RARA-AVIS: A washingtonpost.com article from: andrewty@i-manila.com.ph

From: andrewty@i-manila.com.ph
Date: 29 Feb 2004

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 Thanks to Mark Sullivan of Rara-Avis for bringing this up. The final section of this talks about the new Woolrich anthology.
 From Cuban diamonds to Italian bagmen -- a gazetteer of violent dustups. By Richard Lipez
 By Richard Lipez
  When the Action Was in Havana
 The brave, truth-telling Cuban crime writer Jose Latour, who moved to Spain in 2002, made his name with beautifully noirish renditions of low-life behavior at all social levels in Fidel Castro's Cuba. In Havana World Series (Grove, $23), Latour goes back to a time that's a natural for desperate intrigue and score-settling: a week that comes six months before the fall of the rancid Batista regime, when the inevitability of the rebels' triumph had dawned on some government officials, while other Batista skunks and their American gangland cohorts remained clueless.
 In this flavorsome, exactingly calibrated caper-yarn-cum-thriller, Latour has Meyer Lansky, the real-life elegant New York goon who ran the Havana casinos, explain to a small gathering of mobsters why there is no need for concern: "I have faith in this country. Cuba will become the U.S. playground because of its beaches, casinos, hookers, music, and national spirit. . . . Who wins is irrelevant in these little wars, because all the winners want is to become millionaires as quickly as they can." Lansky is not just projecting here; he's speaking from personal experience up and down the Western Hemisphere.
 The mob kingpins remain so confident that they will hang on to Havana as their profitable plaything that, back in New York, Joe Bonnano, who wants to muscle in on Lansky's Caribbean vice empire, sets in motion a scam to embarrass, and as a consequence weaken, Lansky. Betting in Havana is heavy on the 1958 Yankees-Milwaukee Braves World Series, and the plotters aim to rob a Lansky casino of more than half a million dollars in betting proceeds, a spectacular score back then.
 Most of the cash will go to the Cuban gang of five who will carry it out -- for Bonnano the project is a loss-leader -- and much of the appeal of Havana World Series lies in the likable assortment of upwardly mobile thieves who just want to come away with enough cash to establish a foothold in the Cuban lower middle class. Melchor Loredo plans to open a three-cent espresso stand. Fermin Rodriguez wants to run a "disease free, respectable brothel where drugs, 8mm porno films, and multiple sex would be taboo." The mechanics of the heist are cunningly worked out, and the operation itself is reminiscent of the movie "Ocean's Eleven," not the charmless Rat Pack version but the recent Steven Soderbergh neat job.
 The complications Latour throws in are priceless -- for one, Pope Pius XII dies, and the devout casino managers shut the place down early one night out of respect -- and, not so surprisingly, Meyer Lansky is shown to be a man in his moment. He had risen to mob prominence pioneering the notion that "crime was just business," and his way of dealing with this unexpected challenge is worthy of a Halliburton operative with an MBA from the University of Sani Abacha.
 Baseball fans will have a fine time with the day-by-day, play-by-play of the games, which serves as a suspenseful ticking clock in the narrative. (The Yankees take the series in seven.) Habitual bettors, though, might not be so entertained by Latour's knowing portrayal of casinos, where the "supreme goal" is to leave "clients picked clean but pleased about it."
 Italian Intrigue
 The mercenary and the political are also sinisterly intertwined in Michael Dibdin's new Aurelio Zen mystery, Medusa (Pantheon, $23), the ninth entry in a series that becomes more and more assured each time. In this one, the wry, accident-prone Rome police detective investigates the discovery by spelunkers of a corpse in a World War I tunnel in the Dolomites. The dead man is soon identified as an Italian soldier from an elite unit who was reported to have died in a plane crash in 1973. The Ministry of Defense keeps placing palazzo-sized obstacles in the way of Zen's inquiries, which only makes him testier and more determined.
 Dibdin, a Brit who now lives in Seattle, is not shy about calling the current Italian head of government, Silvio Berlusconi, a crook, and those who agree can read Medusa and have a good time grinding their teeth over passages like this one: "Despite Italy's economic prosperity and impeccable European credentials, not to mention the glitzy 'open government' stance of the current regime, its public history remained riddled with the secret networks of events collectively dubbed the misteri d'Italia. The wormholes pervading the body politic remained, but the worms had never been identified, still less charged or convicted."
 Dibdin's presumably fictional plot, centered on a secret plan to establish an Italian military dictatorship in 1973, provides an opportunity for Zen, and Dibdin's grateful readers, to move up, down and across Italy as Zen investigates. He meets the widow of the dead soldier's commanding officer, and "there was something unwholesome" about Paola Passarini, "like fruit picked green that rots before it ripens." Among the other long-ago acquaintances of the dead man who might know something about the Medusa tattoo on the soldier's arm is Luca Brandelli, an aging lefty journalist whose glory days are past but who is happy to have Zen discreetly collaborate on one last "scandal to end all scandals."
 While much of the pleasure of reading Dibdin derives from his palpable love of Italy's culture and people -- his portrait of Zen's new girlfriend, Gemma, is especially affecting -- he is hardly a pushover for Italy. Like his mouthpiece Zen, Dibdin clearly finds the politics wretched. And he seems to share the disapproval of another of his characters for Italy's plummeting birth rate, manifest in "a bunch of flashy yuppies with one spoilt designer child in tow like a pedigree dog." Dibdin is essential reading for those who love mysteries and Italy without illusions.
 Remembrance of Brutalities Past
 The invaluable Robert Barnard is on time with his annual well-chosen gift to mystery readers, this one set in present-day London and in the Australian outback of 1938. The "dark" in A Cry From the Dark (Scribner, $24) is Bettina Whitelaw's past. She is a fondly appreciated octogenarian London novelist who first made her mark with the semi-autobiographical "The Heart of the Land," about growing up in a remote New South Wales farm town, Bundaroo, a place of "open landscapes and closed minds." While working on a nonfiction memoir of her youth, Whitelaw discovers that her flat has been broken into, and later her housekeeper, Katie Jackson, is beaten senseless while sleeping in Whitelaw's bed.
 Whitelaw fears that these events may be connected to the post-school-dance rape that led her to abandon distant Bundaroo as a teenager and to return only for family funerals. Her attacker, who was never identified, might somehow be aware of her speculations on the event in her memoir.
 Barnard shifts adroitly back and forth between the London of literary salons and Covent Garden operatic evenings and the pre-World War II rough life at the bottom of civilization. A not especially well-liked prodigy back in Bundaroo, Whitelaw is perfectly at home in London. She wants to finish the memoir because she is weary and a bit cranky, with a good bit in her life to be tired and cranky about. There's the break-in, and also her nephew has landed from Australia. Young Mark is a "lumbering mass of muscle and self-love" who wants to act but works mostly as a "personal something-or-other to people with more money than sense." Then there is Clare Tuckett, Whitelaw's literary agent, who is convinced someone is after the old lady's wealth. Peter Seddon is a former lover, a London Transport driver who used to scandalize the neighbors by parking his bus outside Whitelaw's flat overnight. Hughie Naismyth is Whitelaw's childhood pal who became a London writer and critic speciali! zing in aboriginal art. Whitelaw's biological daughter turns up, too; Whitelaw had put her up for adoption at birth after ending her brief marriage to a World War II soldier who charmed her briefly and then bored her out of her mind.
 A well-plotted mystery, A Cry From the Dark is also an absorbing novel of character about raising and lowering emotional barriers, and about how old age is no excuse for refusing to face hard truths about people and about oneself. Whitelaw is a woman "who held her opinions obstinately," and yet she discovers the strength of character to alter her opinions if the price of self-delusion is high enough to include both attempted murder and messing around with her literary output.
 Dealing in the High Sierra
 The best part of High Country (Putnam, $24.95), Nevada Barr's 12th mystery featuring National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon, is a terrifying low-speed chase through the wilderness near Yosemite National Park that goes on for days. Hiking alone, Pigeon has stumbled upon a couple of homicidal drug dealers who have been looting a crashed plane loaded with high-grade marijuana. They shoot at her, wounding her in the foot, and she drags through the snowy forest just ahead of the killers, her only weapon being her skills in outdoor survival. There's an amazing scene in which Pigeon, starving and exhausted, doubles back on her pursuers, sneaks into their tent at night, and has to decide whether or not to bash their heads in with an ax. Another, later, similar scene is literally eye-popping.
 Squeamish readers should probably stick to Park Service brochures about Yosemite. But High Country is guaranteed to keep the pages turning, and the stomach too. The always companionable Pigeon has been assigned to Yosemite to work undercover as a waitress at the old Ahwahnee Hotel. She's to try to learn why four young seasonal park employees vanished eight days earlier. A number of these kids did or dealt drugs, so that's a possible lead. And then there's the head chef, who screams at Pigeon and seems psychotic, as well as a waitress supervisor who is a "dried-up wisp of a woman with the energy of a hundred monkeys, all of which, if put in a barrel, would be no fun." Pigeon's law-enforcement supervisor is an incompetent drunk, and among the other difficult Yosemite regulars she must contend with is the ex-husband of one of the missing workers who is determined to get hold of his ex-wife's apron, of all things. Pigeon seems to be the only Park Service employee in America any! one can trust.
 Tales by a Forgotten Master
 Cornell Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins has put together 20 previously uncollected stories by the mid-20th-century master of anguished noir in Night and Fear (Carroll & Graf, $26). I talked to a mystery fan recently who wasn't sure who Woolrich was. The novels aren't read much anymore, but most mystery lovers know the movies made from his stories, most notably Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and Truffaut's "The Bride Wore Black." Nevins's collection should remind readers that Woolrich was a powerful original who seemed to believe that violent psychopathology exists not in a human-behavior compartment but on a spectrum, and that under the right circumstances all decent people are capable of beastliness.
 In "You Bet Your Life," a man in a bar bets another he can choose anyone at random on the street outside and lead him into committing murder. That's far-fetched, even loony, yet Woolrich writes with such style and conviction -- he was a tortured, self-hating alcoholic himself -- that you suspend disbelief and stay gaga with apprehension. In Woolrich, innocent people often meet hideous ends at the hands of bumblers or of "fate." An unintended victim dies in both "Cigarette" and "New York Blues."
 Woolrich's live-wire prose -- with lines like "His breath sang in his chest like a windstorm" -- isn't as impressive as it once was. But the overall effect is amazing. Woolrich was a sorry mess, and he turned whatever went on in his troubled heart into fiction that pulses with angst and controlled terror. •
 Richard Lipez writes mystery novels under the name Richard Stevenson. "Death Trick," the first book in his Donald Strachey private-eye series, was recently re-released.

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