Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books, September 12, 2008

D.Z. Allen is the editor of the flash fiction site, Muzzleflash and an editor for Out of the Gutter.

The Oblivion Society
, Marcus Alexander Hart

I won’t call this a “forgotten” book. I’ll call it one that not many have had the fortune to find yet. So now that you’ve found it give The Oblivion Society a read!

The book is exactly what I like to read and exactly how I want my novels to read…fast, funny, a little quirky, but with a great voice, strong pacing, a touch of sentimentality, lots of action, and most of all memorable characters that you want to read about and get to know.

The Oblivion Society is one of those all too rare books that I didn’t want to put down. And when I did, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Marcus Alexander Hart is a fun and exciting writer. You won’t be sorry with this one.

Let’s all hear it for the smaller presses willing to take a chance on books like this. Support them. Love them. They are a writer’s best friend. (Next to cigarettes and bourbon.)

Timothy Hallinan is the author of eight published novels, most recently two Bangkok thrillers featuring expat “rough travel” writer Poke Rafferty. A Nail Through the Heart and The Fourth Watcher, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, are published by William Morrow. Hallinan has just completed the third novel in the series, Misdirection. He divides his time equally between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia.

Timothy Hallinan, Christopher West Series

West Meets East

As someone who writes mystery/thrillers set in Asia, I keep an eye on the competition. And I'd be lying if I said that I greet with unreserved enthusiasm the publication of a novel by a writer who intends to take a bite out of what I think of, in my less generous moments, as my fictional territory.

So I'm in an awkward position when it comes to Christopher West. West's four novels about police inspector Wang, set in Beijing, are definitely competition – or they would be, if they were still in print and West had a new one coming out. But they're not, and he doesn't, and that's a terrible shame. West is a wonderful writer and he deserves a broad and appreciative audience.

The book that begins the series, Death of a Blue Lantern, is a great place to start. Attending a performance of the Beijing Opera, Wang takes his time leaving the theater, and on his way out he notices a patron who seems to be drunk or unconscious. He's not, of course; he'd dead, dispatched with a tidy knife wound to the back of the neck, destroying the medulla oblongata. The victim proves to be a “blue lantern,” or low-level Triad recruit, and Wang's investigation quickly leads him to the Triad's “Red Cudgel,” or enforcer – and his beautiful daughter, who sings in a foreigners-only nightclub atop one of Beijing's most expensive hotels.

The plot ultimately also involves an archaeological site where precious works of art are being stolen, and a broad and varied cast of characters, almost any of whom might be the person Inspector Wang seeks. It's a great plot, intricate and beautifully structured, but the two most beguiling things about the book (and the rest of the series) are the characters and the setting.

The characters, beginning with Wang himself are nuanced individuals, real people whose differences make them easy to keep track of despite the unfamiliarity of Chinese names, which can be difficult for Western readers to remember. There isn't a flat sketch in the bunch: they all seem much deeper than the printed page.

The setting is riveting, not just because it's China, but because it's China at a specific moment, poised at the opening movement, so to speak of Deng Xiaoping's Communism-shattering economic liberalization, but not far removed from the brutal crushing of the protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Death of a Blue Lantern was written in 1994 and is probably set a year or two earlier. The Party, now widely ignored in China, still inspires (in the novel) a certain amount of dread; West's Beijing is full of people who have come from the countryside, but they are just a trickle compared to the hordes – the largest human migration in history – who have trekked from village to city in the past five or six years. Private businesses have sprung up, but there is not yet the preoccupation with becoming rich, nor is there the vast gulf between the have-alls and the have-nothings that scars present-day China. Some of the book's action takes place in the alleys and hutongs of old Beijing, the vast majority of which have now been swept aside, thousands of them destroyed for the Olympics.

Inspector Wang is a good man who believes in justice, and who is caught up in a system that is changing so fast that it threatens much of what he and those around him believe in. Matters of life and death, guilt and innocence, are immutable, but in West's novel, those issues are confronted in a world where virtually nothing else seems to be permanent. The China in these books is on the brink of the most profound short-term transformation of any nation in history.

Read Death of a Red Lantern. Read everything by Christopher West. He hasn't published a novel (to my knowledge) since The Third Messiah in 2000. If enough of us order his books, maybe some publisher will see what a writer of Christopher West's talent could do with the China of today, the China we all watched, openmouthed, for fourteen days in August.

Christopher G. Moore is the author of the Vincent Calvino crime novel series. Two
novels in that series: The Risk of Infidelity Index /(2007) and Spirit
House (2008) are published by Grove/Atlantic Press. They will also
publish Paying Back Jack in 2009. website.

Georges Simenon, Dirty Snow

Georges Simenon- Georges Simenon the Belgian writer, who died in 1989, authored 200 novels, 150 novellas, among other works and wrote under a couple of dozen pseudonyms. If one had counted all of Raymond Chandler’s books, and for the hell of it, added his bar bills to make another dozen books, Chandler’s output would still remain a small fraction of what Simenon produced. But Simenon’s work rarely features in the discussion of modern fiction. Simenon, the man, is often thought of as a legendary lover. To have one’s fiction largely forgotten and one’s sex adventures remembered is one of those roll of the dice outcomes. In Simenon’s case, the number of conquest he notched up with a sniper’s methodical record keeping vastly out numbered his books.

Simenon’s most famous series beginning in 1931 and ending in 1972 ran for 75 novels; the series featured the French police detective, Inspector Julies Maigret. Simenon also wrote literary novels. Dirty Snow falls in that category and is set in an unnamed country during the occupation by an enemy force. It is most likely drawn on Simenon’s experience of living in France during the Nazi occupation. (Simenon was accused of being a German collaborator during WWII and banned from writing for five years after the war ended.) The lead character named Frank, a nineteen year old, has killed his first man, ambushing him at night, sticking a knife in his ribs and stealing his service revolver. Frank lives with his mother who runs a brothel from her apartment in a building where the inhabitants are hostile to the occupiers and to Frank and his mother, who they suspect are collaborators. Given the soldiers and police who rule with an iron-fist in the occupation are the paying customers at the brothel, their suspicions about Frank and his mother ring true.

Dirty Snow is a chilling example of noir fiction. Those in the black market seize their opportunities, do business with the enemy, enrich themselves with shady deals and murder, and soon act as if they are invincible. The dance between the Occupation authorities and Frank and his friends slowly reveals that behind the curtain of collaboration no one remains untainted or safe; that while fear corrodes the morale of many, leaving an exhausted few to draw upon the strength to resist the occupiers. As a story of occupation, terror, hubris, secrecy and how power causes people to lose their perspective, their sense of humanity and ultimately their life.

Dirty Snow answers the debate between what is noir and what is hardboiled fiction.

Nothing is fiction rolls us through gutter of alienation, throws dirt in our vision of pure white snow as this example of noir writing. Simenon reminds us, that in noir, there is no escape from the darkness of our doomed destiny.

Some of this information comes from Wilkipedia.

Dan Wickett is the man behind Emerging Writer's Network, and editor of Visiting Hours and Dzanc Press

The Blind Pig by Jon A. Jackson

Originally published in 1978, I stumbled upon this book about a decade later, when it was in a trade paperback with a cartoonish styled cover. It had a rave blurb on the cover from James Crumley, who I'd also recently discovered, and had a Detroit setting. As I'd recently been reading Estleman's Amos Walker novels and Kantner's Ben Perkins mysteries, finding another author with a series set in Detroit seemed about right.

I recall opening the book and reading the first page, in which Seargent "Fang" Mulheisen drops a racial slur about a suspect to his African-American partner, and quickly follows with "No offense." There was something about the way he included this so casually that made the story seem a little more real to me - not sheltered.

The book, and at least the first four or five books in the Mulheisen series were well-written, fast-paced, hilariously funny novels. This one, delving into the world of after hour Blind Pigs and jazz joints in Detroit remains my favorite of the bunch though.

More Friday Forgotten Books (and they will appear during the day). Let's cross our fingers for those in Texas).

Dave Zeltserman
C.T. Henry
James Reasoner
Tony Black
Randy Johnson
Amy Myers
Ed Gorman
Lesa Holstine
Kerrie Smith
Bill Crider
A.N Smith
David Cranmer
Paul Bishop
Scott Parker
August West
Joe Boland


David Cranmer said...

I've always enjoyed the work of Georges Simenon and, in particular, Inspector Julies Maigret. I will be on the look-out for Dirty Snow.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful to come across a lovely and deserved review of Christopher West's Wang series! Thought it was worth letting people know that happily here in the UK, his books are not all out of print. In fact, we at Allison & Busby have just recently reissued Death of a Blue Lantern (check out our website if interested) and The Third Messiah and Red Mandarin are also readily available. Happy reading :)