MysteryPeople Review: THE SUN IS GOD, by Adrian McKinty

the sun is god

-Post by Molly

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the MysteryPeople blog, than you might have heard mention of the Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty in regards to his outstanding Troubles Trilogy, finished up earlier this year with the concluding volume, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone.  McKinty has written fourteen previous novels, and now he has another book out. This one’s set far from Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

McKinty’s latest, The Sun is God, is set in the corners of European empires in the dawn of the twentieth century. This is a story about the limits and consequences of empire, and bears some small resemblance to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novel begins in South Africa at the tail end of the Boer War, then moves quickly over to New Guinea, and then to a remote island off of an already remote shore. On this island lives a colony of sun-worshiping German nudists, subsisting on a diet of coconuts and liquor infused with Bayer Chemical’s new “non-addictive” heroin, and convinced their special diet will grant them immortality. When more of the colonists die off than even their atrocious diet would seem to indicate, the only man around with police experience is summoned to the task of first, detecting foul play, and second, solving any crimes he may stumble upon.

McKinty’s protagonist, former military police officer Will Prior, is haunted by his memories of wartime atrocities but otherwise living well on a plantation in a German colonial enclave. The German colonial administration has different plans for Will than just a quiet retirement, however; he must instead go to the island of the sun-worshipers and search for wrong-doing. Unfortunately for Will, nightmares, opium, and beautiful naked noblewomen keep getting in his way.

McKinty, while writing in less personally familiar territory than his previous novels, has clearly done his research, and the novel is full of interesting tidbits about colonial and indigenous cultures in the early twentieth century. Even the cult of the cocovores (so named for their dietary obsession) did in fact exist, although given the conditions, it did not last particularly long. As historical fiction about cults, The Sun is God tackles a subject generally reserved for true crime books. The plot is as driving as any of McKinty’s novels, and the author’s research is seamlessly incorporated into the narrative and only adds to the mounting strangeness and horror as Will gradually discovers how crazy the cult members are. The Sun Is God, at its conclusion, sets the scene for a century of confusion and horror, and continues the themes of colonial disintegration set up by McKinty’s previous novels. I can’t wait to see what he writes about next.


Copies of The Sun is God can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: Elmore Leonard’s FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1970S: FIFTY-TWO PICKUP / SWAG / UNKNOWN MAN NO. 89 / THE SWITCH

elmore leonard library of america

Over a career spanning decades, Elmore Leonard was not only one of the best crime fiction writers in the US.  He was one of our country’s best writers, period. Like Twain, Hemingway, and Chandler, he turned the American idiom into art. It is therefore fitting that The Library of America has chosen to publish a three volume set of Leonard’s works, edited by George Sutter, Leonard’s friend and researcher. Each volume will contain four books. The first volume, subtitled Four Novels of the 1970s, was released this month. The selected titles are great representations of his first full decade in the crime fiction genre, sometimes referred to as his “Detroit Period.”

The first book in the collection, Fifty-Two Pickup, tells the story of a businessman, Harry Mitchell, being blackmailed for an affair. When he refuses to pay, the blackmailers kill his mistress and frame him with doctored evidence they threaten to release if he doesn’t pay a higher amount. This starts an involved cat-and-mouse game playing the three villains against each other. Here you see Leonard’s aptitude for writing criminals. While sleazy and vile, each is familiar and believable, with great dialogue.

The second title, Swag, features criminals as the leads. It is the first appearance of car thief Earnest “Stick” Stickley Jr. Stick meets car salesman Frank Ryan while trying to boost a car off of Ryan’s lot. Frank has some shady get-rich-quick schemes and pulls Stick into a series of robberies that rest on a series of rules he has concocted, including the old adage, “Be Polite”. Leonard takes a close look at middle class criminals and the modern American dream. Stick is one of the first characters to display the “Leonard Cool,” existing only in the moment. The notes section in the back contains a passage he discarded from the novel.

I was happy to see one of my favorite Leonard novels, Unknown Man #89, included. The lead is Jack Ryan, the protagonist from his first crime novel, The Big Bounce. Ryan is working as a process server with a reputation for finding anyone, especially those who don’t want to be found. He’s hired to to track down an unknown stock holder to deliver the news of his good fortune, but it soon becomes clear that Jack is not the only one looking for his target, and that the others have much deadlier intentions., leaving Jack stuck in the crossfire.This book is tougher than his better known, later work, painting Detroit street life in its gritty glory.

The final book, The Switch, is the closest to the kind of story Leonard became known for. A crime fiction take on O’Henry’s The Ransom Of Red Chief, the story concerns the kidnapping of a businessman’s wife that occurs right before he is about to file for divorce. It is full of Leonard double crosses, switching alliances, quirky characters, and fun dialogue. Leonard like his characters from The Switch so much he put two of the characters in one of his nineties novels, Rum Punch.

All four novels are packaged in a beautiful edition with a detailed history of Elmore Leonard’s life. It shows him in the process of developing his voice, after twenty years of writing westerns, to become one of crime fiction’s most original voices, influencing even those outside the genre. Most of all, you get an understanding of how distinctive that voice was at the start.


Copies of Four Novels of the 1970s can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Crime Fiction Friday: IN THE USUAL STERILE FASHION by Glenn Gray

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Glenn Gray has quickly gotten to be a favorite of ours. With his funny and often unsettling stories, usually involving the medical profession, Gray blends the lines between genres to produce something new and unique. This tale in Shotgun Honey is no different, and if you like this story, be sure to check out the MysteryPeople review of Gray’s collection The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories or our Q&A with the author.

“In the Usual Sterile Fashion” by Glenn Gray

“‘Dennis settled in his chair, the scent of cauterized tissue lingering in his nostrils. Stacks of medical texts loomed on the wood desk. One of the texts, a neurosurgical tome, was splayed open at his chest. Beside that, a dictaphone with mini-cassette.

He lifted the handset, began dictating the operative report…”

 

Click here to read the full story.

BOOK TO SCREEN: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

a walk among the tombstones
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie many crime fiction fans have been waiting for. It is one of the more admired books from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, and one of the touchstones of modern private eye writing. The adaptation was placed into the hands of writer-director Scott Frank, who is responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations out there (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight), while his directorial debut, The Lookout, is one of the best crime films of this century so far. On paper, it was a tantalizing match, but there were also some reasons for trepidation. The book is the seventh in the series with Scudder in mid-transition, making it an odd choice to adapt to film. It is also close to 400 pages with an important sub-plot involving Matt’s girlfriend, Elaine, that contributes to that arc. On top of that, you have a lead character who is incredibly internal. After viewing the film and especially thinking about it after, one realizes that Scudder was in the right hands.

The film starts with a well executed and defining gunfight for Scudder. Then, after one of the most disturbing opening credit sequences you’ll see, the plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic (one of the main differences in the movie is he quits the day after that shoot-out) is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his brother. The brother, a drug trafficker, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife, only to have her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it for the hunt and torture, and that they will do it again.

Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a manageable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes in reshaping a part of the book where a witness mistakenly believes there was a third suspect during the abduction of an earlier victim. Instead of this, Scott creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who gives Scudder three leads in one scene, though it took Scudder close to hundred pages to gather these in the book. Frank also had to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel for.

Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.

Here, Scott Frank does something interesting. Instead of using the arc from the book, he tackles a small step in Scudder’s stumbling soul search. This is dealt with in his relationship with T.J., a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man as he begins to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen for himself.

Fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get to witness Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “No, I couldn’t have supported my family without it,” with perfect tone. At that point, we know we have our Scudder.

A Walk Among The Tombstones is a harsh film. I flinched at things I knew were coming from having read the book. With little gore and violence, we get the the the full impact of the very mean streets this private eye walks down. Much like Lawerence Block’s series, it pulls no punches, telling a very adult story and treating its audience as such. That alone makes it a film worth supporting.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Mike McCrary

 

Mike McCrary’s Remo Went Rogue is a wonderful piece of mean, nasty fun with a slimy lawyer getting his comeuppance. It’s a book that never stops moving. We got a chance to catch up with Mike for a few moments to answer some questions.

MP: How did the idea for Remo Went Rogue come about?

MM: I’ve always been interested in defense attorneys and the special brand of absurdity that their jobs require. Don’t get me wrong, I know they are an extremely important part of keeping our legal system humming along. I don’t want to discount that, but as a writer, the idea of defending the worst people on the planet and, in some cases, getting paid a ton of money to do it presents a strange and wonderful morality playground to hang out in. So that’s where it started and I just tried to come up with a story to build around that basic idea. That and I love characters that are a complete mess. Remo more than qualifies.

MP: What do you have to keep in mind when you’re doing a book with no “heroic’ characters in it?

MM: I think you have to find something human and/or relatable about them. At very least they have to be interesting. The reader has to have something to cling to, something to keep the pages turning, make them want to keep reading. If there’s nothing, it makes it tough to slog through an entire novel. You might not agree with everything Remo does and you sure as shit don’t want him living next door, but he is interesting and fun to read about and has some qualities that are even noble, kind of.

MP: While the book has an original voice, it also has the feel of an old school hardboiled novel. Did you draw from any influences?

MM: Thanks man. Yeah, there are influences all over the place. I’m an average reader at best, but there are without question authors that have put their stamp on me. Not all of them crime/noir. Don Winslow, Savages to me is the gold standard. Charlie Huston, Caught Stealing really opened my eyes. Johnny Shaw, Big Maria = genius. Gillian Flynn is no joke, man. John Rector, his stuff is a master class in stripped-down prose and how economy of words can work wonders. Check out John’s Cold Kiss and Already Gone. Chad Kultgen,The Lie: just read it. There’s others, of course. Obviously Elmore Leonard. A couple more big ones would be Chuck Palahniuck, Richard Stark (Parker novels) and Duane Swierczynski (more about Duane later.)

MP: The shoot-outs are visceral and clear. How do you approach writing action scenes?

MM: Thanks again, man. I have a background in screenwriting so the visual stuff is a byproduct of that style of writing. I was a script reader years ago. So I’ve read a lot of action scripts and I started to see the way different writers attacked action scenes and took note of what I liked. But with books the biggest influence was Duane Swierczynski. I read Severance Package and it was like the world changed for me. I don’t think I realized books like that were out in the universe. His stuff is so big and fun to read that I sat back and said, Holy shit. You’re allowed to write like that? It was almost like that book gave me permission to try. So, thanks Duane. As far as approach? I basically drink a shit ton of coffee, crank the AC/DC and Nine Inch Nails and try to write down what I see in my head as fast as I can. It’s not much different from when I was kid playing with Star Wars action figures. Minus the coffee and the questionable music.
MP: What made Remo a fun character to write?

MM: Assholes are always fun to write, I think. Assholes in crisis are even more fun. Remo will say and do almost anything so you pretty much get to unleash and put the hammer down. At the same time there is a human quality to Remo that grounds him and makes him accessible to the reader. That’s the challenge, I guess, making an asshole fun and loveable. Haven’t worked that out in the real world, but I’m hopeful. Just kidding. I’m a expletive peach, ask anybody.


Copies of Remo Went Rogue are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: THE MINOTAUR’S HEAD, by Marek Krajewski

minotaurshead

Post by Molly

Melville House has just published Marek Krajewski’s The Minotaur’s Head, his last in the Inspector Mock Investigation Quartet, excellently translated by Danusia Stok. Krajewski began the series in 1999 with Death in Breslau and now has four translated volumes available from Melville International Crime. Despite the fact that The Minotaur’s Head is the last in a series, I came to it as a stand-alone, casually picked up in my spare time. I read it through in a day and a half and now intend to read the whole series. Krajewski is committed to providing background for the characters. Despite not having read the previous novels in the series, I felt quite at home in the narrative.

The Minotaur’s Head is set partly in the Polish city of Lwów and partly in the Silesian city of Breslau. The story takes place in 1937, close to the start of World War II, and in a world already preparing for brutality but still immersed in a prewar miasma of small crimes. Krajewski begins the novel with the murder of a child and accusations of blood libel in 1939, and then moves backward in time to 1937, where several women have been found murdered, each violated and cannibalized by an elusive stranger defined only by his hideous face.

When a German citizen is murdered in Lwów, Inspector Mock, of the Silesian Police, is happy to leave behind Nazi-dominated Germany to go to comparatively free Poland in search of her killer. Detective Edward Popielski, his Polish partner on the case, is less than enthused about their high-profile task as he becomes more and more worried for his daughter’s safety. The detectives spend as much time being hungover and eating herring as they do searching for any criminals, and have petty personal vendettas of their own, but these qualities only enhance the jazzy rhythm and historical cadences of the narrative as it moves toward a shocking, modern crescendo.

Period detail seeps into every part of the narrative. The Minotaur’s Head not only fills the book with historical tidbits, but makes the book feel as if it was written during the time period it portrays. His characters are lively and rebellious against the strictures of their world, yet perfectly conform to the range of attitudes available at the time in both their liberalism and intolerance. Inspector Mock, in particular, evokes the hedonists of the 20s, in futile and subtle rebellion against his new Nazi masters. Marek Krajewski has done what many have tried to do – capture the multi-ethnic and culturally vibrant world of Poland before the destruction of WWII in a way that is simultaneously affectionate, terrifying, stylish and realistic.


The Minotaur’s Head is available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: PERFIDIA, by James Ellroy

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James Ellroy‘s Perfidia is a monster of a book, in scope, size, and ambition. Perfidia takes place in LA during America’s first month in World War II. The book runs close to seven hundred pages, with at least four lead characters and what feels like hundreds of supporting ones. Most of them are corrupt or are about to be. Ellroy’s version of “The Greatest Generation” is blinded by ambition, fear, xenophobia, greed, or just the pure thrill of putting the hurt to someone. if you are up for a plunge into the ink-black heart of history and humanity, this book is for you.

Ellroy’s central character, Japanese-American Hideo Ashida, works as a forensics specialist in the LAPD. He is assigned to a murder case involving a Japanese family the day before Pearl harbor is attacked. The investigation puts him in the middle of an inter-department war between soon-to-be Chief Parker and Dudley Smith, the gangster-cop who served as a villain in Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The case also entwines in a scheme involving the internment of Japanese Americans.

The book is is packed with characters from both Ellroy’s LA Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogy. Tarnished cops Lee Blanchard and Buzz Meeks work in Dudley’s squad and FBI Agent Ward Little also comes in at one point. Kay Lake, an important character in The Black Dahlia, has a prominent role here acting as spy for Parker against some feared but mainly harmless leftists. Ellroy emphasizes noir’s rich theme of fate through the use of familiar characters and historical figures. .

What Ellroy captures so well is the collective mindset of an embattled USA. Mass emotion feeds into riot and murder. The thin line between patriotism and rage is vividly demonstrated when the character of Kay tries to enlist and a group of men attack her for being a leftist and “red”. We see how greedy and unscrupulous men are given allowance to move against the constitution and plain decency. As one character says, “There is no proportion. Pearl Harbor took care of that.”

While taking his characters further into their past, Ellroy creates a novel for perfect for our present. With it’s political hysteria, a right wing running rampant, a left that only preens and poses, and cops on overkill it is difficult not to relate in this post 9-11 and Ferguson world. Ellroy may be holding a dark mirror in our collective faces, but it is hard not to see the truth in it.


 

You can find copies of James Ellroy’s Perfidia on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.