Friday, July 24, 2009
Friday's Forgotten Books, July 24, 2009
THE RAP SHEET and pattinase are taking two weeks off-the weeks of August 28th and September 4th--just in terms of Friday's Forgotten Books and The Book You Have to Read, of course.
The Summing Up will be delayed. I've been called away.
Ed Gorman is the author and editor of many fine crime and western novels. You can find him blogging here.
A SHOT RANG OUT by Jon L. Breen
I'm about to review a book that is hardly forgotten; it's new. I'm reviewing it because a) I think it's an important book and b) because it didn't get the coverage it deserves. I should also note that the book is dedicated to me but I'd like to add here that I was reading and learning from Jon Breen long before I switched from men's magazine adventure and science fiction to mystery and got to know him personally.
The name Anthony Boucher is one of the most revered in mystery fiction. I have three volumes of his Sunday columns and what strikes me again and again when I reread them is the concision and precision of his his reviews. He had the ability to give you a real sense of the book and his reaction to it in one hundred words or less. Try that sometime. It ain't easy. Boucher also brought a truly catholic approach (I'm not making a pun here, Boucher having been a devout Roman Catholic) which enabled him to review Charlotte Armstrong with the same understanding and enthusiasm he rolled out for Ross Macdonald.
These are the same traits I've always found in Jon Breen's criticism and his hefty new collection proves my point. The book opens with overviews of fifteen careers, including those of Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Chester Himes, Ellery Queen and P.D. James. The length of these gives Breen the opportunity show how careers are built (consciously or unconsciously) and to cite the triumphs and disappointments along the way. My favorites here are Jack Finney and Margaret Millar. Finney is one of the most elusive of genre writers; his career included everything from hardboiled to fantasy to outright whimsey. And I'd put Millar up against Agatha Christie any day.
This section is followed by "Short Takes on 100 Writers." I love things like this. It's fun to be reminded of books you cared about but haven't reread in years and writers you passed over previously but now, thanks to Breen's profile here, want to try this time around.
The rest of the book comes in two sections. "Topical essays" covers everything from American Women Mystery Writers to The Ghost and Miss Truman (a very wry entry) to Murdering History (the historical novel) to How To Write Mysteries in Six Difficult Lessons (with several guests including Elizabeth George and Loren Estleman). This is followed by short punchy pieces on such subjects as The British Mystery and Nancy Drew and Plagiarism. His piece on my tenure as the editor of Mystery Scene had me (literally) howling out loud. Somebody once said that they bought the magazine just to see what it would look like this time. I sure did change formats a lot. Thank God Kate and Brian took it over. There are even a pair of true crime reviews, his take on Patricia Cornwell's job on Jack The Ripper bracing to be sure.
In sum, if you have any interest in the field of mystery and suspense, this book needs to be on your shelf. It would also make a great present. A witty, shrewd, serious look at the genre that is finally coming into its own in popularity and critical esteem.
Patti Abbott, The Joe Binney series by Jack Livingston
Jack Livingston was an American writer who wrote a series of novels in the 1980’s about a
hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective named Joe Binney, who happened to be deaf. Binney lost his hearing while working as a Navy diver, but, despite this disability, he managed to work as a private investigator in New York, aided by his assistant, Edna.
There are four Joe Binney novels: “A Piece of the Silence,” “Die Again, Macready,” “The
Nightmare File,” and “Hellbent for Election.” According to my log, I read them as fast as I could, finding both the writing and the plots compelling. Four books in five years from Mr. Livinston and then nothing. I wonder what became of him. Can someone help me out?
1. A Piece of the Silence (1982)
2. Die Again, Macready (1984)
3. The Nightmare File (1986)
4. Hell-Bent for Election (1987)
Stephen Jay Schwartz’s debut crime thriller, BOULEVARD, is due out
September 15, 2009 from Forge Books. He blogs regularly at
www.murderati.com . You can learn more about him at
THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE GRAPE by John Fante
My introduction to John Fante came from an interview I read with Charles
Bukowski. Fante was a huge influence on Bukowski and, when I find a
writer I love (like Bukowski) I tend to read all of his/her influences.
If anyone has ever told you about Fante they’ve probably steered you
towards Ask the Dust, which has somehow become his signature book. The
novel was made into a move in 2006 starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek,
directed by Robert Towne.
While I appreciate the terse, visual writing in Ask the Dust, it comes
nowhere near the fervor I feel for Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape.
I’ve never read such charming, poignant and humorous depictions of
intergenerational Italian-American antics as I have in Brotherhood. Fante
nails the characterization of the ancient adulterer Nicholas Molise, the
narrator’s father, a stubborn, steadfast alcoholic, gambler and craftsman
extraordinaire whose commissioned brick and stone-work is represented all
over the small town of San Elmo, California, where he lives with his
ultra-religious wife, Maria.
The beauty of this book comes from Fante’s characterizations of the family
members, which includes narrator Henry, an adult son in his fifties who,
much to his father’s dismay, became a writer instead of a stonemason. The
novel opens with Henry receiving a call from his brother, Mario, telling
Henry that his parents are getting a divorce. Apparently, Nicholas has
been drinking and gambling and having an affair on his wife. By the time
Henry arrives in San Elmo his parents have patched things up a bit, and,
before Henry can get the hell out of town, his parents conspire to get him
to help his father build the man’s final great work—a smokehouse in the
The book is about the complexity of family relationships. Fante delivers
on character, for sure. He proves himself a master—really one of the very
best—at depicting the modulating feelings of love, regret, expectation and
resentment that define the family experience in America, and, most
particularly, the American immigrant experience, where the dreams of one
generation conflict greatly with the dreams of their children.
Ultimately, it is the love of friendship, of Paesani, that proves a
greater bond than that of familial love. Nicholas’ drinking buddies, all
septuagenarians like him, are there for him through thick and thin. They
do not judge his drinking, gambling or womanizing, but take him at face
value, as the man he is, as the Piason they have come to cherish over the
many years of their acquaintance. In the end, these are the friends who
Nicholas searches out to share his final moments.
And yet, Fante does a brilliant job of marking Henry’s changing attitude
through the story. Henry eventually comes to respect the man he has spent
his entire life avoiding. He doesn’t forgive his father for the terrible
emotional abuse he experienced as a child, but he does learn to see that
his father has a special soul—as his mother, who endures even greater
shame and embarrassment, learned many years before.
Brotherhood of the Grape is a quick, easy read that you wish would never
end. It is my favorite book by John Fante, and it ranks in the top twenty
of my all time most-enjoyable reads.
Kathryn Miller Haines
Detectives Beyond Borders (Pete Rozovsky)