Shotgun Blast from the Past: COGAN’S TRADE

Cogan's Trade

I wanted to re-read this book before the film it inspired, Killing Them Softly, came out. It’s no wonder they turned it into a movie. There’s not a character who isn’t indelible, spouting streams of entertaining knock-around guy dialogue that rivals Damon Runyon. The story is tight and simple, a little over two hundred pages, opening up to large themes even we “citizens” can relate to.

It is all kicked of by the robbery of a card game run by small time mob guy, Mark Trattman. The job and its “planning” is covered in the first three chapters. This is not the crack team of heist men you find in a Richard Stark book. Most of the plotting revolves around them arguing about the other guy they’re going to use. They use gardening gloves to cover their prints.

There is some suspicion that Trattman set up the robbery, so the mob brings in Jackie Cogan. Cogan is more than an enforcer, he knows the ins and outs of the organization’s politics and the rules well enough to not draw any attention. Jackie sends two thugs over to talk to Trattman. Their discussion gets overzealous and they beat up Mark. Now Trattman is angry and ready to start the kind of trouble that could get attention, the kind Cogan keeps in check.

Cogan’s Trade was George V. Higgins’ follow up to his seminal debut, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, and he continues to look at people caught up in the system they’ve become a part of. Here the focus is on the guys in the middle who are asked to keep a status quo. Higgins uses the mob to talk about how bureaucracy has taken over. Being right doesn’t matter, keeping the higher-ups happy and not rocking the boat is what it is about.

Cogan’s Trade breathes with mob reality. The violence is minimal for a gang land novel and there are no elegant godfathers running all they survey. These are the thugs and under-underbosses. They bicker about the cost of a two man hit team and worry about what the unseen boys above them will think. It’s a world Jackie Cogan knows well. The same could be said for George V. Higgins.

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What’s Scott Reading?

Ratlines by Stuart Neville

Neville wrote one of my favorite books dealing with the IRA, The Ghosts of Belfast, a few years ago. His latest is set in 1963 right before Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. A murder investigation leads to both the Mossad and the Nazis, who sought refuge in Ireland. A chilling tale that uses many real people and historical details.

The Black Angel by John Connolly

Connolly’s next book featuring private detective and possible fallen angel Charlie Parker, The Wrath Of Angels, will be out the first of January and has strong ties to this novel. The Black Angel finds Charlie and his violent friend, Louis, involved with an artifact that may contain one of the original angels banished from Heaven. Connolly has a brilliant voice that subtly weaves the supernatural into detective fiction.

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane
(Included in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume I)

It doesn’t get much more hard boiled than Mike Hammer.  I wanted to read this again before I cracked open Lady, Go Die, the unearthed sequel finished by Max Allan Collins. Hammer’s angry soliloquies alone get the blood rushing.

December Pick of the Month: BOOKS TO DIE FOR

MysteryPeople Pick of December: Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels
edited by John Connolly & Declan Burke

I’ve been raving about Books To Die For since it first came out. John Connolly and Declan Burke contacted over one hundred of the world’s top crime fiction writers and had them write an essay about the book they would most passionately advocate for. The result is a book that can be enjoyed on many levels.

It can be read as a critical history of the genre. The first essay is on Poe’s The Dupin Tales and ends in Mark Gimenez writing about The Perk, which Anne Perry published in 2008. You see the mystery genre grow and branch off into sub genres and where it meshes with literary fiction, such as Smilla’s Sense Of Snow and Clockers. Megan Abbott’s piece on In A Lonely Place speaks volumes about the post World War Two era.

I’ve used Books to Die For as a source for discovering new books. Lee Child’s exhilarating take on the action thriller The Damned And The Destroyed has me hunting that title down. I’ve become a fan of ghetto noir master Doanld Goines after reading Daddy Cool on Ken Bruen’s recommendation. I was happy to see George Pelecanos give Newton Thornburg’s Cutter & Bone it’s due.

The book gives as much insight into the authors writing the essays as it does their subjects. Elmore Leonard discusses the debt he owes to George V. Higgins and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle in helping him find his crime fiction voice. When William Kent Kruger talks about Tony Hillerman’s approach to writing, it mirrors how I feel about Kruger’s own approach.

This is a great gift for any mystery fan. No matter any way it’s read, on what level it’s read, it’s a must read. In itself, it’s become a  book worth advocating for.

Collins Takes on the Kennedy Assassination

I started Max Allan Collins’ Target Lancer with both excitement and apprehension. His character, Chicago private detective Nate Heller, solidified me as a fan of the PI genre. He’s got Marlowe’s mouth and Hammer’s hard boiled attitude mixed into a very complex hero who is easy to relate to. Nate also has a knack  for getting involved in infamous crimes of the twentieth century, like the dealings of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and even Area 51. It was inevitable that Heller would somehow be involved with the Kennedy assassination, but it seemed like he would be visiting too-familiar ground, but Target Lancer proves I should never underestimate Collins’ skill as a storyteller.

The main thing he does to give a different take to the story is to keep the story in Chicago, dealing with little known speculation on a first attempt on the President’s life. Nate is asked by client and friend Tom Ellison to act as his bodyguard. Tom made the mistake of asking Jimmy Hoffa for a pair of sold out football tickets and has to now return the favor by dropping off an envelope full of cash to a bag man at the 606 strip club. Nate recognizes the bag man a kid he ran with who grew into a small time gangster, Jake Rubenstein, now known as Jack Ruby.

After Tom leaves, Ruby comes over to Nate with his friend Lee. He mentions Operation Mongoose, a plot to use the Mafia to kill Castro. Nate acted as a liaison between the Kennedy administration and the mob for the operation, a job he now regrets. When Ruby asks if he’s here for the mob, he assures him he’s not. A couple days later, Tom Ellison is murdered with an ice pick.

As Nate starts looking for the killer, he’s asked to do another job by Bobby Kennedy. His brother will be swinging by Chicago on his campaign before he goes to Florida and Dallas and they have information that an attempt will be made on his life. Because of his familiarity with Chicago, they would like Nate to assist with the secret service detail. It is not long before he starts seeing threads connected to both cases.

Part of the fun of the Nate Heller series is the interaction the detective has with historical personalities. Here, Nate reignites his affair with fan dancer Sally Rand, who appeared in the first book, True Detective, and sits down in a small club to hear electric blues pioneer Muddy Waters. He deals with mob bosses Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli, and even the henchmen are famed enforcers Chuckie Nicoletti and Mad Sam DeStefano. As always Collins treats them as characters, not icons, making them well rounded characters you can relate to.

Even though the book has a historical context, Collins never forgets he is first and foremost delivering a hard boiled PI novel. He uses both familiar and unfamiliar facts as great plot reveals. He also doesn’t skip on the action, like a chase after some Cuban gun dealers through the Chicago streets and a climax that gives that other historical assassination novel, The Day Of The Jackal, a run for it’s money. The very last sentence reminds us this is about a man out to avenge the death of his friend.

Target Lancer is a unique piece of thrilling detective fiction. It gives us fleshed out characters, whether based on real people or not, strong action, and a strong hero. It also delivers a fresh take on the plot against Kennedy, something that seemed impossible. Proof you can depend on Max Allan Collins, just like Nate Heller, to take on a tough job.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tim O’Mara

Tim O’Mara took his background as a New York high school teacher and used it to create Ray Donne, an ex-cop turned teacher who’s out to locate and save one of his missing students in O’Mara’s debut, Sacrifice Fly. The book has a wonderful sense of both place and people and deals with ideas of community. We recently had a chance to talk to Tim about his book, both of his professions, and his home.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What prompted you to use the story of Sacrifice Fly for your first book?

TIM O’MARA: Sacrifice Fly was inspired by a home visit I was making to the Roberto Clemente Houses to check on a student. It occurred to me that this would be a good opening for a crime novel if I were just a little bit cooler/edgier. So I channeled my brother—Sgt. Mike O’Mara of the Nassau County Police Dept.–and came up with Raymond Donne. I started with the home visit and that led me to the discovery of the murder victim and I let the story and characters take over from there.

MP: Did you draw from any influences?

TO: My writing influences are largely from the mystery/crime genre. I grew up reading Ellery Queen and Encyclopedia Brown. Later in life, I discovered Robert Parker, John D. McDonald, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and the like. Lately, I’ve been impressed most by Marcus Sakey and Don Winslow. When I started the novel, I also read Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter. I read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon—arguably the most under-rated novel in American literature because it’s a mystery—and Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle once a year to remind myself of how it’s done.

MP: One of the things I loved about the book was Ray’s relationship with his community. What does Brooklyn mean to you?

TO: Brooklyn is defined by it’s neighborhoods. When people hear the name Williamsburg, they think about the hip, gentrified place named by many as “the coolest place on Earth.” There’s also the part where I taught: low-income, black and Hispanic, schools surrounded by housing projects, etc. This is the Williamsburg where my book takes place (and a rather cool place on it’s own.) I’m not sure I could write authentically about the other part. What makes the entire Williamsburg section fascinating to me is the way these disparate parts often intersect.

MP: Your hero shares the same profession as you. What did you want to get across to the reader about being a high school teacher?

TO:  As a middle school teacher, I wanted people to know that the single biggest influence on a student’s success is what happens in the home. I wanted to show that influence in the book and also show how teachers can have an effect on the families of their students. Ray obviously goes further than a school teacher should. I also hope that I showed how much fun the teaching profession can be when done right. Ray shares many moments of humor with his kids, as I do with mine.

MP: While you deal with a lot of dark matters, many of your characters are partly defined by their sense of humor. How important is humor in your work?

TO: Humor is the main element of my teaching career. I teach middle school kids for many reasons, but one big one is they get my jokes. School is a chore for many kids and when you can teach and entertain at the same time, I believe they are more likely to take in the information being presented to them.

MP: Can you tell us any future plans you have for Ray?

TO: I’m currently involved in rewriting the second Raymond novel, Crooked Numbers. I’m also sketching out the details for a third, as well. I find Ray and his friends—especially Edgar—a lot of fun to hang around with. I hope that readers and the publishing world—and great independent bookstores—agree. I’m also hoping that Ray has a screen-life in his future. Sacrifice Fly is currently being looked at by “people in the biz.”

What Scott’s Reading

(Editor’s note: Scott M. is known in our parts for reading three, four, five books at once, and reading them in swift time. We’ve decided to mine that reading madness and post a sliver every week or so of exactly What Scott’s Reading.)

Tradition seems to be part of my Thanksgiving holiday reading, right along with dinner, pumpkin pie, and left overs. Right now the books in my bag are by some of my favorite authors who I’ve been reading for years.

 
Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins

I wanted to read this again before the film version, Killing Them Softly, comes out November 30th. This book is powered by streams of knock-around dialogue that makes it one of the most human and funny stories about thugs and gangsters.

 

Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins

Collins’ historical mystery series with Chicago detective Nate Heller is probably what made me a private eye fan. If the title doesn’t give you a clue to what infamous crime he’s involved with, the early chapter where he meets an old acquaintance, Jake Rubenstien (now Jack Ruby) and his buddy, Lee, will.

 

Dancing Bear by James Crumley

Looking forward to our Hard Word book club discussion of this on the 28th. A Montana investigator is on the run after the couple he’s been hired to do surveillance on are murdered by a mysterious band of professionals. Full of humor and humanity on its own terms, this is a private eye novel only James Crumley could have written.

Why Paris?

~Guest Post by Mark Pryor, author of The Bookseller

I’m often asked, “Why Paris?” Or, “Paris because you’ve lived there?”  Or even, “Paris, well that’s not very original.  Why not Helsinki or Constantinople?”

All fair questions, but all with multiple answers.

Some of the reasons I chose Paris are sentimental although, for the record, I have never lived there.  But I was in Paris with my wife when the initial idea for The Bookseller came to me, wandering the streets and sampling its cafes like a good tourist.  Prior to writing the book, I’d visited Paris maybe ten times and loved it since the first. It was clear to me that if I can’t be there in person, then why not travel there in my books?  Seems like a decent compromise to me.

Other reasons are practical: the idea that came to me involved bouquinistes, and I don’t know of any other city that has them.  I suppose I could have traveling bouquinistes but . . . actually, you’ve just given me an idea for a story. The main practical reason, though,  is that I know Paris and I do adhere to the maxim, write what you know,  at least to some degree.  (Perhaps I’d tweak it a little to say, Write what you know, or what you can properly research.)

Anyway, once made the decision had definite implications for The Bookseller and, of course, for the other books in the Hugo Marston series.

First, the choice of Paris opened a door for me.  When I picked a distinctly Parisian bookseller I was then allowed (required, really) to invent a history for him.  Hugo had to look into his background and that, in turn, unlocked the door to history, let me scroll back in time to World War Two and play with some issues that interested me, have always interested me: how we chose which side we’re on in the midst of conflict, how we decide to put what’s right (or wrong) up against immediate concerns like life, love, and family.  I suppose I could have examined those issues elsewhere but the French resistance and the German presence in France during that period have always had a powerful force in books and films, and (perhaps more importantly) in my imagination.

Paris’s history in WW2 also gives me something a lot of other cities don’t: a physical beauty that was left untouched by bombs and the hideous ogres of 1960s and ’70s architecture.  In other words, it’s a wonderful city for Hugo and me to walk around and for us to describe to the reader.  And while it’s a huge place, of course, its major attractions are almost all within walking distance of each other.  Hugo, or any character in the books, can so easily stroll down a wide boulevard or disappear into a narrow side street to find adventure.  In Washington DC he’d be sitting on the metro, which is no fun for a man of action.

Paris is also a place of moods.  This is so true of the main artery that divides the city in two, the River Seine.  Sometimes soft and rolling, sometimes churning and angry… the weather dictates some of those moods but the many beautiful bridges that span the Seine give me a chance to use it like a mirror, have Hugo or others stop like every other Parisian and tourist to stare into the water and have it reflect back their own moods and emotions.  You know how it is, when we’re at the beach on a summer’s day the ocean is the place we came from, a place teeming with life, a playground.  But at night, when the wind is up and dark clouds are rolling overhead, it’s the most dangerous thing in the world, an unforgiving beast waiting to swallow the unwary.  So it is with the historic River Seine, a character in the books to some degree, and an unpredictable one at that.

Paris also offers predictability: a wealth of pleasures open to my characters.  Street-side cafes where Hugo can sit and watch the world go by, the sordid delights of Pigalle for Tom’s more basic instincts, and restaurants galore where they can meet up and talk.  And always tourists, who may be fun for Hugo to watch and his best friend Tom to complain about, but I have to admit they are even more fun to kill off when needs must.

One of the aspects of Paris I have yet to take advantage of (but I will now that I have the green light from my editor) is its central location in Europe.  From Paris’s many train stations Hugo can zip down to Madrid or Rome, be in London in a couple of hours, or take a short flight to Moscow.  And of course, wherever Hugo goes I have to go there first, to scope it out for him.  I’m the advance party and that’s always an adventure for me.

One of the nice things people have said about The Bookseller is that it gives the reader a sense of Paris.  Even a couple of people who didn’t like the story said so.  That’s a huge compliment and one I hope to earn for future books because so many have written about Paris, made it their setting.  But I truly believe the city is so rich, has so much to offer, that a thousand writers much better than me could continue to explore the place and never run out of wonder.

As for Helsinki, well, those Scandinavians are doing pretty well without my help.

As for the other suggestion, well, as everyone knows it’s Istanbul not Constantinople.  And believe me, from Paris Hugo can get there any time he pleases: the three-day train ride takes him through Germany, Austria and into Romania, places steeped with history and the potential for trouble.  Especially if Tom’s on the train with him.

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MARK PRYOR is an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the true-crime blog DAConfidential. He has appeared on CBS News’s “48 Hours” and Discovery Channel’s “Discovery ID: Cold Blood.” This is his first mystery novel.