Monday 2 November 2009

What I Read In October

What a stellar reading month. Some excellent books by old favourites, and a couple of wonderful new finds. One of them was directly because of the author's appearance on a panel at Bouchercon, so for those people who say it's not worth going to conventions, well, this author has gained a new reader who will dash out and buy everything he writes. OK, so it's only me, but...

TOWER - Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Published: 2009
Setting: New York
Protagonist: Nick and Todd
Series?: Standalone
First Lines: 'Griffin coughed blood into my face when I made to slip the chains under his shoulders.'
Nick and Todd grew up together in Brooklyn and their friendship survives to adulthood, where they ease into a life of crime, becoming low level hired hands for Boyle - a nasty piece of work who quotes from the bible. Nick is left stunned when Todd kills someone during a burglary. From there, bonds are tested, things spiral downhill and out of control. The first half of the book is told, by Bruen, from Nick's point of view, and you think you have a clear picture of events - until you read the second half of the book, written by Coleman and told from Todd's point of view. Heart-breaking and stomach-churning, this is an amazing book - a beautifully written book full of brutal lyricism and hardboiled poetry, an unforgettable look at friendship, loyalty, fate, honesty and belief. I loved it, and the ending made me burst into tears on public transport. Consider yourself warned. Two of the best writers writing today.

EMPTY EVER AFTER - Reed Farrel Coleman
Published: 2008
Setting: New York
Protagonist: Moe Prager
Series?: 5th
First Lines: 'We walked through the cemetery, Mr Roth's arm looped through mine. The cane in his left hand tapped out a mournful meter on the ice slicked gravel paths that wound their way through endless rows of gravestones. The crunch and scrape of our footfalls were swallowed up and forgotten as easily as the heartbeats and breaths of all the dead, ever.'
This is the fifth in the Moe Prager series. I didn't think the series could get any better after the fourth one, but it has. And it feels like the end of an arc that takes in the past and present, looking back at Moe's past cases, tying up some loose ends, resolving the unresolved, yet raising more questions. PI Moe Prager investigates a grave-robbing that is very close to home, when the grave of his brother in law is desecrated, setting off a chain of events that has Moe investigating all of his past cases and rethinking the decisions he has made over the years. Coleman shows that life is never a straight line, that things can never be neatly tied up with little bows, and that the past really can come back to haunt you. EMPTY EVER AFTER is all about the ghosts of the past and how some of those ghosts never go away - especially the ones that are the keepers of secrets. Winner of the Shamus Award, and no bloody wonder. Brilliant stuff.

CALUMET CITY - Charlie Newton
Published: 2008
Setting: Chicago
Protagonist: Patti Black
Series?: Standalone/1st
First Lines: 'There's this place in Chinatown. Off Wentworth Avenue in the 25th Ward, where the four-story walkups lean out over the street. Buildings not yet leveled by urban renewal, mattress fires, or debts to the wrong politicians. The kind of neighbourhood that scares people who look too close.'
Charlie Newton's debut novel CALUMET CITY is 400 pages long, but reading it feels like reading a novel half that length. I stayed up late at night, I missed my stop on the bus, I took a few extra minutes in my lunch hour at work. It's a thrills and spills novel that never lets up. Patti Black is a much decorated Chicago police officer who has packed her past away in a sealed box and stuck it in the back of the cupboard where it sits gathering dust - unseen, unopened, but definitely not forgotten. Unfortunately, several apparently unlinked cases threaten to open the box and let the screaming demons out. A superb debut novel that grips you by the throat and refuses to let go. A wonderfully original voice, Patti Black is an excellent character - prickly and tough but also vulnerable and warm. She's a survivor, and survival has made her strong - but it's also come at a price and has taken away as much as it has added. Being in Patti's nightmares is really not a comfortable place to be, and the gradually revealed story of her past is skilfully, intensely and chillingly done. The depiction of Chicago is excellent and all aspects of the city are really brought to life. This is not a happy book and Charlie Newton piles grit and darkness on both his protagonist and his readers. I'm really looking forward to his next.

GO WITH ME - Castle Freeman Jr
Published: 2008
Setting: A small town in rural Vermont
Protagonist: Various
Series?: Standalone
First Lines: 'Midsummer: The long days begin in bright, rising mist and never end. Their hours stretch, they stretch. They stretch to hold everything you can shove into them; they'll take whatever you've got. Action, no action, good ideas, bad ideas, talk, love, trouble, every kind of lie - they'll hold them all.'
When the sheriff of a small Vermont town finds Lillian sitting in her car outside the police station, she tells him that a man called Blackway is stalking her, and he's killed her cat. Everyone knows Blackway, but no-one can do anything about him - including the sheriff. He tells her to go out to the mill, to ask Whizzer where she can find Scotty. Scotty will be able to help her. Only Scotty's not there. So Whizzer sends her off with two extremely unlikely knights in...well, definitely not shining armour. The rest of the story is the tale of the trio looking for Blackway, interspersed with Whizzer and his layabout pals, telling tall tales about the town, and Blackway, wondering whether the girl will come through, and going off into all sorts of digressions. A wonderfully quirky cast of characters. The dialogue is wonderfully alive and witty. Funny yet dark, the book put me in mind of a softer version of Daniel Woodrell crossed with the tales of King Arthur's knights.

WILD WIVES - Charles Willeford
Published: 1956
Setting: San Francisco
Protagonist: PI Jacob Blake
Series?: Standalone
First Lines: 'The rain hit hard at my window. It slowed down to a whisper, then hit hard again.
WILD WIVES is a gutsy novella featuring amoral private eye Jake Blake who takes on a case involving a hot dame who's more than a tad insane. She says that the two thugs shadowing her have been hired by her father to follow her everywhere except the bathroom. Blake is totally unlikeable, the case is suitably scuzzy from the start and the novella is full of sex and sleaze. It should come with the warning "Wash hands after reading." Willeford is a master of dragging hard-boiled through the dirt and this one is no exception. I loved it.

Published: 1941
Setting: New York
Protagonist: Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg
Series?: 7th
First Lines: 'Johnny Fletcher had the key in his hand, but it wasn't necessary to put it in the lock, for the door was slightly ajar.'
Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg are dodgy characters, book-salesmen, occasional PIs. Johnny is the quick-thinking, smooth talking charmer; Sam is the big lug who acts as the muscle in the partnership. Johnny and Sam always have an eye out for the main chance - there's always a scheme on the go, always a body or two, and invariably a hot dame. Their main way of earning income is for Sam to show off his strength while Johnny hawks a book called 'Every Man A Samson' which apparently tells you how to be as strong as Sam. In THE CORPSE MOVED UPSTAIRS, Johnny and Sam come back to their regular flophouse in New York, their books in a trunk, waiting for their next scam. Unfortunately, somebody thinks their trunk is the ideal place to dump a dead body. Wisecracks, good fun, a fast-paced plot and some endearing and entertaining characters. If you like Richard S Prather's Shell Scott series, you'd like this, I think.


  1. Indeed, you did have a grand reading month! Of the ones I've read, we totally agree. Of the ones I haven't, the one I own is screaming louder at me from the shelf now, and the others-especially the dark ones-are now on my To Be Found Soon list. Thank you!

    Like you, I tried one by a panelist at recent Bouchercon, and it was very good, and I would not have read it or bought it, without being yes, some books do get sold from the convention that would not be sold otherwise. And there are still several on my To Be Bought list, from the panelists I saw, and I'd not known about them or their directions or abilities before.

    So yes, conventions are good for being more recognized. And your reporting and blogging helps those of us who can't go to all, too.
    And one person who went, telling others about panels and books...even that way a convention can be a help, imo. Have more great reading months, Donna!


  2. Thank you m'dear! I look forward to hearing your comments on them (I know you will love TOWER!)

  3. Donna,

    Thanks for the kind comments about TOWER!! And Coleman's EMPTY EVER AFTER (which is my favorite of his aside from REDEMPTION STREET). And CALUMET CITY is one of those books that no one's heard of that deserves much more attention. :-)


  4. David - you're welcome! I loved it (and, by the way, it looks beautiful with those French flaps!) It will be on my best of year list - in fact, it will be on my best EVER list! I was really impressed with CALUMET CITY - definitely needs to be better known.

  5. GO WITH ME is a favorite of mine. And Willeford-I worship at that altar.