RARA-AVIS: Four Recent HB novels

From: Doug Bassett ( dj_bassett@yahoo.com)
Date: 20 Dec 2006


I saw awhile back there was a thread about good recent books. Which I didn't participate in because I hadn't read much recent stuff in quite awhile.

Somewhat embarrassed by this I blew some gift money on four paperbacks I picked up, more or less at random, from the local Borders. The only real rules were that they had to be mass market pbs and that I didn't want to know too much about them, because I wanted to come to them reasonably fresh.

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE -- Steve Hamilton

Apparently won the Edgar and the Shamus, but, well, it must've been a duff year, as this is a pretty blah book.

Struggling PI with a bullet near his heart has to face ghosts of his past -- a psycho who seemingly is haunting him again -- in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Novel has been ridiculously praised for it's plot, but it's really just THE LONG GOODBYE crossed with some recent Crazy Killer bestsellers, and anyone hep enough to pick up a PI novel from an unknown writer will likely be hep enough to guess the plot turns pretty quickly, even if somehow they've avoided Chandler or ALONG CAME A SPIDER.

Cleanly, if somewhat antiseptically written in that over-workshopped kind of way books sometimes get. Not a bad book, and in a craftsmanlike way certainly well put together, but I can appreciate a solidly put together chair without necessarily wanting it in my house, if you follow.

SMOKER -- Greg Rucka

Part of an apparently popular series about an heroic bodyguard. Part of my problem here is purely personal, I have a hard time buying the notion of "heroic bodyguards". Say "bodyguard" to me and I think either of fat loads guarding hip-hop divas or Kevin Costner in that movie.

More seriously, our hero Kodiak is one of those hb characters that everyone says is tough but doesn't ever seem to do anything authoritatively hardass: fundamentally he's always reacting, not acting. That makes sense for a bodyguard, but there's something offputting about it generally: I would suggest the idea is misconceived from the start.

This has to do with protecting a tobacco witness. I'm a pretty serious anti-smoker myself, but the plot's also weighed down with tobbacco settlement blahblah, stuff that nobody's really going to care about twenty years from now. In other words the book's pretty dated, and will only get more so.

Still, at least here the prose has some individuality.

RAIN DOGS -- Sean Doolittle

I'm beginning to think there's only a set number of hb plots. This one is another variant of the "City Boy with Problem Runs to Country and Gets Involved with Crazies in the Sticks", basically. They did twenty six kazillion movie versions of this in the Seventies.

This is probably the best written of the four books here, with some really very nice, very emotional prose moments. The protag. is not especially admirable and Doolittle doesn't shy away from that, either. But it suffers from a certain unfocusness (is that a word? Now it is!). It never really gets down in a groove to tell it's story, it's kind of floating nervously all over the place. Another way to say it is that it's nowhere near as intense as it should be.

Still, I might try some others from Doolittle. Someone to watch.

HARD AS NAILS -- Dan Simmons

Last of the batch is in many ways the best. I've read and liked other stuff by Simmons -- SF and especially his neglected THE CROOK FACTORY, to my mind the ultimate best example of that terrible sub-genre,
"historical figure solves a mystery, unaccountably".

Simmons is sort of an ideal of a popular writer, in a lot of ways, and in a saner, kinder world he'd be a lot better known than he is now. This is the first of this series that I've read, and I liked it. Kurtz is believably tough (unlike Kodiak), the story takes place in an unusual location (Buffalo, NY) but Simmons doesn't shy away from the fact that it's a craphole, which I really liked. Some of the violent moments work very well.

And some don't. My only real beef here is that it's too beholden to the modern formulas. Simmons writes close up action very well; larger scale action rather less so. And there's too much of the latter -- the books probably a quarter or so too long, and most of the climax just doesn't work because it's too fuzzed out with the guns blazing, bombs tossing, etc. Books aren't movies, and don't really lend themselves to these sorts of scenes.

So I wouldn't call it great, really. But it's good, and I'll definitely check out some others in this series. Simmons, though, should try his hand at a HardCase original, I think he's the kind of guy who might really do a knockout with one.


Doug Bassett dj_bassett@yahoo.com

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