Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday's Forgotten Books, March 11, 2016

  A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block (reviewed by Ed Gorman

Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties paperback original novels about the Beat generation appeared regularly. Sex, drugs, jazz, weirdness. Today few of them bear rereading. Certainly Vin Packer's take on the subject holds up very well but some of the bigger names who took a tour through Kerouac-land ended up looking and sounding silly. They were writing tour guides without having ever been there.

A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block on the other hand has the feel of first-hand observation. Set in Greenwich Village in 1960, peopled by faux-beat losers of various kind and a cop out of Malcolm Braly, the drug scene, the crime scene and the scene of hardscrabble drifting life in the big bad city crackles with authenticity.

There are three prime players. Joe is a cipher of sort, not a good guy or a bad guy, one of those people who just sort of take up space. His friend Shank, an angry street hustler, supports them both by selling pot. The third person, and by far the most interesting, is Anita, a young, attractive woman engaged to a square engineer while still living under the auspices of an overly pious grandmother.

When the main heroin dealer in the area is busted, Shank decides to quit selling pot and go into the junk business, at first unbeknownst to Anita and Joe, with whom he is sharing a shabby little apartment.

The transformation of Anita from the good girl to the lover of a drifter like Joe to somebody inadvertently involved in murder is what gives the book its power. Block is too good a writer to try to explain away her changes with melodramatic motivations. She remains somewhat mysterious throughout the book, both to the reader and to herself. At one point, even though she considers marrying Joe, she wonders if she even loves him. At another, she begins to feel oppressed by his lifestyle of hanging out in beat dives (Block has a beat poet read a "poem" that manages to be both short and interminable) and letting Shank dictate much of his life.

Block is always good with his female characters and Anita, sweet, warm, confused, ultimately as adrift as Joe himself, is a fine, endearing creation.

The party scenes are spot on. Cheap wine, portentous and pretentious conversations, sex sex sex and unending tributes to the powers of pot. Everybody yakking so much about how good pot makes them feel it starts sounding like a revival meeting with hemp substituting for God. Very wittily observed.

The plot kicks in full tilt in the the third act and it's breathtaking. The hard ass cop, whom we meet early on, reappears and what had been minor cat-and-mouse becomes explosive confrontation.

Of all the hard-boiled writers working today, Block for me remains the most believable in dealing with crime and criminals. He's able to write about them and their milieu without tricking them up or romanticizing them. And, as he demonstrates here, he was doing it as far back as 1961.

DIE DREAMING, Terence Faherty (reviewed by Jared Case)

Owen Keane is the perfect example of a character that illuminates the prosaic by highlighting the idiosyncratic. His background is like no other: On a religious retreat between his junior and senior years in high school he came across a boy who claimed he could talk to God. When this claim was proven a deceit, his faiths were shaken: his faith in God, his faith in Man, and his faith in The Truth. This event was never far from him, and his crises of faith were internalized, affecting his belief in God, his belief in himself, and his belief in his ability to find the truth. Hoping to tackle all of these crises simultaneously, he abandoned Mary, the woman who would be the love of his life, and entered the seminary. When his failure at the seminary coincided with Mary’s abandonment of him for his college roommate, Harold Ohlman, Owen began to wander, doing odd menial jobs, and ending up in a liquor store. In a fit of pique, he attended his tenth high school reunion under the guise of a private investigator, and Owen Keane, the amateur detective was born.
This backstory is specific enough to be unique, and yet the sum is the same for many of us. Our lives have been an accumulation of events that led us to question the world around us. And to this end, Owen Keane has many of the same investigative tools we all do. As a fan mystery fiction and mystery film, Owen has been indoctrinated into all the tropes and clichés of the detective’s process. His experience is our experience as he references Dashiell Hammett, or Nero Wolfe, or Double Indemnity. This makes him acutely self-aware of his place in the genealogy of detective fiction, but the broad shoulders he stands on don’t prevent him from jumping to the wrong conclusion or following a lead because he hopes it to be true. His failings are our failings, even as his cynical, self-deprecating exterior belies an underlying belief in the goodness of men and women, and the belief that he will be able to effect positive change through the search for truth.
In fact, his currency is truth. Rarely does he get paid for his services, and even then it only covers expenses. But if he can uncover the truth, not necessarily for himself, and not even necessarily for the victim, it adds to a growing tapestry of truth, something that he can point to as a basis for a belief in his ability to find the truth, which supports a belief in himself and in mankind, which holds up the possibility of a belief in the existence and effectiveness of God, despite the fact that faith requires neither proof nor support. Yet this is what drives him to toil in the long shadows of Sam Spade, Nick Charles and Travis McGee.
DIE DREAMING, the fourth book in Terence Faherty’s “Owen Keane” series, is perhaps the best, taking this mystery-fan/faith-in-crisis context and grafting it onto a mystery story that inverts the mystery story expectation of beginning-middle-end. Owen Keane, 28 and feeling a bit of a failure, decides to play a self-deprecating joke on his high school classmates, The Sorrowers, by running an ad for the Owen Keane Detective Agency in the 10th reunion program. But one of The Sorrowers is a jokester herself and sets up a fake mystery to lure Owen into an embarrassing situation. Owen falls for the ruse, but is saved by another classmate. In the meantime, however, a true mystery surfaces when loose lips mention an event that was suppressed 10 years ago and that tied The Sorrowers together in a code of secrecy. Owen’s investigation stumbles along, following false leads and shaky assumptions, but his dogged determination does eventually reveal the truth. It also reveals that there are as many victims as perpetrators, and in the end Owen decides that the truth, now discovered, is sometimes better left buried.
This decision comes into question 10 years later when one of The Sorrowers turns up dead. Owen must come to terms with his responsibility in the death and determine whether the truth did come out, and if someone would kill to keep it hidden. His investigation takes him back to his hometown and his 20th high school reunion. He starts to look at The Sorrowers and the mysterious event that took place 20 years ago, but he has to take into account the changes that have taken place in the last 10 years, when the end of his last investigation became the beginning of this new crime. He discovers that relationships are even more complex than they appeared, and that crimes can have implications generations removed from the original event itself.
There is no better feeling than finding a piece of art that resonates with you, unless you get to share that discovery with someone else. Terence Faherty and Owen Keane were such a discovery for me, and I hope that, by sharing the discovery with you, they will pass from the realms of the forgotten.

Sergio Angelini, BONFIRE NIGHT, James Mitchell
Joe Barone.THE UNQUIET DEAD, Ausma Zehanat-Khan.
Les Blatt, THE LONG FAREWELL,  Michael Innes
Brian Busby, THE WINE OF LIFE, Arthur Stringer
Scott Cupp, THE EVERNESS SERIES, Ian McDonald
Martin Edwards, MYSTERY OF MR. JESSOP, E.R. Punshon
Curt Evans, THE YELLOW ROOM, Mary Roberts Rinehart
Charles Gramlich, CAP KENNEDY  #15, Gregory Kern
Rick Horton, THE VAN ROOM, J.C. Snaith
Jerry House, THE DAY THEY H-BOMBED LOS ANGELES, Robert Moore Williams
George Kelley, Novels by Fletcher Flora
Margot Kinberg, A PERFECT MATCH, Jill McGown
B.V. Lawson, AMBUSH FOR ANATOL, John Herman Mulso Sherwood
Steve Lewis, THE COFFIN BIRD, Carter Brown 
J. F. Norris, THE DARK TUNNEL, Kenneth Millar
Mathew Paust, DALTON TRUMBO, Bruce Cook 
James Reasoner, BLOODY HOOFS, J. Edward Leithead 
Richard Robinson, MURDER INK, Dilys Winn
Gerard Saylor, HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN, Derek Raymond 
Kerrie Smith, ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING, Evie Wyld 
Kevin Tipple, UNDER INVESTIGATION, Jeffrey Marks 
R.T. SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, Arnaldur Indridsson
TomCat, THE POLO GROUND MYSTERY, Robin Forsythe 
TracyK, MINUTE FOR MURDER, Nicholas Blake 
Westlake Review, A LIKELY STORY, Donald Westlake 
Zybahn, THE CROCODILE, Vincent Eri


Jeff Meyerson said...

This proves yet again (for those who needed proof) that Ed Gorman is not only a very good writer but a terrific reviewer. I liked A DIET OF TREACLE very much for the authenticity of its picture of a certain part of New York in 1960, though I was a decade younger than the author and characters. Good one.

Sabine said...

I liked your detailed review. I'd prefer to read both of them, but die dreaming at first :) It sounds more complicated.

Mathew Paust said...

I believe I read Jared Case's excellent review of Die Dreaming here previously, and was so intrigued I sought out Terence Faherty's Amazon author's page. Not sure why I ended up not getting Die Dreaming instead of Hollywood Op, but that's what I did. Enjoyed it much. Faherty's a gifted writer. Now I shall return to the author's page and see about getting Die Dreaming, as well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I should keep track of which reviews I reuse. I like to remind people of books reviewed earlier but not too often!

Mathew Paust said...

Jared's review well deserves another round.

Todd Mason said...

Up and at 'em...thanks, Patti.

UNKNOWN WORLDS: TALES FROM BEYOND edited by Stanley Schmidt and Martin Harry Greenberg

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks Patti :)