Tuesday, September 25, 2018

You'd Better Believe It by Bill james

Keywords: Police procedural, detective fiction, British crime fiction

Bill James (pseudonym of Welsh author James Tucker) launched the Harpur and Iles series in 1985 and, 34 titles in, it's still going strong. Number 35 is scheduled for release in 2019.

This first book, You'd Better Believe It, is actually "A Detective Colin Harpur Novel". Iles is a character but it doesn't become the Harpur and Iles series until later. The novels are set in an unnamed coastal town south of London where Colin Harpur is Detective Chief Superintendent and Desmond Iles is Assistant Chief Constable.

When the story opens, Harpur has assembled a team to take-down a gang of villains plotting to rob a Lloyd's bank. When the attempted robbery does occur, the carefully planned police operation goes pear shaped, and officer is killed, and the gang leader, Holly, escapes. The death of one of their own puts pressure on Harpur to bring him in. The pressure increases as informants begin to drop as well.

Thirty-five years has done nothing to diminish the pleasure reading this book. Other than the absence of mobile phones and perhaps computers, I didn't have the sense that I was reading a dated story. Women don't have much of a role but I take that as an artifact of time. It is built on a good plot, character development, grim police humor, and a cynical, snarky attitude toward police bureaucracy which needs to be circumvented to get anything done.

In one scene, the brass and Harpur are attending the funeral of one of the snitches. Harpur points out that they didn't attend the funeral of another snitch. The chief replies:
This man is black. It's an opportunity as well as a responsibility. Get hold of our PR people and tell them to make sure the bloody media know we'll be along . We don't want to turn up to a do like that without some mileage.
Harpur delegates work to one of his officers:
That's how it was at the top. You kept a dog and did not bark yourself, not until the barking meant you'd landed some bugger. Yes, a true art, leadership.
This is an excellent introduction to a long running series and one I recommend if you like a good police procedural.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Abersytwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Price

Keywords: Wales fiction, noir, detective fiction, crime fiction, alternate reality, humor

Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001) is the first in Malcolm Pryce's Aberstwyth Noir series. Each title is a humorous version of a film title. The setting is an alternate version of the real Welsh coastal town of Aberystwyth (pronounced "aber・ ist ・with" according to the interwebs).

Noir and hardboiled detective stories have long been a favorite of mine and when you add pastiche to the mix you can be in for a fun read. Based on this first book, I'd say that Pryce's Aberystwyth series delivers on that promise. The series is a humorous pastiche on the classic Chandler-esque detective. Aberystwyth's only private eye is Louie Knight who runs Knight Errant Investigations from a run-down office rented, furnished, from the library. With the name alone, already you know the territory you are heading into. Chandler's Philip Marlowe has been likened to a knight on a quest to make things right. Remember the opening scene in The Big Sleep when Marlowe looks up at the knight rescuing the lady tied to a tree? Like Marlowe, Louie doesn't make much money. And like Marlowe he'll keep working even if fired from the job. He works in a corrupt town, he doesn't respect authority, he's quick with a snappy remark, and he won't let go of a problem.

In Aberystwyth Mon Amour Louie is approached by the famous night club singer, Myfanwy Montez, to find her missing cousin, Evans the Boot. Though still in school, Evans the Boot is an unlikable thug. Louie turns her down but is curious enough to nose around quickly finding himself up against the local organized crime organization and a super secret militant religious organization. He finds more children missing under mysterious circumstances, people who aren't what they seem, and finds himself deep in danger and involved with Myfanwy.

To this straightforward sounding plot adds absurd details that will appeal to fans of Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde. The local crime organization is run by Druids. Tea cosies have an unexpected connotation. The local ice cream vendor runs an Existentialist promotion week. Cheese has different properties than we are used to and can be used to remove fingerprints.

Even if you don't get all the send-ups of Welsh culture this is still a fun read and I recommend it. I've already added the second book, Last Tango in Aberystwyth to my TBR stack.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Name is Finn Jupiter by Gareth Crocker

Keywords: young adult, strong female characters, South African authors

South African author Gareth Crocker is one of my favorite authors and falls into the "will always buy" category. He never disappoints.

With My Name is Finn Jupiter, Gareth moves into young adult literature. Finn –a young woman– is a high schooler in Victory, Colorado. She is strongly independent, non-conformist, highly unconventional, a skilled climber, and possessing the ability to perceive, analyze, and act while others are still standing around wondering what's happening. Finn's father goes missing in the Rockies at the same time an unimaginable disaster strikes Victory. With all available resources tied up with the disaster, Finn knows that she is the only hope her father has of survival and she won't be stopped.

I enjoyed this story as a grizzled old-timer and I'm positive I would have loved it as a young adult. I could be critical if reading it through my trifocal lenses but as a young person it would have hit all the marks for a satisfying escapist story. Finn Jupiter is exactly the kind of person the young me would want to be friends with, the kind of person who does and says things I would fantasize about doing. The dialog is snappy, very funny at times and gut wrenching others. If you're purchasing this for a young person, be aware that there is some mild cursing but nothing that is out of the ordinary these days which I can say as I work in a university library.

The book ends with a pretty slick setup for sequels that will move the story and characters in a different direction. I intend to read the next installment in Finn's adventures.

My Name is Finn Jupiter is only available as an e-book at this time and can be downloaded from Amazon here.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Rage in Harlem/For Love of Imabelle by Chester Himes

Keywords: noir, detective, Black authors

If you are in any way a student of detective fiction then you've heard of Chester B. Himes, well known in crime fiction circles for his Harlem Detective series. I've had the first three of this series sitting on my TBR shelf for a couple of years and only picked up A Rage in Harlem (also titled For Love of Imabelle) three days ago. I'm sorry I waited this long because, man, could this guy write.

This is the story of Jackson, a genuinely good, church-going,  and hopelessly square man who finds himself embroiled is a series of increasingly chaotic and deadly events. Things kick off when Jackson falls for a scam only the most gullible would believe, The Blow, where the mark believes that the con man can "raise" a lower denomination bill to a higher one, eg a $10 bill becomes a $100 bill. All Jackson wants is enough money to support the love of his life, Imabelle, in the style she deserves. It goes badly wrong and Jackson steals from his employer, the undertaker H. Exodus Clay, only to lose the money gambling.  Desperate, he turns to his twin brother, Goldy, who runs his own scam dressed as a Sister of Mercy nun selling winning numbers and tickets to heaven. Then things get ever worse for Jackson. Trust me, this doesn't do the plot – which I've read described as surreal and Rube Goldberg-esque – justice.

In the course of Jackson's adventures, Himes delivers a tour of Harlem and its residents in the '50s. His descriptions are vivid and intense. Consider the way he relates the conditions of life in Harlem with the thundering of a train on overhead tracks:
...the train thundered past overhead, shaking the entire tenement city. Shaking the sleeping black people in their lice-ridden beds. Shaking the ancient bones and the aching muscles, and the t.b. lungs and the uneasy foetuses of unwed girls. Shaking plaster from the ceilings, mortar from between the bricks of the building walls. Shaking the rats between the walls, the cockroaches crawling over kitchen sinks and leftover food; shaking the sleeping flies hibernating in lumps like bees behind the casings of the windows. Shaking the fat, blood-filled bedbugs crawling over black skin. Shaking the fleas, making them hop. Shaking the sleeping dogs in their filthy pallets, the sleeping cats, the clogged toilets, loosing the filth.
That is searing imagery. Something interesting to me about Himes' tour of Harlem, is that he never lived in Harlem, or even NYC. He was born in Missouri, lived and served prison time in Ohio, moved to California, and ended up as an ex-pat living in Europe. I need to get a biography of Himes and find out what drew him to Harlem.

A Rage in Harlem is Jackson's story but it introduces Himes' two memorable colored detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. These guys are great. Here is how they are introduced:
Grave Digger stood on the right side of the front end of the line, at the entrance to the Savoy. Coffin Ed stood on the left side of line, at the rear end. Grave Digger had his pistol aimed south, in a straight line down the sidewalk. On the other side, Coffin Ed had his pistol aimed north, in a straight line. ...Whenever anyone moved out of line, Grave Digger would shout, "Straighten up!" and Coffin Ed would echo , "Count off!" If the offender didn't straighten up the line immediately, one of the detectives would shoot into the air. ...Folks in Harlem believed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson would shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in line.
I'm not sure how to describe Himes' writing style except to say as I read him, I "feel" some Elmore Leonard, some Raymond Chandler, some Jim Thompson. He's really, really good and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, The Real Cool Killers. You can get it here at Amazon.

This is the first book in my project to work through the series I have been saving to read until I have all the books. I'm starting with the first couple of book in each series to see if I want to continue.

Next up, something different, Malcolm Pryce's fantasy noir, Aberystwyth Mon Amour.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Breaking the Book Blogging Paralysis

I am a horrible book blogger. The last review I wrote was in March 2018 and by now I should have 20+ posts up. I've hit upon a plan to overcome this slough by tackling four shelves of my book reading backlog. Actually, there are more than four, but baby steps. You see, I have been collecting books in series and waiting until I had the series complete up to the most recent before starting to read any. Years have passed. Thanks to Amazon, I have filled in a few gaps to ensure I can read the first five books in each of the selected series. I figure five books will be enough to tell me if I want to keep reading. Here, in author order, are the series I have chosen:

Himes, Chester —Harlem Detective Series
     First book — A Rage in Harlem (1957

James, Bill — Harpur and Iles Series
     First book — You'd Better Believe It (1985)

Kerr, Philip — Bernie Gunther Series
     First book — March Violets (1989)

Lackberg, Camilla — Flack and Hedström Series
     First book — The Ice Princess (2002)

Nesbo, Jo — Harry Hole Series
     First book —The Bat (1997)

Pryce, Malcolm — Louie Knight, Aberystwyth Noir Series
     First book — Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001)

When I publish this post I will pick up A Rage in Harlem and launch my plan and hope to see at least ten posts published by the end of the year.
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