Thursday, June 26, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book, June 27, 2008

Shannon Clute is the co-creator, with Richard Edwards, of the "Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir" and "Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writer Revealed" podcasts (

Paul Auster, New York Trilogy

The first paragraph of the first page of the first novella of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy ends with the line, "The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell." That sentence sets up the fundamental epistemological impasse of these three novellas ("City of Glass," "Ghosts," and "The Locked Room"), first published together as the novel The New York Trilogy in 1990. While the three stories are distinct, they all have narrators who struggle, and fail, to find a space beyond the stories from which they might see the larger picture, or in which they might find themselves—some superior vantage point or objective truth. Instead, all the narrators' efforts seem to take them deeper inside the intrigue

"City of Glass" is the story of a mystery author named Quinn, who has retreated behind his pseudonym William Wilson (a name taken from a Poe story about a man with a perfect doppelganger whom he is forced to murder in order to live his own life). One night Quinn receives an urgent call from a stranger, who believes he has dialed the Paul Auster Detective Agency. Quinn decides to take the case, and soon the pseudonymous author within the tale finds himself imitating procedure he had imagined for his own literary detective, while at the same time hiding behind the name of his true maker whom he assumes to be a fiction. As the case progresses, Quinn/Auster quickly loses track of himself in these many layers of imitation and deception. Desperate to find meaning in a case moving in too many directions, he notes every object gathered and every move made by the man he has been hired to follow, and becomes convinced the case is an elaborate experiment aimed at recovering the Truth of prelapsarian language. New York indeed becomes a City of Glass, whose every surface seems to reflect something of the truth, but taken together these fractured and multiplied bits of truth recede ad infinitum.. It seems only right to leave it to the reader to elucidate the stories of the other two novellas, and decide how they reflect and refract—and are themselves reflections of—"City of Glass."

Part Poe, part Oulipo, part nouveau roman, true, but there is far more to these tales than the Borges-eque pleasure of navigating such labyrinthine narrative structures. These metaphysical investigations are deeply human to the extent that the detective's quest for meaning has real stakes. To try and make sense of the world is to determine how to live. To renounce this inquest is to die, or kill. In other words, the novellas work because Auster understands detective fiction not just cognitively, but viscerally. He'd worked it all out three years before "City of Glass," in a great hard-boiled mystery called Squeeze Play that he published under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin. Now that I think of it, I probably should have written about that novel. But I forget what I did with my copy, and they're as hard to come by as answers—or questions, for that matter.

Which leads me to reflect upon my reasons for choosing The New York Trilogy as a "forgotten" book—an unusual choice in that the novel has never gone out of print, and recently appeared in a new illustrated edition. Wouldn't Squeeze Play have been the more obvious choice? Certainly it was more in keeping with many previous installments of "Friday's Forgotten Books," which recuperate, from memory, a book that is out of print and lost to the reviewer. Not so fast, I thought. Didn't Quinn get himself in trouble by assuming he understood the meaning of the request, and the parameters of the exercise? Didn't Ishmael, and Anton Voyl, and all my favorite doomed investigators? I thought it was only right to go back to the beginning, to take the request at it's word. "Forget": etym. "to miss or lose one's hold." To get a hold of something one has lost hold of, or perhaps failed to grasp in the first place? Something of a logical impasse. I soon found myself in a free fall, through a mise en abyme of negations behind definitions, of questions within questions. The New York Trilogy slithered into that void—a gossamer thread to somewhere outside, a fine line to nowhere, or the noose that guys like me can hang themselves with? I grabbed it. What choice was there, really?

Libby Fischer Hellmann, An Easy Innocence

Briarpatch by Ross Thomas

My favorite “forgotten” novel is Briarpatch by Ross Thomas. I’d already published three novels when I stumbled onto it, but when I did, I instantly knew why I write the books I do. Its structure, style, and substance are an indispensable template, and its dog-eared pages will stay in my library forever.

is a structural chameleon. Technically, it’s an amateur sleuth novel. Ben Dill, a Senate staffer in Washington DC journeys to an unnamed Southern city to bury his sister, a homicide detective killed in a bomb explosion. While there, he intends to find out why she died. In short order, though, characters are introduced, complications mount, and by page thirty I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a police procedural, a PI novel, or a thriller, complete with ambitious politicians, intelligence operatives, and arms-dealing mercenaries. In the hands of a lesser talent, this complexity might be disastrous, but Thomas weaves the threads into a seamless, satisfying story.

The prose in Briarpatch -- spare, lucid, silky -- is just this side of Chandler. It has rhythm. And pace. And while it’s easy to read, it’s never dull. Sometimes Thomas breaks the rules, having fun with alliteration, for example, or planting his tongue firmly in his cheek. But the writing is never offensive, and a too clever sentence is redeemed in the next with a thoughtful observation. I come away from Briarpatch thinking Thomas says what he means and yet it means so much more.

I grew up in Washington D.C., and when my family gossiped about the neighbors, we were essentially talking politics. As a result, stories that touch on national or global issues draw me like a moth to the light. Fold in murder, suspense, and small town corruption that stretches to the nation’s capital, and I’m a goner. (I learned after I read Briarpatch that Thomas lived in DC as well). Half way through, I realized we never know the Southern city where Briarpatch takes place, but we don’t need to. It could be any town in which a police chief hungers for higher office, a cop may be on the take, a formerly dirt-poor pal is now a millionaire, and a shady businessman tries to set up his partner.

But perhaps the novel’s most attractive – and durable -- quality is that it’s a story lightly told. Briarpatch never screams or calls attention to itself. Its complexity sneaks up on you-- until you realize you’re in the hands of a master and you’ve been reading a classic. It deserves to be “rediscovered.”

David Thompson, Owner, Busted Flush Press
David Handler's Series

David Thompson here... by day, assistant manager of Houston's Murder By The Book bookstore; I also moonlight as owner of Busted Flush Press. After working at the store for about 15 years, I decided to start up a small press, dedicated to reprinting books that we (and other mystery bookstores) sold VERY well, yet for one reason or another faded into obscurity. It was David Handler's wonderful Hoagy & Lulu series that kicked me into gear...

A little about this series: Stewart "Hoagy" Hoag was once America's brightest new novelist... the next Bret Easton Ellis, the next F. Scott Fitzgerald... and then his second novel was a flop, and he was forced to ghostwrite memoirs and other books, which is where the series picks up. And when he'd hit rock-bottom, a further casualty was his marriage to Broadway star Merilee Nash. Now, they share custody of their neurotic, yet faithful basset hound, Lulu, though she's mainly in Hoagy's care. No, Lulu doesn't talk... she doesn't solve the mystery... she's simply, a dog. Well, as much as Asta was "simply" a dog... and what a way to seque into comparisons to the Thin Man films... Handler has written a terrifically witty, fun, intelligent mystery series, influenced as much by b&w screwball comedies as classic crime fiction. These books should appeal to hard-/soft-boiled and cozy fans alike. I cannot recommend these books more highly.

So, back in the late-'80s, after two modestly successful paperback originals -- THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING and THE MAN WHO LIVED BY NIGHT -- David Handler produced THE MAN WHO WOULD BE F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, which ended up winning the Edgar for Best PBO. And what does he get from his publisher? They let the first two go out-of-print... yet continued to sign him to further two-book contracts... disappointed in sales performance (well, what do you expect?? no one wants to start a series with #4), he was dropped.

Years later, another major published came knocking at Handler's door... they wanted to reprint all of the books. However, they decided to start with #3, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, the Edgar winner. We begged and pleaded... everyone wanted the first two, which were by this time very hard to find... #3 had been kept in print for years, so anyone could find readily available used copies online and in used bookstores. When #3 flopped, they decided not to reprint the rest.

Third time's a charm... I hope. To date, BFP has reprinted the first four books in this, one of my all-time favorite series!! And many employees' at our store, too. More than any other writer, David Handler inspired me to create Busted Flush Press. He has another, equally entertaining series from St. Martin's Minotaur (starring a pudgy yet lovable NYC film critic and a female resident state trooper from Connecticut). I strongly encourage you to give each a try!

THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING / THE MAN WHO LIVED BY NIGHT (1st two in the Hoagy/Lulu series, in one volume from Busted Flush Press)

THE COLD BLUE BLOOD (the first Mitch Berger / Desiree Mitry mystery, in paperback from St. Martin's Minotaur)

J.A. Konrath, author of Fuzzy Navel

Blackburn by Bradley Denton.

The best serial killer book ever written, bar none. The killer is the
protagonist, and while he murders scores of people, he is one of the most
compelling, memorable, and sympathetic, characters in modern fiction.
prose is gorgeous, it's loaded with memorable scenes, and
the ending always
chokes me up.

This isn't Silence of the Lambs, and certainly not Dexter, even though it
has its amusing moments. In fact, it's more lit fic than thriller.
But don't
let that put you off. Blackburn is one of the most wonderful, heart-rending books
you'll ever read, and worthy of the cult following it has accrued.

Check the rest out. A few might go up late

In anticipation of next week's children's books here are three to spur you on:


Randy Johnson said...

As it happens, Briarpatch is the only novel by Mr. Thomas I've read. I agree it's very good.

Barrie said...

I think I read a lot, and then I stumble upon all these recommended books still to be read! yay!

Todd Mason said...

Ha! Sleepily, busily, I jump the gun on the young readers' selection...not alone, I see, and perhaps too early is better than too late, but nonetheless. Thanks as always for the hosting, Patti!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Todd-Better early than never. I'll post it again next week. Thank you for all your help with this endeavor.

Terrie Farley Moran said...


I am glad that you and a few others jumped the gun on children's book Friday, because I have been in grandma mode at my duaghter's house for the last few weeks and am transferring to my son's house tomorrow. (Summer vacations for them, not me--I watch kids and pets.) I will definitely be doing a children's book for next Friday.

Coincidentally, Nan Higginson, one of my blogmates on Women of Mystery usually posts a joke on Friday. Next Friday she is doing a bunch of kids jokes. Ties in kind of nicely.


Anonymous said...

It is an interesting confluence, Terrie...and glad to be of service, if so.

Patti, I've gone ahead and created an entry for This Weekend, of adult books, as well:

and on my name hotlink...