Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday April 19, 2013

Pardon any gaffes. New computer

MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! by Harry Harrison
(Review by Deb)
Not long ago, on his Pop Culture Magazine blog, Bill Crider posted a link to a list of 50 classic works of science fiction.  Not being an avid science fiction reader, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d read about 20 of the books on the list; but this meant that there were almost 30 that I had not read.  I decided to rectify the situation, if only in part, by reading some of the books that seemed to be the most intriguing.  I started with this 1966 work of futuristic dystopia, which is perhaps most famous for being the source material for the 1973 Charlton Heston movie, Soylent Green.
Oddly enough (or, then again, perhaps not), the book Make Room! Make Room! most reminded me of is Tom Wolfe’s classic of the 1980s, Bonfire of the Vanities.  True, there are lots of differences, but at a basic level both books involve a group of characters from various social and ethnic backgrounds trying to get-over in a wild bustling New York City that is forever on the verge of anarchy.  Both books also feature deaths that are being investigated by law enforcement—and in both books the reader has the advantage over the police because, unlike the police, the reader knows immediately how the death occurred and who caused it.
In the year 1999, New York City (like the rest of the world) is overheated, overcrowded, plagued by unemployment, water shortages, and chronic food instability which leads to frequent protests, and even riots, by broke, thirsty, hungry, hot, and malnourished citizens, riots that can only be kept in check by the heavy-handed use of official force by the police department.  One of the members of this police force is Andrew Rusch, a decent enough guy but, like everyone else in the book, not above using any advantage he has—in his case, a police badge—to obtain something others do not have.  (I found it best not to think of the ruggedly handsome and athletic Charlton Heston as I read Harrison’s descriptions of Rusch’s pasty-white skin, bowed legs, visible ribs, and starvation-swollen belly.)  Rusch shares a tiny, subdivided apartment with Solomon “Sol” Kahn, an elderly man whose ability to maintain a small window garden and tinker with mechanical objects has permitted the two men to live with some moderate creature comforts.  Due to Sol’s ingenuity in growing herbs and maintaining a working oven, the regular New Yorker diet of seaweed crackers, oatmeal, and very occasional soybean and lentil (“soylent”) steaks are transformed into something flavorful—and his skill with distilling his own alcohol is an added plus.
Across town, in a luxury apartment with running water, air conditioning, and an uninterrupted supply of electricity, Shirl Greene lives with “Big Mike” O’Brien, a political mover and shaker.  In a world where only the wealthy and well-connected have access to basic staples and comfortable lives, beautiful women like Shirl do what women have always done in order to survive (the book’s gender roles and expectations are solidly mid-20th century). 
In a situation that is the opposite in every way from Shirl’s, Chinese-American Billy Chung lives on the waterfront in a cluster of abandoned, disintegrating vessels that function as a forgotten refugee camp for Taiwanese exiles (like gender roles, the book’s politics are clearly mid-1960s). It is Billy’s lucky grab of a box of soylent steaks during a food riot that sets the plot in motion—although for long periods of time, Billy is an almost forgotten character.  Sale of the steaks on the underground market leaves Billy with enough money to buy the license he needs to get a job as a message delivery boy (with paper being another item that is always in short supply, messages are delivered on chalkboards).  On his first day on the job, Billy delivers a message to Big Mike’s apartment.  Billy observes the luxury in which Mike and Shirl live; his sharp eye also notes an overlooked open window—the method he later uses to gain access to the apartment—and the plot kicks into high gear.
The day after the message delivery, Shirl returns home from shopping to discover Mike’s corpse on the floor of the apartment, a crowbar lodged in his temple.  Andy Rusch is the cop chosen to investigate the murder and thus comes into Shirl’s orbit.  Because of Mike’s political importance, Andy’s superiors are pushing him to solve the crime and for a while it’s assumed that Mike’s death was the result of an organized crime hit.  Andy spends long hours going through fingerprint files (he has found one good print on the crowbar) and continues to return to Mike’s apartment, where Shirl is still living.  Soon, Andy and Shirl are having an affair and eventually, when the lease on Big Mike’s apartment runs out, Shirl moves into Andy’s cramped quarters.  We never really learn Shirl’s motivation for moving in with Andy—does she truly love him? Or is she simply looking for a port in the storm until she can connect with a richer, more powerful man?
At first, Shirl and Sol don’t get along very well, but eventually they become friends.  In this way, Sol becomes the novel’s version of Austin Powers’s Sir Basil Exposition: Explaining to Shirl, and thus to the reader, how the world got into the state it’s in—mainly due to lack of leadership in the area of birth-control.  Take it away, Sol—
“I blame the stinking politicians and so-called public leaders who have avoided the issue and covered it up because it was controversial and what the hell, it will be years before it matters and I’m going to get mine now.  So mankind gobbled in a century all the world’s resources that had taken millions of years to store up, and no one on the top gave a damn or listened to all the voices that were trying to warn them, they just let us overproduce and overconsume, until now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned, and all we have to show for this is seven billion people fighting over the scraps that are left, living a miserable existence—and still breeding without control.”
Replace the concept of birth-control with the idea of global warming and this paragraph is remarkably apt some 46 years after it was written.
And so the plot moves forward as both water and food get harder to find, the population continues to explode, and shelter is found in the most unlikely places—such as inside the rusted hulks of long-abandoned cars.  Billy Cheung moves from one resting spot to another, trying to elude the long arm of the law; Andy pursues his quarry with Javert-like persistence, less for his own interest than because of pressure from above.  Meanwhile, Sol is seriously injured in a riot and Shirl’s’ relationship with Andy deteriorates.
Incidentally, if you’re waiting for the big reveal from Soylent Green, with Charlton Heston’s frantic attempts to alert people as to the real ingredients of the soylent steaks, you’re going to be disappointed; it doesn’t happen in the book (neither does Edward G. Robinson’s elaborate assisted-suicide experience, one of the movie’s great set-pieces).  The book is far more downbeat and pessimistic than the movie; deaths continue, internal politics suddenly makes the solution to a murder a hot potato that nobody wants to claim, hope dwindles, relationships end, and the only thing certain is that circumstances will continue to decline for everyone.  Yes, it’s a downer, but an interesting one.  So if you’re looking for a book that got many facts—if not the underlying reasons--about the 21st century absolutely spot-on, Make Room! Make Room! is certainly worth checking out.

Ed Gorman, 
Lemons Never Lie, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

There are so many twists, turns, starts and stops in Lemons Never Lie by Donald E. Westlake as Richard Stark that the novel becomes a kind of crime picaresque filled with mugs, thugs, killers, victims and Parker's redoutable thespian friend, Alan Grofiled. There's also a lot of notably brutal violence.

The book begins with Grofield visiting Vegas to partake of a robbery that will give him the money to survive one more season in his summer theater. Grofield, in case you didn't know, is a "purist" when it comes to acting, his chosen profession. No movies or television for him. Stage only. But it takes his other profession, robbery, to support his theater. Only his long-supportive wife understands how hard he works at both careers.

A man named Myers has set up a robbery plan and has called in amateurs to help him. With the exception of a man named Caithcart and a dangerous man named Dan Leach, the group is a zero. As is Myers. Now Myers, who speaks with a boarding school accent, is one of the great villains in Westlake's world. He is a true sociopathic murderer; a serial killer of a kind. Grofield and Leach decide against working with him.

This is the set-up. There's an early twist that lets us know just how nasty Myers is. And then the various adventures start. Grofield resembles his friend (and fellow robber) Parker only occasionally. For instance, he loves chit-chat, feels sorry even for a guy who tries to kill him and lets another live that (as reader) you know should be killed on the spot, slowly and joyously.

There's also a lot of witty humor. Grofield gets into the damnedest conversations with people. Once in a while you may even forget you're reading a crime novel. Westlake has a great time riffing on all the cliche exchanges you read in most crime fiction. At a couple of point Grofield starts sounding like a TV shrink.

Lemons Never Lie is Westlake at his very best. While there's a screwball comedy-feel to some of the misadventures, the unrelenting violence reminds readers that the Richard Stark is the master of the hardboiled. The masterful plotting, the wry way the genre cliches are turned inside out, and the earnestness and humanity of Alan Grofield make this a pleasure from page one to the unexpected ending.

Joe Barone, IN THE BLEAK MID-WINTER, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Les Blatt, MAKE NO BONES, Aaron Elkin
Brian Busby, Various works on La Corriveau
Bill Crider, THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT, Harry Patterson
Scott Cupp, HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL, Robert Heinlein
Martin Edwards, Antidote to Venom, Freeman Willis Crofts
Curt Evans,  A FRAME FOR MURDER, Kirke Field Mecham
Randy Johnson, CHARLIE CHAN RETURNS, Dennis Lynds
Nick Jones, RIPLEY UNDER WATER, Patricia Highsmith
George Kelley, A KEY TO THE SUITE, John D. Macdonald
Margot Kinberg, THE PRECIPICE, Virginia Duigan
B.V. Lawson, WIDOW CHERRY, Benjamin Leopold Farjeon
Evan Lewis, COME EASY, GO EASY, James Hadley Chase
Steve Lewis/ L.J. Roberts, Billy Boyle, James Benn
J.F. Norris, THE DEAD WALK, Gilbert Collins
James Reasoner, MARKHAM, Lawrence Block
Richard Robinson, SPACE TUG, Murray Leinster
Ron Scheer, THE LAND BARON, John Reese
Ron Scheer, STEVE OF THE BAR-G RANCH, Marion Reid-Girandot
Michael Slind, STALKING THE ANGEL, Robert Crais
Kerrie Smith, A MURDER OF QUALITY, John LeCarre
Kevin Tipple, KILLERS, ed, Colin Harvey
Tomcat, OCTAGON HOUSE, Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Rich Westwood, GREENMANTLE, John Buchan


Bill Crider said...

I'm happy to see that my blog has been a good influence on Deb.

pattinase (abbott) said...

On all of us, Bill.

Todd Mason said...

And Harrison hasn't quite gotten his due as a writer (or, probably, as editor, though I've certainly written up several of his). That he published a lot more expert "entertainments" in the Greene sense than his more seriously-intended work, and that at least some of the latter was also often surreal or nearly so satire (see A TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL, HURRAH!--which one unsympathetic publisher issued as TUNNEL THROUGH THE DEEPS, instead, or BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO or THE TECHNICOLOR-tm- TIME MACHINE), has not encouraged sufficient attention.

Todd Mason said...

Bill, the Blogtastic Hero?

Gerard said...

Crider has a blog?

Anonymous said...

Other things I've learned from Bill Crider's blog:

1. Paris Hilton's persecution will never end.

2. Texas ALWAYS leads the way.

3. There are many lists Bill is not on.

4. It's amazing how many Thin Mint-style melees occur.on a daily basis.

5. Alligators show up in the most unlikely places, but readers of Bill's blog are never surprised.


Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Mason said...

Well, it was pretty surprising when Hilton absent-mindedly ate an alligator, mistaking it for a Thick Mint log, in a Marriott just outside Houston one afternoon, after learning she couldn't get on the list of celebrity "collaborators" Bill was willing to writ--um, assist in writing novels for, I mean, with...I mean, c'mon, a Marriott?

neer said...

Hi Patti

Here's my contribution for FFB (rather late I am afraid):

Maigret loses his temper by Georges Simenon


Todd Mason said...

Rich Westwood; John Buchan, rather than Buchanan (though with one president and one repeat candidate for president named Buchanan I can see how that might happen)...Books By and About Comedians in my case...Kerrie: A MURDER *OF* QUALITY...

Otherwise, how are you liking the new computer (and high time!)?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Well, it's a MAC so there is a learning curve.