MysteryPeople Review: THE PAINTED GUN by Bradley Spinelli

  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781617754982Postmodern private eye novels are always a tight rope for an author. Referencing classic works and their style often reminds the reader of the old masters that did it better. It is a matter of tone that is usually the deciding factor for if these works measure up to those they imitate, something Bradley Spinelli uses to great effect in his new novel, The Painted Gun.

First, he introduces us to a hero who balances familiarity and freshness, then drops him into a provocative premise. David Crane works as an information consultant in mid-nineties San Francisco, talking and narrating in a hard-boiled style that never becomes tongue in cheek. Down near his last dollar, he takes a case from a shady detective from L.A. It seems that people are looking for a mysterious artist only know as Ash. The only clue, her paintings are of Crane at various moments of his life.

The San Francisco setting helps make the story work. The home of the great Dashiell Hammett lends itself to the nostalgia of the story. One can accept Crane’s hard-boiled voice echoing Sam Spades’s and The Continental Op’s as he travels down the same alleyways they did over fifty years before. Since San Francisco has long been known for its diverse communities and counter-culture eccentrics, Spinelli is able to populate the mystery with modern artists, old school gangsters in shark skin suits, and lesbian gun club owners.

The Painted Gun is a fun romp of an old-school detective novel with a few post-modern tweaks. It’s full of fist fights, shoot outs, and wise cracks, taking a few peculiar twists that prove many times to be poignant. In David Crane’s world, art, love, politics, and murder are hard to separate.

You can find copies of The Painted Gun on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780802124944Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer has left me stunned. This hybrid spy-novel-cum-literary-satire won the Edgar Award in 2015 (which is how I convinced the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to read it) and the Pulitzer the same year, which should begin a long career of appreciation in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike.

At face value, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel from the Vietnamese perspective, ostensibly the perfect place for American readers to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese experience. Yet what Nguyen does best in the novel is expose hypocrisy. Rather than gently guide his readers into unknown waters, he plunges us into confrontation with our own assumptions, our own prejudices, and our own pompous behavior. While reading it, I felt more blown away by observations about the American character than any points about Vietnamese society.

Nguyen’s main character, his father a French priest and his mother a Vietnamese villager, epitomizes the hypocrisy and messiness of colonialism. Unable to find full acceptance in any one faction due to the ill combination of his birth and politics, Nguyen’s protagonist flees North Vietnam early in life, fearful that his French parentage would lead to his demise at the hands of the anti-colonial communists.

He finds South Vietnam to be an exploited puppet of the United States, and determines to aid the revolution as best he can. Despite his new community’s disdain at his bastard status, he uses his quick wits to gain employment in the South Vietnamese army for a wealthy, skilled military leader. Divided between his politics and his professionalism, as a double agent, the narrator can’t help but do a good job for both his employers, even as he cannot help but critique the gaps between each system’s promises and results.

Able to navigate many worlds, the narrator can always see both sides, and is ill at ease identifying wholly with any one philosophy. He understands the faults and the appeals of North and South Vietnam, the indulgence of capitalism and the righteousness of revolution, the flight to safe refuge and the longing to return home, the charisma of one friend and the suffering of another. He understands that with multiple interventions and endless war, the extreme corruption of South Vietnam and spartan purity of North Vietnam only intensified over time. He points out the absurdities of each system, yet reserves his most powerful critique for the most powerful player.

Nguyen’s sardonic pillorying of America’s loose attachment to its self-professed mores echoes Graham Greene’s bitter English reporter in The Quiet American, yet without Greene’s tendency to exoticize the other. Nguyen not only rejects previous portrayals of the conflict – he is in direct conversation with them. He does not indulge in writing stereotypes instead of characters, and his nameless narrator has numerous opportunities to critique representation. Nguyen sketches the lazy, two-tone figures that fill the nightmares and ambitions of soldiers, directors, politicians and academicians, and starkly illustrates the gap between Vietnam in American imaginations and Vietnam in real life.

No where does Nguyen draw this point more clearly  than with his female characters, who refuse to become mistresses ready to lay down their lives for their soldier paramours, lusty hookers prepared to take on the navy, or degendered revolutionaries inhumanly committed to the cause, yet the moment an American creates a Vietnamese character, they immediately revert to stereotype, as in the book’s meta-history of American cinematic representation of the war.

Nguyen points out in The Sympathizer that while history is usually written by the victors, the American defeat in Vietnam was eclipsed by the American dominance in the culture industries. American-produced films, shot in the Philippines, determined how the world would remember the war – with extras given few lines and representing mere foils to the drama between white characters. No need to be sensitive when you control the entire production of culture, and thus have secure control over the production of  your own image.

He also draws attention to how American stories of Vietnamese refugees – whether news or novels – treat the refugee experience in a vacuum, rather than acknowledging that those fleeing to the United States for refuge have had their lives compromised by the United States in  the first place – either by bombs or through collaboration. This struck me as the most relevant point to our current political situation – America creates refugee crises, and refuses to accept responsibility. When people flee their countries for the US, it is for the most part because those nations have been bombed to smithereens and destabilized for decades by trigger-happy war hawks from our own shores.

Like his depiction of refugees and representation,  Nguyen’s take on the truth makes a specific statement about the war and expands to a much larger point about humanity. The Sympathizer is a story of double agents, a archetypal tale of tricksters and despots, a tale of liars and hypocrites. I’d like to draw a distinction between a liar and a hypocrite.

A great liar is one who has been abused, one who has learned to manipulate the truth for their own safety, one who must look to the angry face of a changeable master and know that their next words could determine their entire futures. Lies are the performance of submission, and behind the mask the liar plots for independence. Lies are part and parcel of the asymmetrical warfare that has characterized colonial and domestic conflicts since World War II, with a longer history stretching to the dawn of inequality. They are a weapon to be used, because they are used by those with few weapons in the first place.

Hypocrites are like internet trolls. They feel no attachment to their claims, because they will never have to follow them up with action.They can make a joke about poverty because they are not economically vulnerable, and they can pretend that a prostitute loves her work and a wife loves her place in the home and a mistress loves her soldier because they refuse to accept the economic nature of their most intimate relationships. They can criticize an entire society, because they have never bothered to look at their own.  They can promise, and fail to deliver on their words, because they are too powerful to be beholden to one considered lesser. Better to be a liar, a trickster – be the person you have to be, to survive, and take strength from the ability to hold back a truth and thus, for a little while longer, control your own fate.

In case you hadn’t guessed where I was going with this, the colonizer is the hypocrite – the colonized is the liar. When you’re getting paid to be exploited, like any nanny or therapist can attest to, any intimacy created in such circumstances ends when the money stops, you get a better offer, or you find a way to reject your pittance and pigeon-holed existence in favor of what you really want. In this struggle between the casual hypocrisy of power, and the mask worn by the oppressed, the double agent wins.

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Shotgun Blast From the Past: CROSS by Ken Bruen

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780312538842Cross, by Ken Bruen, is the sixth book  to feature his caustic “finder” (detective is a suspicious word in Ireland), Jack Taylor. I feel it is one of his lesser lauded novels in the series. This could possibly be because it is often considered a sequel to the fifth book, Priest, and can’t be discussed without dropping spoilers from the previous novel (WARNING- That will happen in the next paragraph). However, it is one of the most focused and emotionally resonate books in the series. Here, Bruen seems intent on getting Jack to another place in his life. Apparently to do this he had to destroy the man he introduced us to in The Guards.

Cross starts out very soon after Priest as Jack faces the fallout from the previous volume’s events. His surrogate son, Cody, lies in a coma, from a bullet probably meant for Jack. Jack suspects the person who fired it could be Cathy, a former friend whose child died under Jack’s drug-addled baby sitting. After going cold-turkey sober, he is approached with two jobs. First, he’s hired to look into a rash of dog disappearances (Jack subcontracts this gig to another former guard). His next case is brought in by his pal in the guards, Ridge. She knows being a lesbian has hampered her rise in the ranks and thinks solving the crucifixion death of a young man may make her career. She asks for Jack’s assistance.

Bruen uses every interpretation of the book’s title. Jack’s sobriety seems more about penance than healing. He wants to feel the guilt fully. Bruen uses “cross” to mean a journey both physical and emotional, and since this is a crime novel one can expect the definition as both betrayal and harm. Bruen quotes from other works using the word at the beginning of every chapter.

This is a pivotal novel for Jack Taylor both in his life and how he is written. He is beginning to make more serious decisions and plans. His sobriety brings a clarity to his emotions and we empathize more with his struggles. Early in the series Jack could come off as all attitude, an aging punk looking for something or someone to lash out at or a way to go out in a blaze of glory. Here you realize the self loathing was a defense and as it turns on Jack, Bruen cuts deeper into the character than he ever has before.

Cross is a seminal work in one of modern crime fiction’s best series. Bruen always touches the dark, but here you feel its full force because Jack can. You watch the breaking of a man, see the possible hope of his rebirth, and from what we’re told, it will be a painful one.

You can find copies of Cross on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

Life Is a Gamble and There Are No Guarantees: MysteryPeople Q&A with Henry Chang

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Henry Chang’s Lucky is the fifth book in his series featuring NYPD detective Jack Yu. That said, much of the novel deals with Jack’s criminal bloodbrother, Tat – also known as”Lucky.” Tat is a former Ghost Legion gang leader, who comes out of an 88 day coma after being shot in the head twice. 88 is considered a number of high luck and Louie presses it by getting some the old gang back together for a spate of daring robberies against some of the leaders of Chinatown’s organized crime. It’s up to Jack to stop his friend before his luck turns bad. This is the most action packed book in the series yet, and still gives us a great look into New York’s Chinatown. Recently, Henry Chang was kind enough to take a few questions from us.

 

MysteryPeople Scott: Even though all your work is tight, Lucky had even a tighter pace to it. Where you conscious of that while you were writing?

Henry Chang: The tightness of the pace was an adjustment to the storytelling style. Lucky‘s written more like a thriller than a mystery, where you can’t wait to see what Lucky does next. Unlike Jack’s usual investigative mysteries, which can meander culturally as the clues arise, Lucky is an escalating conflict-driven crime world drive-by. Lucky’s actions drive the narrative.

MPS: The series is known as the Jack Yu series, but you usually spend as much time with the person Jack is hunting down. What made you want to delve more into Louie?

HC: Dailo Lucky, – Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie – is one of the dynamic characters from my first book Chinatown Beat. As he was a ‘Big brother’ (dailo) streetgang warlord in NYC’s Chinatown, I felt he could have had a book all his own. He didn’t drive Chinatown Beat ( that would be Mona, the victim femme fatale ) but Lucky is Jack’s Chinatown bloodbrother, sharing a childhood relationship both brotherly and brutal. He didn’t appear in Red Jade, or Death Money, but here’s his return, with I hope, a big Bang!

Lucky is Lucky’s story.

MPS: As a fan of heist stories, I loved the fact that there were a few handful of robberies committed by Louie and his crew. What’s the key to writing a good robbery sequence?

HC: To me, a couple of things are important to a robbery scenario; the threat of, or the use of violence, fear; and the value of the heist, both from a profit-wise, and an emotional capital point of view. You can choose your tool for inspiring fear as befits the scenario, anything from nail guns to surgical instruments to the guns and knives of hostage kidnap. How much money was the heist worth? How much emotional capital was it worth? Revenge? How sweet?

In Lucky, each heist escalates into greater risk – greater reward territory. But the ‘Lucky Eight’ are on a roll. From robbing a tong money-drop to taking down a thriving gambling den, revenge also drives the events in Lucky’s world.

Trouble is, Lucky’s rampage has become Detective Jack’s problem.

MPS: The idea of luck plays a part in the book. What did you want to explore about it?

HC: There’s a saying: ” It’s better to be lucky than good.” Lucky is lucky to have Detective Jack in his corner, is lucky that ‘Murphy’s Law’ hasn’t caught up with him sooner. Luck is unpredictable, and every lottery has a winner. People survive plane crashes and natural disasters. People are born into wealth, and opportunity. Some casino gamblers are lucky.
Then again, people suffer from all forms of misfortune where they’re entirely not at fault. We file that under ‘crap happens.’ How does luck deliver itself to people? No one knows.
Lucky is lucky. Two to the head. Surprised he wasn’t dead. That’s the nature of luck. Life is a gamble and there are no guarantees.

MPS: How has Jack changed since Chinatown Beat?

HC: Since Chinatown Beat, Jack has hardened, has become more cynical. He’s found, and lost love. He’s suffered more physical wounds from violent encounters, and since the FBI or the ATF could be calling, he wonders if he really wants to be an NYPD cop anymore.
Lucky is likely the last Detective Jack Yu book.

MPS: Has Chinatown changed much since the series?

HC: Manhattan’s Chinatown ( there are three Chinatowns in NYC now ) continues to ‘gray out’ ( older residents are dying out and rampant gentrification has displaced people and businesses. Non-Asians are a greater presence in the neighborhood.On the other hand, newer Chinese immigrants ( the Fukinese) have brought new energy and investment, and unfortunately, more crime.There are flourishing Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Queens now but my hometown Manhattan Chinatown is still the godfather of them all. There’s big history here, and American-Chinese know it.

You can find copies of Lucky on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Crime Fiction Friday: “Born Under a Bad Sign” by William E. Wallace

mysterypeople_city.jpg

  • Selected and Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I was saddened to hear William E Wallace passed away a couple of weeks ago. Wallace was a former crime reporter turned crime fiction writer and advocate; his work was seen often in anthologies or online. Here is a great example of his voice in a piece for Shotgun Honey.

“Born Under a Bad Sign” by William E. Wallace

“To the average gomer sitting in the stop-and-go, it was just another Central Valley commute snafu…”

Read the rest of the story.

Moments of Incredible Brutality: MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

David Joy caught our attention with his brutal and poignant debut, Where All Light Tends to Go, hailed as a modern classic in the growing genre of rural noir. His next book, The Weight of the World, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and comes out today! David Joy was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book and his philosophy of writing. 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Weight Of This World deals with three characters on the bottom rungs of society who’ve made some bad life choices, but you never feel like your look at people in a white trash zoo, you have an understanding of them. Can you talk about how you approached Thad, Aiden and April?

David Joy: I remember one time hearing George Saunders say, “Fiction is empathy’s training wheels.” That idea has always stuck with me. I think the most important job I have is to show the humanity of every character I write. When you’re telling the kinds of stories I tell about the types of people I’m writing about, you carry a tremendous obligation to get to that humanity, and that’s not an easy thing to do. We’re talking about drug addicts and thieves, people capable of committing horrifying acts of violence. We live in a world where we’re able to put a great deal of distance between “us” and “them” for the sake of comfortably. We live in a word where it’s easy to demonize those people, to say to ourselves, “I’m nothing like them.” The problem with that is it leaves little room for dislodge, and without conversation you can never address a problem. I was reading a review recently and a woman said, almost angrily, “He made me care about these people!” That’s about the highest compliment I could ever hope for. I made them care. The reality is, as much as I wish it weren’t true, that’s a very hard thing to do.

MPS: Relationships are the driving force in your novels. What is important to you about how your characters interact with one another?

DJ: I think it’s one thing to be inside the head of a character, but another thing altogether to see how a character reacts to others. A lot of times people can lie to themselves, but when they’re backed against the wall and they either have to do something for someone or don’t do it, tell the truth or lie, that’s when you really get to the deepest part of the human condition. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of how we interact with the people around us, the people closest to us and the people we don’t know from Adam. I think that’s the role relationships play in a novel, and as a writer those are the moments when we get to see our characters stripped down to exactly who they are. That’s sort of the ultimate test.

MPS: Thad is a war vet who is finding peace more difficult to deal with than combat. What did you want to get across to the reader about the men who have returned from our recent conflicts?

DJ: This book is very much a story of trauma and post traumatic stress, and not just Thad’s, but April’s and Aiden’s as well. These are three lives governed almost entirely by their pasts. With Thad, I knew that he would commit an extreme act of violence, but I didn’t know why. As I sat with that, I started to realize that he had a lot of similarities with a really good friend of mine who came back from war and wound up walking into his house, shooting his father and brother, and then killing himself. In an attempt to understand why, I read a lot of books on combat veterans. I remember reading a story about a Royal Marine who was being tried for murdering a Taliban insurgent. They described how paranoid he became in trying to survive in a place where he knew if he were captured he’d be skinned alive and beheaded. The testimony talked about patrols where the Marines would encounter body parts of soldiers strung from trees. All of these stories hit hard and I think I just kept wondering how a person could witness something like that and not have it affect the rest of their life. I couldn’t imagine it. What happened to my friend or to that Royal Marine, that’s not the truth of every veteran, or even combat veterans, and that’s part of what makes trauma such a hard thing to understand. It’s so individualized. I was interested in what happens when a person can’t cope with their past, can’t rectify the things that they’ve done and seen. That became Thad’s story.

MPS: The violence in your work is believable and brutal. What do you think is most important in depicting it?

DJ: I read something recently, an interview with a visual artist named Alfredo Jaar in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he said, “Violence is our present condition.” I think that’s an incredible statement. If a book’s not confronting issues of racism, misogyny, and violence then I have hard time recognizing it as modern American realism. Turn on the nightly news and convince me otherwise. So with this novel I was very interested in the idea of violence as an affect, in that Martin Luther King Jr. notion that, “violence begets violence.” This story is filled with moments of incredible brutality. Some readers won’t be able to take it and that’s okay. That’s part of what I was trying to do was to play with that idea and to test that threshold. One of the things that interests me most is how we see a story on the news and can’t imagine what would bring someone to kill another person, but when it comes time for punishment we respond with a ruthless retaliation that mirrors the very nature of what we’re condemning. There are moments when we’re disgusted by violence and moments when we cheer it on with a murderous vengeance. I’m interested in where that line lies, and that’s one of the biggest chances I took with this book was to test that boundary. I want to know when you turn away, and I want to know when you applaud. In regards to how the violence is portrayed, I think that’s a very fine line to walk. You show too much and the reader turns away. You show too little and they dismiss the horror of it. I try to think about what’s needed to accomplish what I want a scene to do, and that’s how I decide whether to go all in or pull back. I don’t want anyone to ever say that what I put on a page is gratuitous. If a reader can say that, I’ve failed.

MPS: What do you hope the reader sees about Appalachia in your writing?

DJ: This is a really big question for me, one that I don’t think I can capture in a paragraph or two, but I’ve written about it before. I’d like to share this essay I wrote titled, “One Place Misunderstood,” that first appeared at Writer’s Bone and was later republished at the Huffington Post. I think it answers this question about as openly as I could hope.

MPS: I’m already looking forward to the next book. What can you tell us about it?

DJ: Most of my work tends to start with some sort of narrative trigger. In The Line That Held Us, a poacher goes out into the woods after a deer and accidentally kills a man who was digging ginseng. He recognizes he’s killed a member of a family notorious for vengeance and violence. With nowhere to turn, he calls on the help of his best friend, but when the victim’s brother comes looking, a blood trail leads to a nightmare of revenge that forces each to recognize what they’re willing to sacrifice and for whom they’ll lay down their life. Ultimately, another feel-good book is what I’m getting at. I’m doing my damnedest to wind up on some sort of “Twelve Books That Will Lift Your Spirits” list.

You can find copies of The Weight of this World on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

From the Web: William Boyle on Daniel Woodrell

One of our favorite rising stars of crime fiction is William Boyle. His status in the states, while high, may be eclipsed by his popularity in France, where he’s in the running for several prizes and his novel Gravesend has been published as part of the prestigious Rivages/Noir collection. Recently, for LitHub, a website that agglomerates the best of the literary web while also bringing readers original, provocative content, he wrote this piece about a favorite author of his (and many), Daniel Woodrell.

As fans of both Boyle and Woodrell, we suggest getting one of the Woodrell books mentioned in Boyle’s article, then getting his own novel, Gravesend, and see how Woodrell’s tales of the Ozarks influence Boyle’s gritty new York burrough. Rural noir has been perfected and defined by Daniel Woodrell, and we’re glad to see growing interest in his work. Tomato Red, Woodrell’s most famous contribution to the genre, soon hits the big screen, so start with this one before you see the film and work from there!

Read William Boyle’s ode to Daniel Woodrell. 

You can find copies of Boyle’s Gravesend on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find copies of Woodrell’s works on our shelves and via bookpeople.com