Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 16, 2012

***I will be taking next Friday off from Forgotten Books since I am cooking the day before. If anyone posts a review, I will pick them up late in the day Friday or on Saturday. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving


 Ed Gorman is the author of the Sam McCain and Dev Conrad series of crime fiction novels. You can find him here

spent a good share of last night reading Hard Case Crime's snappy edition of A Touch of Death by Charles Williams and I'll say what I've said before about this book. It likely has more plot turns than just about any suspense novel I can ever recall reading.

One of Charles Williams' amoral failed men narrate. He was briefly a football star. Now he's a busted real estate agent. No wonder he gets interested, after initial reluctance, in stealing an one hundred twenty thousand dollars that a bank president took from his own bank. The woman who convinces him to help her makes it sound simple. It's probably in this mansion. All you have to do is get in there and find it. The bank president's wife won't be home for two days. You'll have plenty of time.

Right. Well, we know better than that, don't we? Yes, he gets in but he finds he's not alone. The woman is there, beautiful beyond description, and drunk beyond belief. But so is a killer. After saving her life, failed star takes her to a cabin in the woods where he plans to persuade her to tell him where the money is.

That's the beginning. Everybody in this book is a professional liar. And the bank president's wife is the most fatale of femmes. She lies on virtually every page and occasionally almost gets them killed. That she knows where the money is is obvious. That she killed her husband is also obvious. But who is trying to kill her and why?

While Touch isn't as rich in characterization as most Williams its construction is so dazzling it doesn't matter for once. And as always there is the mordant undertow of all major Williams novels--failure, violence, oblivion.  Most Williams is now available on Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press e book site.

LOOKING-GLASS JUSTICE by Jeffrey Ashford
(Review by Deb)
I picked up Jeffrey Ashford’s LOOKING-GLASS JUSTICE the day after the election.  I was expecting a competent mystery of the “British police procedural” genre—and I certainly got that; but perhaps because the vitriol of the presidential campaign was still ringing in my ears—with its talk of “one percent,” “ninety-nine percent,” “job creators,” “makers and takers,” “free stuff,” etc.—I also found an interesting subtext in the book: Almost everyone in it, including members of the police force, feels some resentment toward other people who apparently have more wealth, power, or possessions than they have (especially when the objects of that resentment act in peremptory and arbitrary ways to achieve their ends)—and they sometimes make far-reaching decisions based on that resentment.  As one character puts it, “It’s not money that’s the root of all evil—it’s the need of money.”
The book opens in Africa, where we are introduced to a man named Esme Lynch.  He is in Sierra Leone to acquire “blood diamonds.” In a few short pages, Ashford lets us see that Lynch is a thoroughly unpleasant character, not one to run afoul of.  In quick succession we meet Dijkstal, the Dutchman who possesses the diamonds Lynch covets, Drury, a man whose function is never made explicit, and Carol, a faded prostitute hired to be a “diamond mule.”  Because this is Sierra Leone and because the diamond trade there is illegal as well as highly-profitable, we’re not surprised that both Lynch and Dijkstal travel with the protection of well-armed mercenaries; nor are we surprised when violence erupts as the men meet to transact the diamond exchange.
Meanwhile, back in England, the marriage of a wealthy couple, Dick and Portia Frayne, continues on its unhappy path.  Portia, a nouveau-riche shrew, has married the penniless Dick because of his “to the manor born” background, but she uses her money (and the threat of its withdrawal) to cudgel those around her—husband, friends, servants—into doing her will, even when it’s the wrong thing to do.  Dick has reconciled himself to his marriage to the colossally self-centered Portia in exchange for the material goods she can provide.  He is, however, in love with the married Francesca, whose husband is in the final stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Francesca reciprocates Dick’s feelings, but she remains loyal to her husband, who lives in a nursing home.  Dick knows that he cannot forgo the world he lives in due to his wife’s money, but he still visits Francesca and takes solace in her quiet strength and integrity (which he knows he does not possess).  Although she is in very reduced circumstances, Francesca is the character who least envies what others have.  In a way, she is the moral center of the book—and the only one who commits a completely selfless act to help another.
But what does a mismatched suburban couple have to do with blood diamonds?  Nothing—until Carol, recently returned from Sierra Leone and still in possession of the diamonds, is killed at dusk by a hit-and-run driver on a lonely rural road not far from Dick and Portia’s home.  The Fraynes come into the police’s orbit when a car similar to Portia’s is witnessed driving away from the accident that killed Carol.  Dick sees immediately that Portia’s antagonism and stubborn refusal to allow the police to examine her vehicle will only make her appear guilty in the eyes of law enforcement, but his attempts to explain this reasonably to his wife fall on deaf ears. 
Portia’s friend, Winifred, can provide her with an alibi for the night in question; but Portia fails to see that Winifred (like Dick, a member of the upper class who has fallen on hard times) resents Portia’s wealth and the high-handed attitude that goes with it.  Thus, when the police arrive to interview Winifred, the alibi she provides for Portia is neither solid nor given with much conviction. This—along with Portia’s own intransigence—leads the police to eye Portia with much more suspicion than they previously had.  Portia continues obliviously on her obstructionist path, assuming that her wealth and her very expensive lawyer will keep her safe from the clutches of the law.
Yes, Portia is safe from the law—but is she safe from Esme Lynch?  While Carol’s body lays unclaimed in the local morgue, Lynch is being forced to borrow heavily from underworld “creditors” until he can retrieve the diamonds.  We already know that Lynch is not above any level of violence—including murder—to attain his ends.  When he decides that he must intervene in police matters to ensure that Carol’s body is released, things begin to look very bad for the Fraynes—especially Portia.
The very title of the book implies that when justice comes, it will not come through the usual channels, but will be dispensed in a sort of karmic looking-glass fashion.  This is exactly right.  The long arm of the law sometimes isn’t long enough, but the guilty are punished, in a fashion, anyway.  LOOKING-GLASS JUSTICE isn’t a comforting book, but—in today’s polarized economic climate—I found it an extremely relevant one.

THE SEARCH FOR WARREN HARDING, Robert Plunket (Patti)

I read this book in 1990, but I believe it was first published in 1983. Jonathan Yardley declared it one of the funniest books American has produced and I remember it as a pretty good read. I am always looking for a funny novel, which seem scarcer every year.

Elliot Weiner is a young historian specializing in President Warren G. Harding. In  search of a new angle, he moves to LA and into the pool house of Rebekah Kinney, Harding's former mistress. Elliot eavesdrops and insinuates himself into her life (via her granddaughter) with comic results. He eventually learn that there's a trunkful of Harding letters in the main house so the novel's second half involves his screwball efforts to get  the trunk.

This is a novel that will either work for you and seem zany and hilarious or instead seem strained, heavy-handed or mean. Weiner's observations on LA life are of the catty sort--he is not a terribly likable character.

Most people doing research on Presidents usually are though in my experience.

Sergio Angelini
Brian Busby
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Curt Evans
Randy Johnson
Nick Jones
George Kelly
Margot Kinberg
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/William F. Deeck
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Richard Pangburn
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Gerard Saylor
Ron Scheer
Michael Slind
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple/Patrick Ohl
Prashant Trikannad
TomCat



18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I recently picked up that Williams Hard Case Crime edition so I can look forward to a good one.

Never heard of the Harding book. I agree with you, that kind of books can either seem hilarious or just fall flat.

So...are you cooking a turkey?

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes. And all the go-withs. How about you, guys?

Anonymous said...

Turkey breast, stuffing, roasted potatoes, cranberry jello mold and a chocolate pudding pie for dessert (my birthday dessert - it is next Saturday).


Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Have a great one, Jeff. Hope you have a good play to go to. My father's birthday was on the 27th. And Kevin's is the 30th.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Good point about comic novels Patti - feel slike forever since I read a book that really made me laugh that wasn't written by PG Wodehouse 80 years ago!

Todd Mason said...

But Harding was such a rich resource among our comically bad presidents.

Some of Roth's OUR GANG struck me as a little broad even when I was ten...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Todd-I can imagine you at ten, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and raging against the forces of evil.
Even books purported to be funny are often just ironic or sarcastic.

John said...

Isn't it Roach's OUR GANG? (gasp -- I'm correcting Todd Mason.) Unless Philip Roth has some secret life I never knew about.

Always enjoy Deb's sharply written, literary insights. She may have been a librarian but I think she missed her calling in a different field of education.

I think I read that Plunkett book. Rings a bell. I used to devour writers like that -- Tom Sharpe, Peter Lefcourt, and others.

Todd Mason said...

Roach's children had more strength of character than the Nixon Admin as lampooned in Philip Roth's OUR GANG.

Though the sudden image of a Liddy-drawn cart, with G. Gordon crawling after a particularly well-turned stiletto dangled just out of GGL's reach from a long pole in Erlichman's hand as the latter sits in the cart, is hard to avoid mentioning.

Todd Mason said...

Ehrlichman, actually.

Deb said...

Thank you, John.

John said...

I kept trying to find a link between the Little Rascals and a book about Harding. Foolish of me to think it was a typo. It was the "when I was ten" remark that led me astray. Should've just Googled Roth's bibliography.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'd like to see THE LITTLE RASCALS as imagined by Philip Roth. Definitely a dark turn.

Anonymous said...

There is something about the Nixon administration that makes the satire a little heavy handed. Ed McBain did an 87th Precinct where the gang leader was talking about his "six crises" that wasn't too subtle either.

It was called HAIL TO THE CHIEF and was definitely a lesser effort.


Jeff M.

Deb said...

Muriel Spark also wrote a satire of Watergate set in a convent. I think it was called something like Nasty Habits and it was one of Spark's lesser efforts--the movie adaptation wasn't very good either. Perhaps Watergate was so much a self-satire that no attempt to satirize it further could improve upon the source material.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We are preparing to immerse ourselves in Nixon as we travel to California. We already have out Nixon in California maps onhand.
Get yours here. http://www.amazon.com/Native-Son-Richard-Southern-California/dp/B006F5QEJK

Deb said...

Sorry--it was called The Abbess of Crewe. I think Nasty Habits was the name of the movie adaptation.

Anonymous said...

Deb, I'd forgotten that one. We actually saw NASTY HABITS in London in 1977. It had a terrific cast - Glenda Jackson in the "Nixon" role, plus Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Rip Torn, Edith Evans, many others - but never really worked that well.

Jeff M.