Re: RARA-AVIS: Recent Reads

From: K Montin (
Date: 21 Jul 2001

It's a bit late to be reporting, but I did read Ride the Pink Horse during Dorothy B. Hughes month. The main character, Sailor, was a hard case. Although the story is told in the third person, the narration is entirely in the words he would use. Any opinions here on the "appropriation" of the male voice by a female writer? Just asking. I thought it was pretty convincing. I also read almost half of The Davidian Report, but didn't feel it was worth finishing. Somehow this story of Communist spies in early 1950s Hollywood just wasn't that gripping. Nothing much happened for pages.

A couple of months ago I came across Like a Hole in the Head, by Jen Banbury. The back cover blurbs compare her to Hammett (George Pelecanos delivers a rave review). She does not seem to have written another novel yet.

The protagonist is a clerk in a used-book store, and one day a strange dwarf sells her a rare Jack London first edition. Trouble starts when he wants it back and she doesn't have it anymore. A rather picaresque adventure ensues, as she stays up for days on end drinking nothing but booze and coffee, eating nothing but odd bits of candy and other junk. The cast of characters is interesting and the tone is humourously hardbitten. Motorcycles, cars, even guns, against the backdrop of the second-hand/antiquarian book trade and the movie industry. Reminiscent of the "bookman" books, but only to a degree. I liked this one better. I thought it was great, although the ending was a little murky for me.

Someone on the list mentioned Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow's Really the Blues a while back. I managed to get it, all the way from the National Library in Ottawa, complete with cunning little custom-made cardboard box with cloth tape bow. Sorry to say, I made it only about a third of the way through. It wasn't really hardboiled. Granted, he did some time in juvenile reformatory and I think a short stint in jail, but apart from that, his life wasn't that exciting. It seemed to be a pretty standard nonfamous musician stuff: scraping by, staying up til all hours, roving from town to town for gigs, meeting famous musicians, perfecting his art. Since I'm not that big on jazz, the anecdotes about other musicians didn't really fascinate me. I would have liked to keep it, though, if only for the glossary at the back, defining musicians' and hipsters' slang of the time (published in 1948, but reminiscing back about thirty years). Amusing euphemism: "motherferyer."

At the same time I read La Vie Est D駵eulasse by L鯠Malet, also first published in 1948. I kept trying to figure out the slang equivalents, but it wasn't easy (translator's occupational hazard). This book is about as noir as it gets from page one. The protagonist is an irredeemable criminal. He is originally politically motivated (anarchist), but soon decides that crime for his own sake is a better career. Does anyone know if this has been translated into English? A few in the series about Nestor Burma, a detective, have been, but I couldn't find any trace of this one on the Web. It was well written and kept me interested to the end. I even found the rather lengthy Freudian explanation for the narrator's behaviour and attitudes fairly convincing, although I am far from a wholehearted Freud fan.

I also got hold of The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford. I have to say I really prefer the Hoke Mosely novels.

In the last couple of weeks, I read A Street That Rhymed at 3AM, by Mark Timlin. I think it's the first one I've read by him. Lots of action, liked the voice, but three or four gratuitous killings (that's on top of the
"necessary" ones) meant I couldn't really like the protagonist, but then I'm probably not supposed to. I'll look out for more by Timlin.

Last year I read Tooth and Claw (aka the Wolf Man) by Ian Rankin, which is atypically set in London but makes a point of Inspector Rebus's outsider status there. Recently I read Set in Darkness. I think it was probably written after the other one. Rebus seems to be going downhill personally, and by that I mean drinking heavily, to the point where his underlings mention it to him, and professionally, in that a few higher-ups seem to have it in for him. Nonetheless, he triumphs in solving a delicate case with political overtones. Yet at the same time, errors in judgment lead to some tricky situations. In the end, perhaps triumph isn't quite the right word.

Motherless Brooklyn was a great read. A very original voice. I'm not sure if Lethem could keep it up, though, and from what I gather from comments here, he seems to like switching gears. If he writes another crime/hb/detective novel (without sf elements), I'll try to read it.

Just finished Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker. Well written, interesting view from inside the criminal mind. The main characters know they're career criminals, they see no other option, but they wouldn't wish their sons to follow in their footsteps. They don't see themselves as losers, but guess what? The caper of a lifetime has a few hitches. I notice from the bio notes that all his titles have animals in them, except Little Boy Blue--but he was a shepherd, wasn't he? There are a lot of political comments made in passing, about the class structure of society, how things have gotten worse for the poor in recent years, etc.

I've started Some Unknown Person, by Sandra Scoppetone, whom I know for her Lauren Lauredano series. This one is quite different, and I'm not really into it yet enough to know whether I like it. I'm not generally keen on books where every chapter is headed by a date, and I have to keep figuring out if I'm in the present or the past. I suppose once I'm familiar with the characters that won't be a problem.

That's the roundup for this month.


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