RSS Feed

Tag Archives: crime fiction

Funny How Time Slips Away: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reading is like breathing — don’t do enough of it and your brain cells start to die. Not necessarily the brain cells responsible for walking, hanging up on telephone solicitors and calculating four-way tips on a restaurant bill, but the ones responsible for writing. And I do a lot of writing so it’s necessary that I read.

Dark Places

Dark Places: Don’t let the padlock fool you. There isn’t much inside.

Over the last year I’ve been remiss in my reading habits, as you can tell if you scroll down to the previous book review in this blog and note that it was posted on July 27, 2014. Not that I haven’t been reading since then. I have. I’ve been reading the beginnings of books that I never finished, click-bait articles that somehow wandered into my Facebook feed and the occasional magazine (though I’ve been falling behind in my magazine reading too, something I plan to remedy).

I also read two entire novels during the last year, which I’ve somehow never gotten around to writing about here. I plan to remedy that too, starting with this post, which is about Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember a whole lot about Dark Places, partly because it’s been close to a year since I read it and partly because, well, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Not that it was bad. I suspect that anything by Flynn is worth reading, which is why I picked it up, having been deeply impressed by the wit, plotting and deftly deceptive characterization in Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it three years ago. I read Dark Places looking for more of the same and to some extent I found it — at least Dark Places has the same acerbic, observational cleverness of Gone Girl and some of the same strong characterization, but in the matter of plot it felt like Flynn started with the spark of an idea that she never managed to kindle (no pun on my ebook reader intended) into an actual flame.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of the plot, but here’s what I can give you: Libby Day, a 30-ish woman who survived the violent massacre of her family when she was a child, has spent most of her life living on the charitable funds generated by the sympathetic stories about her that periodically grace the pages of magazines and true-crime newscasts. The charity is running out, however, and Libby, who has never worked for a living, finds herself with no marketable skills and no desire to develop the sort of likable personality that might get her either a job or a husband. It’s this desperation for funds that drives her to accept a paid invitation from a club of amateur crime solvers who enjoy revisiting particularly gruesome murder narratives and finding flaws in the original conclusions reached by the judiciary system.

Libby expects the club to consist of creeps and borderline psychos who get off on blood and gore, but they’re mostly harmless nerds who enjoy arguing about clues and courtroom testimony. The particular subgroup dedicated to the Day family massacre is largely convinced that the person eventually convicted of the crime, Libby’s older brother, is innocent — which comes as a surprise to Libby, because she’s pretty much accepted her brother’s culpability, even though he was probably the family member closest to her before the killings occurred. She never visits him in prison and is reluctant to do so even at the club’s request, until they offer her money to talk to him. Being on the verge of homelessness actually motivates Libby to discard her apathy — and, more importantly, to face up to the “dark places” in her brain that concern the crime — in ways that she hasn’t over the previous quarter of a century. The club members gradually convince her that her brother may in fact be innocent, and, um, things happen. There’s something about the brother’s former girlfriend and a lot about women with red hair, a hallmark of the Day family.

Wish I could tell you more — and I probably could have, back when I’d finished the book. Though I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve put off writing this review for so long is that I really didn’t have a lot to say about it even then. I remember finding the ending not entirely satisfactory; I felt that Flynn had thrown in one plot element too many, perhaps to throw red herrings in the reader’s path, more likely because she felt she was at least one subplot short of a novel.

Whatever, my enthusiasm for Flynn’s writing remains undimmed, but it still largely hinges on the deep impression that Gone Girl made with me. Eventually I’ll go back and read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and probably be even more disappointed, but as a stylist Flynn is engaging enough that even her lesser works, like this one, are worth reading.

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.

Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Crime Writing: Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer

Book #16 for 2011: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

When I was in my 20s, I followed the work of several crime and mystery writers. Not just the classic hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and drawing room mystery writers like Agatha Christie, but several modern (for that period) authors: Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries always started with the eponymous detective being hired to track down a runaway child or bride but ended with the discovery of the dark and tragic secret history of some Southern California family; Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct procedurals were so breezy and compulsively readable that I’d sometimes go through two or three in a day; and Donald Westlake, whose Dortmunder series was a bit too repetitive for my tastes but whose standalone crime novels combined a darkly comic sensibility with a gift for Hitchcockian chase thrillers.

And then I sort of lost interest, both in reading novels in general and in reading mysteries in particular. By the 1990s I was seeing the names of new crime fiction writers appear regularly on the bestseller shelf at my local drugstore, names like Harlan Coben, Lee Child, John Sandford, George Pelecanos, James Patterson…and Michael Connelly. When I would grow curious about one of these authors and sample their work, I was usually disappointed. Much of what they produced seemed slight and superficial, or just a bit trite, compared to the mysteries I’d read when I was young. (See my earlier nasty comments about the novels of Lee Child.) But I figured that, somewhere among them, there must be one or two authors who actually knew how to write decent crime fiction.

Michael Connelly came highly recommended. Stephen King, an author I respect, seems to tout Connelly’s work every chance he gets. Amy’s brother has an entire shelf of autographed books by Connelly. And The Lincoln Lawyer was made into a fairly well received movie earlier this year. So I decided to give him a chance.

And what do you know? He’s not bad. The Lincoln Lawyer certainly towers above anything I’ve read by Lee Child and I found it meatier than the Carl Hiaasen novel I read earlier this year. It’s not perfect. The characters tend toward stock figures, albeit fairly well-drawn stock figures, but the novel has three things about it that work very much in its favor.

The first is that Connelly clearly knows a great deal about how the law works, and not just the textbook way in which the justice system is supposed to function, but the way it functions in practice, with lawyers making shady deals and pulling the wool over their client’s eyes with legalistic sleight of hand. Judging from the acknowledgments at the end, this isn’t because Connelly has any law experience of his own but because he interviewed a lot of lawyers and even, yes, judges before he wrote this book. (It’s also possible that Connelly is very good at making up the kind of things that people are talking about when they say “you can’t make that stuff up.”)

The second is that he has a very good plot twist that goes off almost exactly in the middle of the novel, one that completely turns the story around and lets the reader know that the story they thought they were going to read is quite the opposite of the story they’re actually going to get.

The third is the main character, Mickey Haller, who narrates the novel in the first person. This was the first in a series of novels that Connelly has been writing about Haller, a sleazebag criminal lawyer who discovers belatedly that he has a conscience. It’s Haller who tells the reader about all the shady tricks that lawyers play and Haller who rises above the stock character threshold. Not that some genre cliches don’t slip into Haller’s life. He has the requisite ex-wife who chides him about not spending enough time with his daughter, with the twist that the ex-wife is also a prosecutor who he sometimes faces off against in court.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a fast, entertaining read and if I were still in my 20s I’d probably decide that Connelly is the sort of writer I could read several books by in a day. But, seriously, who over the age of 30 has the time or the attention span for that kind of thing? I know I don’t.