Pariah, which I wrote about back in May out of an abundance of enthusiasm, is out this month, so I'm linking to my review again. You really ought not to miss reading this book. Bruce Grossman over at Bookgasm agrees. I think you're going to see a lot of positive reviews for this book.
Zeltserman has a second novel coming out soon, Bad Karma, which is a sequel to Bad Thoughts. My review of that one should be posted soon, so stay tuned.
Welcome to the Indie Crime Blog. As the name implies, this blog is dedicated to reviews of crime fiction published by independent presses. There are many books published every year that seem to be ignored for a variety of reasons. The books sections of newspapers are getting smaller. Bookstores give more shelf space to more established authors. I could go on, but you get it.My intent is to review books both old and new in the hopes that some deserving writers and worthy publishers will gain some exposure. I can be emailed at IndieCrime-at-gmail-dot-com