October 13, 2014

Triumphant triumvirate - Lehane, Atkins, Sandford.

I've recently read three crime novels that remind me - if I needed it - why crime writing is such a vigorous genre.

First I read Dennis Lehane's The Drop, which is a novel based on an earlier short story and which has been made into a film starring Tom Hardy and the great James Gandolfini. Effectively, it's the old story about the worm turning - someone who is put-upon finally deciding that enough is enough and finding the strength to assert themselves. The difference here is that the hero, although quiet and unassuming, was once part of a gang that exercised a violent rule over a part of Boston.

Lehane, as usual, sets his story in Boston, but its not just a geographical setting - it's a spiritual one, too. Bob Saginowski, our hero, was once a choir-boy - yes, really - and still has semi-religious leanings. During the course of the book he finds and starts to look after an abandoned dog, and also begins a relationship with a young woman. But its the impact of his spiritual growth on his behaviour that drives the plot - he's pushed into desperate action and we wonder how he's going to cope with pressure from his cousin - the former gang-boss - the Chechen gangsters who are using his place of work to launder gambling money, and his conscience. In this scene, Lehane lets us into Bob's thinking by giving us his response to looking at the Stations of the Cross in his church:

Bob walked the stations. Via Crucis. He paused at the fourth, where Jesus met His mother as He carried the cross up the hill, the crown of thorns on His head, two centurions standing behind Him with their whips, ready to use them, to drive Him from His mother, to force Him up the hill, where they would nail Him to the very cross they forced Him to drag. Had those centurions repented later in life? Could there be repentance?
     Or were some sins simply too big?
     The Church said no. As long as there was meaningful penance, the Church said God would forgive. But the Church was an interpretive vessel, at times an imperfect one. So what if, in this case, the Church was wrong? What if some souls could never be reclaimed from the black pits of their sin?
     If Heaven was to be considered a valued destination, then Hell must hold twice as many souls.
     Bob hadn’t even realized he’d lowered his head until he raised it.
The effect of Bob's introspection, in The Drop, is to amplify the importance of the choices that he faces so that the book becomes more than a series of pressure-tests that Bob resists until he can resist no more: it becomes a test of his relationship to his religion, and even of the value or usefulness of that religion in the world he belongs to. 

The second book I read was by Ace Atkins, whose The Ranger was the last book I reviewed on this blog. 

Atkins has done such a good job with his own crime novels that he was asked by the estate of Robert B. Parker, the author of the famous Spenser private eye novels, to continue the series after Parker's death. The second book that Atkins has written is Wonderland, and a real wonder it is too. 

The Spenser books had been an institution in US crime writing for nigh on thirty years before Parker died. There was a cast of characters whom Parker had developed over the years - the sidekick Hawk, the gym owner Henry Cimoli, the cute dog Pearl, the ace assassin Vinnie Morris ... and oh dear, the girlfriend, Susan Silverman. Susan Silverman had a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, which she had no hesitation in reminding us of at least a couple of times in each novel. And when she wasn't doing that, she and Spenser were having glorious sex (that he never described in detail). To be honest, she was a pain in the backside.

Thankfully, Atkins has solved the Silverman Question by relegating her to a couple of off-screen appearances. In other words, Spenser phones her while she's teaching class elsewhere. Thank god she's nowhere near Boston.

And truth to tell, Atkins does rather a better job with Spenser than Parker had been doing of late. For one thing, Boston becomes a real character in the book for the first time in many years. Although Atkins doesn't seem to have spent any living time there, from looking at his biography, he's certainly done his research. Not only are streets, rivers and buildings name-checked, but he can also describe the smells of the docks, the food to be eaten at various restaurants, even the swans to be seen on various parts of the water. You have a real sense of Spenser inhabiting an actual place, not a vague 'city' that happens to be called Boston. 

He also nails Spenser. This was a private eye whose initial USP was that he quoted poetry, which was playfully hinted at in the way his name was spelled, after the English author of The Faerie Queen. Atkins continues that riff, without pomposity, and also improves generally on Parker's dialogue. Parker had fallen into a technique that relied on repetition for effect: 

He took in some air and let it out audibly.
     “There is,” he said.
     “And it requires discretion,” I said.
     “Very much.”
     “You’ll get all I can give you,” I said.
     “All you can give me?”
     “Anything,” I said, “that your best interest, and my self-regard, will allow.”
     “Your ‘self-regard’?”
     “I try not to do things that make me think ill of myself.”
   “My God,” Prince said. “I mean, that’s a laudable goal, I suppose. But you are a private detective.”
     “All the more reason for vigilance,” I said.
     He took another deep breath. He nodded slowly.
    “There is a painting,” he said, “by a seventeenth-century Dutch artist named Frans Hermenszoon.”
     “Lady with a Finch,” I said.
     “How on earth did you know that?” Prince said.
Now I'm a big believer that in dialogue you should largely use 'he said' and 'she said' as tags - anything else, as the Great Elmore Leonard said, is the author shoe-horning himself into the conversation to tell you what to think. But Parker is so insistent with his 'saids' that they become intrusive themselves. Compare this with a passage from Atkins' Spenser:
     “I pretended like I was going to charge it to my room,” Z said. “I gave the woman’s room number. I dropped a twenty-dollar tip on him before I signed.”
     I nodded. “Boston ain’t cheap for a gumshoe.”
     “Just as he snatched it up, I asked if the room was under my name or my boss’s.”
     “And what did he say?”
     “He told me the name of the hotel guest.”
     “How do you think the Cree won the Battle of Cut Knife?”
     “That exact thought had just crossed my mind.”
     “J. Fraser.”
There is one 'said' in this passage and when Spenser speaks, it's prefaced with "I nodded", followed by the dialogue line. Thereafter, no tags. The reader is smart enough to know who's talking without being told all the time.

The plot, too, is also an improvement on Parker's later works - it's more complex, has several twists and turns and depends on Spenser doing some actual detecting, not just beating people up. There are more Atkins/Spenser books to read, and I'm going to read 'em.

The final book of the triumvirate is John Sandford's latest Virgil Flowers book, Deadline.

I've written about Sandford before. He currently has two series ongoing - the 'Prey' series featuring superior Minnesota cop Lucas Davenport, and the Virgil Flowers series - who is a more junior cop who happens to work for Davenport.

The Davenport series books usually involve weightier cases that might include some local politics and several murders, and require Davenport's street-smarts and logical thinking. The Flowers series novels are more light-hearted, though they deal with serious crimes. Flowers himself is an intelligent and moral policeman who happens to dress as a cross between a hippy and a cowboy, one of his features being the range of band tee-shirts he wears.

In Deadline he's asked by his friend Johnson Johnson to come and investigate a crime of dog-napping, but winds up addressing and solving a larger crime of embezzlement and murder. As ever, the dialogue and writing is whip-smart:

“Yeah, yeah, I got some of everything,” Virgil said. “What about these dogs? You find them yet?”
“Not yet,” Johnson said. He was uncharacteristically grim. “Come on inside. I got a whole bunch of ol’ boys and girls for you to talk to.”
“We’re having a meeting?”
“We’re having a lynch mob,” Johnson said.
Virgil followed him in. One of the trucks he passed in the parking lot had a bumper sticker that asked, “Got Hollow Points?” Another said: “Heavily Armed . . . and easily pissed.” A third one: “Point and Click . . . means you’re out of ammo.”
“Aw, jeez,” Virgil said.
Sandford keeps the book rolling by moving very slickly between Virgil's point of view and that of the bad guys and gals. Just when you think the detecting might be running out of gas, because Virgil doesn't know where to turn next, Sandford takes us to a meeting between the bad folks and the next chapter shows the outcome of their deliberations - usually by having Virgil rousted from bed because another body has been found. The upshot is that the book doesn't bore for a second, and you read quickly because the action is varied, unusual, interesting, and written with a great deal of humour. You just know Sandford is having as much fun writing this stuff as you are reading it.

And that's enough for a reader to ask for, isn't it?

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